British Muslims are expressing scepticism over a new police campaign which encourages Muslim women to urge their relatives not to travel to Syria to fight.
The national campaign for women to intervene follows a string of deaths of UK men who joined Syria’s civil war against President Assad’s government. Co-ordinated events are being held in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Security chiefs think hundreds of people have travelled from the UK to fight in Syria, some of whom have returned. Forty people have been arrested over links to Syria this year and reports suggest up to 20 men from Britain have died in the conflict.
Authorities are also urging British Muslims not to travel to Syria on aid convoys and are instead trying to persuade them to donate to the larger, established agencies already working in the region.
The Charity Commission is investigating at least two organisations amid fears that aid convoys have been used to funnel fighters and resources to rebels.
But advocacy group CAGE said it views the campaign with grave concern and scepticism.
In a statement it said: “The campaign ostensibly appears to be motivated by compassion for women from the Muslim community who believe their loved ones have traveled or wish to travel to Syria. In reality, CAGE believes that it is nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to engage vulnerable members of the Muslim community in surveillance operations.
“The devastating consequences of participating in such operations can be seen from previous cases of a similar nature. In February 2006, the concerned parents of Ilford teenager Mohammed Irfan Raja contacted the police after finding a note from their son stating that he was going abroad for conventional warfare.
“Raja’s parents persuaded him to return home before he had left the UK and to speak to the police openly on his return as to why he believed it was justified to fight abroad. In return for their goodwill, the police arrested Raja who was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to three years in prison, a conviction which was later overturned.
“CAGE continues to receive regular reports of police and security services harassment of members of the Muslim community who have merely traveled to Turkey to deliver aid or take a vacation.”
CAGE also expressed concern over the authorities attitude to aid convoys, accusing the government of hampering relief efforts in Syria.
An aid worker who wishes not to be named said to CAGE: “During my 6 months on the ground doing aid I saw little to no international support for refugees who are forced to live off waste even eating cats. The small regular convoys from the UK are a life line to innocents forgotten by bigger NGO’s. How can the police and British government look to end these much needed source of essential aid when they themselves are not supporting the people.”
Events in London, Manchester and Birmingham today have brought together counter-terrorism officers, officials who work on “preventing extremism” and women from community groups.
The new strategy will see leaflets handed out at ports which spell out the potentially fatal consequences of going to the war-torn country.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball, national coordinator for counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police, said she wanted to start a national conversation with women to help protect young people from going to Syria.
She said police were “increasingly concerned” about the numbers of people intending to join the conflict.
“We want to ensure that people, particularly women, who are concerned about their loved ones are given enough information about what they can do to prevent this from happening…
“We want to increase their confidence in the police and partners to encourage them to come forward so that we can intervene and help. This is not about criminalising people it is about preventing tragedies. We want to inform those who wish to genuinely help the Syrian cause how they can do so safely and legally.”
Just a few months ago, police chiefs said that anyone returning from fighting in Syria could be stopped, arrested and charged.
But many questions remain about the campaign. For example, do many mothers actually know what their grown-up sons are planning? And do the communities at the heart of the appeal trust the police?
Some British Muslim commentators are already warning mothers that police will raid their homes and lock their children in prison and they will be evidence for the prosecution of their own children.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission said the campaign is part of a deliberate government anti-terrorism and extremism policy that seeks to set apart the Muslim community and treat it differently from the population at large.
It said: “As a criminal act under UK terrorism laws, fighting abroad should be treated just like any other criminal activity whether it be supplying narcotics or theft. To our knowledge the police have never developed campaigns which involve approaching family members to deter their kinfolk from committing these and other categories of crimes.
“Singling out an activity involving a very small minority of Muslims risks reinforcing the perception that Muslims are a violent community uniquely prone to terrorism. As such the campaign is likely to be counterproductive because it risks alienating the very people it claims to be seeking to bring on board.
“The campaign, which falls under the government’s PREVENT strategy to tackle extremism, also depends on Muslim women having confidence in PREVENT officials. However this is likely to prove a tall order since PREVENT is widely seen in the Muslim community as a tool of repression allowing authorities to snoop on and harass Muslim individuals for holding views that run counter to British foreign policy in the Muslim world.”