Sajda Mughal: The government prevents charities from being heard at its own peril

What will it take to prove the dangers of suppressing the expert voices of grassroots organisations?

As the country recovers from the shock of the murder of Sir David Amess MP and those of us who have public-facing roles contend with concerns for personal safety, I cannot help but think about reports that the suspect was previously under Prevent — the counterterrorism strategy against which I have spoken out for years. 

Indeed, my vocal critiques have resulted in my own safety being threatened.

Without going into too much detail, I have had my survival of the 7/7 London bombings called into question, been the victim of horrifying online abuse and threats, and been subjected to smear campaigns. 

While it is shocking beyond belief that this behaviour is commonplace in an alleged democracy, I know I am not the only person in our sector that experiences such treatment. 

In recent years the government and politicians from the governing party have sought to present any critics or opposing opinions as “woke”, “traitors”, “extremists” or “lefties”, among other terms. 

This is a clear strategy to deflect legitimate concerns and criticisms of policies and rouse supporters: but an inevitable consequence of the ‘us versus them’ discourse is an increase in division in society — often with abusive or violent consequences.

Charities and other grassroots organisations have been no exception.

We have seen complaints made to the Charity Commission about charities that seek to address the history of slavery, racial inequalities, or revise information in light of society striving to become more equal and conscious about the privileges we experience. 

In a liberal democracy, disagreement is inevitable and, if anything, debates are healthy when they remain civil. It is not healthy to suppress debate and present the other side as a threat to society when no violence or danger of any sort has been suggested. 

The Prevent discourse has been particularly toxic in this regard.

The ineffective framing and implementation of the government’s counterterrorism strategy is unavoidable and cannot be hidden by examples of some cases where a person has successfully become deradicalised. 

There have been too many examples of terrorists or violent criminals who were known to the authorities for an extended period of time before they committed their crimes.

There are too many examples of young Muslims being referred to as “potential future terrorists” for no logical reason other than entrenched Islamophobia and personal prejudice. 

Even individuals with learning or behavioural difficulties are becoming targets for their ‘atypical’ behaviour. 

My fellow counter-extremism and counterterrorism activists – indeed, anyone who has tried to obtain information or a substantive response from the government – will know how difficult it is to productively engage with officials who cannot accept criticism or failures of their strategies.

It seems as though any approach that may contain the slightest hint of a concession or remonstrance of past generations is automatically rejected by the government. 

What is clear is that those in power neglect to listen to grassroots organisations at their own peril, and the peril of the country.

Creating tense relationships with children’s charities, organisations in charge of maintaining our historical sites and community groups has no useful result other than furthering divides in society. 

As we have seen all too frequently and in all-too-violent manners, the last thing this country needs is more division. 

Charitable organisations and other grassroots groups exist for the very purpose of focusing on a specific policy area, topic or demographic. By default, we develop extensive expertise in our work and have no agenda beyond serving our beneficiaries. 

Sidelining and oppressing such perspectives seems like an extremely short-sighted and hubristic approach – one that can only end with devastating consequences for everything we hold dear in society. 

Sajda Mughal is chief executive of the Jan Trust

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