‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv’

By Martin Esom | 09 December 2015

The events of Saturday night shocked our community. While the motivations of the individual involved might not be known for some time, there is no doubt that the tragedy in Paris a few short weeks ago and the ongoing debate about Britain’s intervention in Syria have heightened the public fear of terror and extremism.

With the public sector prevent duty newly in place, we all need to think about the ways in which we can work not only to prevent the risk of radicalisation, but to work with communities who can at times feel targeted and fearful.

Image: Annie Mole/Flickr Image cropped for use

Waltham Forest is one of the most diverse areas of the country in one of the most diverse cities on earth. While we don’t believe that we have a problem with cohesion, and 87% of our residents think that we are a place where people of different backgrounds get on well together, we don’t take this for granted.

That’s why we work hard with our local and national partners to deliver an innovative Prevent programme. We do so with strong political backing, which should never be underestimated. Our leader and cabinet – who are as diverse as our community – stand squarely with officers through often controversial issues.

Rather than sweep an awkward subject under the carpet, our approach has been to seek new interventions, even though this can provoke criticism due to the sensitivity of the issues. This is particularly the case when it comes to our early intervention programmes, which work with teachers, pupils and their families to counter radicalisation though cohesion. Just recently we held a conference on the prevent duty for almost 300 professionals from school and community settings.

But if we are frank, we would all recognise that there is not an area in the country or a public authority who can honestly say that they have the answer to dealing with the impact of the complex influences facing individuals, particularly our young people, in today’s digital age.

In the wake of these challenging times and the new prevent duty on the public sector, we all need to consider the sheer scale of contact which the public sector, their contractors and community partners have with those who may be at risk. How can we map and train this army of people to safely detect and raise issues? With schools set to be removed from local authority control, how can we deal with even greater proliferation of this responsibility? It is a tough ask but it is, quite literally, our duty to do it.

By delivering this duty we know that we are acting in the best interest of our communities, in particular those vulnerable individuals who may be susceptible to extremist narratives. Just as it is our responsibility to work across a broad public sector coalition to prevent individuals being drawn into extremism, it is also our job to bring all of our communities with us as we try to do so.

This means explaining our work and being as open and accountable as possible. In trying to deliver a difficult programme in a diverse community we, like others, have made missteps and we are striving to learn from them. It is right that we are held to account when we do so. But it is also right that we are unrepentant about the aims of the programme which seeks to protect our community, our children and our vulnerable residents. We need to build alliances to build confidence in this work, because it’s a necessity.

Lastly, while one of our residents hit the headlines for the most dreadful of reasons last week the true nature of our borough was illustrated by the resident who shouted ‘you ain’t no Muslim, bruv’, which quickly became a rallying call for all that is great about living in our part of London. It is this diversity which we are working to protect and we will face further challenges as we seek to do so.

Martin Esom is chief executive of Waltham Forest Council and chair of London Prevent Board

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