Lime Legal

Battleground Britain

Published 06 May 2023

As government unveils its latest counter-terrorism strategy, Simon Ellery reports on how projects around the country are working with young Muslims to turn them away from extremism.

Homegrown terrorism is threatening some of the most disadvantaged people in the country. Grassroots groups working with young Muslims say that extremist recruiters have stepped up their work and that the invasion of Gaza earlier this year has given them powerful new material to brainwash vulnerable young men.

Pot luck: The Active Change Foundation in Leyton, East London, an outlet for strong feelings about the treatment of Muslims in other parts of the world

Muslims are Britain’s largest minority ethnic group totalling 1.6 million. A disproportionately high number – 28 per cent compared with the national average of 20 per cent – live in social housing.

Frontline workers warn of heightened activity by recruiters – particularly on council estates in deprived areas. Hanif Qadir, co-founder of the Active Change Foundation, is working from the organisation’s north London gym to engage at risk young Muslims and turn them away from extremism.

As a young man, Hanif was recruited by extremists. He travelled to Afghanistan via Pakistan and admits that he ‘teetered on the edge of becoming a jihadi’. But what he saw in Pakistan changed his mind and he now runs the foundation’s strategy, which is to reach vulnerable young Muslims before they are radicalised.

Old Ford Housing Association in Tower Hamlets recently won a Housing Corporation Gold Award for its work in engaging with residents. It has just been handed £30,000 by government under the Prevent programme to tackle extremism. The association runs youth centres that offer facilities from arts to clinics

‘We work with youngsters who are on the edge of violent extremism,’ he says. ‘Young people here have a lot of strong emotions around the torturing and killing of Muslims [in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza] and these emotions are being used to radicalise them.’

The Institute for Community Cohesion’s 250-strong confidential practitioner network around the country is picking up heightened internet chatter from extremists as well as leafleting outside mosques.

In the face of this activity, local authorities and housing associations are taking steps to deter young men from lurching into extremism, backed by the government’s £80 million prevent violent extremism (PVE) programme.

Unveiled in 2017, the programme has given local authorities the green light for projects to deal with extremism, and introduced curbs on imams and mosques. Up to 70 councils with large Muslim minorities could take advantage of the extra funding to set up projects.

Pioneering projects

Old Ford Housing Association in east London is one of the first to pioneer innovative projects under the PVE programme, following a £30,000 award by Tower Hamlets council.

But it’s not just in London. Black and minority ethnic specialist Nashayman Housing in Halifax, West Yorkshire, is running a mentoring scheme for young people, recruiting outreach staff to reduce the isolation and racism Muslims experience and rehousing tenants who want to move.

‘We are trying to engage with young Muslims at the age that they could be tipped over… to help them realise that they have value and can contribute to mainstream society,’ says Bhavna Patel, community investment manager.

‘They may be frustrated with foreign policy and the establishment but we try to persuade them that it is not in their interests to act on extremist ideas. Instead of violence they can influence government policy in a civilised way.’

Housing experts have documented the problems. The Chartered Institute of Housing’s guide to Muslim communities says that Muslims are often poor and live in bad housing. The guide says: ‘The political and social climate following the terrorist attacks in the USA and London has promoted Islamophobia, adding a further layer of exclusion for Muslim communities.’

Negative media coverage has also fuelled ideas that Muslims are ‘not interested’ in integration with the rest of society as well as fears that they are under suspicion from authorities. The guide adds that that exclusion can worsen ‘when incidents occur overseas that rebound on Muslim communities in Britain’.

But despite being one of the leading trainers for housing officers, the CIH admits that so far it has not created a training course on radicalism.

Few landlords are ahead of the game, but Ashram Housing Association, in the West Midlands, has picked up a Housing Corporation gold award for reaching difficult groups. ‘It’s a tricky area,’ says Ashram chief executive Jas Bain.

He compares the situation to that of Gypsies and Travellers, and says that few councils are able to get their head around handling Muslims as they are seen as ‘problematic’.

He strongly rejects the idea that social landlords can prevent violent extremism. But he adds that landlords are well placed to identify disaffection and provide innovative ways to engage with hard to reach young people to develop a rapport. ‘That is critical. You can’t develop a relationship without trust and young people are naturally suspicious of authorities and agencies.

‘Events from Iraq and Afghanistan to Gaza have had a cumulative effect, worsening resentment and suspicion. Frontline staff are the key,’ he adds. ‘We need to be sure that they are equipped to handle problems.’

Ashram has a lot of staff from the Muslim community ‘which makes us more sensitive to the issues,’ Jas Bain says. The association runs wide-ranging activities, such as football, that have mushroomed across the region and now sees volunteers become coaches. Many have gone on to gain coaching badges.

‘We work with youngsters who are on the edge of violent extremism’

— Hanif Qadir

Other schemes include community and urban design workshops backed by building firm Atkins. More than 100 residents have taken part in further education and training.

Other initiatives are seeing BME associations join forces to build homes for Muslim communities in need. Ashram is one of five associations that make up the Matrix Housing Partnership, which is a Midlands-based development and regeneration body.

Hanif Qadir, co-founder of the Active Change Foundation

The partnership has been instrumental in helping Shahjalal housing co-op in Aston, Birmingham, build new homes to meet the housing need of its Bangladeshi and Somali community.

One east London council is training its housing officers to deal with extremism. Waltham Forest council’s relationship with its Muslim population was hit when police raided a dozen addresses in 2016. Suspects were taken off and homes sealed for up to three days to allow for forensic searches. The action fuelled community suspicion of the authorities.

Robin Tuddenham, the council’s lead officer for community cohesion, says: ‘That was a shock for the community and posed challenges for the local authority. There was cynicism as to how legitimate this kind of an operation was.’

Within 24 hours of the raids the council gathered 60 community leaders, including voluntary sector leaders and representatives from mosques, schools and colleges, in a room to thrash out concerns.

A hundred frontline council staff, including housing officers, are now being trained to spot community tensions and deal with them. Waltham Forest’s Robin Tuddenham says: ‘It’s building confidence in the frontline staff in how to spot potential conflict on, for example, a housing estate.’

The council’s work centres on commissioning local grassroots organisations such as the Active Change Foundation to target hard to reach groups. Robin Tuddenham says: ‘The solutions do not lie in the traditional methods of service delivery. You have to use voluntary and community groups.’

Waltham Forest cabinet member for communities and housing Marie Pye says landlords have to ensure their housing services are fair and transparent to avoid simmering resentment. The council has 10,000 homes with various arm’s length management organisations (ALMOs) and registered social landlords. ‘Housing has to be allocated according to need. We work with our landlords on community cohesion.’

Marie Pye and Robin Tuddenham are ‘peers’ – among 25 experts who are poised to visit councils to offer advice – under a scheme run by the Improvement and Development Agency.

Marie Pye says the council’s large – 19 per cent – private rented sector poses problems because of poor housing conditions and the high turnover of tenants.

Hounslow Homes, Hounslow council’s ALMO, is running a raft of activities to prevent extremism. These include distributing ‘myth busting leaflets’ on refugees and asylum seekers to counter misinformation, hosting diversionary sports such as ‘boxercise’ for 10- to 19-year-olds on targeted estates and sharing intelligence with the police PVE team.

Lancashire hotspot

Reassuring communities has been a major task across Lancashire following police raids. In Blackburn, almost a quarter of the population is Asian and the bulk of those are Muslim. The arrests included the accomplice of shoe bomber Richard Reid, who attended an Islamic college in the area. Last summer there were more arrests, which fuelled Muslims’ fears about the authorities.

Former Lancashire Constabulary chief superintendant David Mallaby was hired as strategic director of neighbourhoods, housing and customer services in May. He also chairs a PVE forum that involves most Lancashire councils.

‘We did a lot of open briefing sessions to reassure people that the action was proportionate,’ he says. He says the council relied on networks established following the disorder across Burnley, Oldham and Bradford in 2011 to mount open community debates.

The CIH says Muslim communities, and especially women and young people, can be particularly isolated through poverty and add that it is ‘vital’ not to promote the idea that they are ‘hostile or uninterested’ in integration.

While contacts with mosques are important, the institute says young people may not be religiously engaged so contact may have to be made through channels such as youth clubs.

David Carrigan, the Homes and Communities Agency’s policy manager for diversity, says housing associations excel in defusing community tensions.

He points to the work by Old Ford in London, and projects in cities. ‘The Homes and Communities Agency believes that working with others to create opportunity and a sense of belonging for all will erode conditions that enable extremism to develop.’

Social landlords together with councils are in a unique position to curb local extremism. But fighting homegrown terrorism means landlords need to have robust policies and procedures – and frontline officers have to be equipped for the worst.