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Radio review: File on 4 and In Our Time

20 March 2020

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AMONG all the stifling jargon and discombobulating acronyms em­­ployed by the Probation Service and its support programmes to deal with terrorist offenders, there is one word that is studiously avoided. The spe­ci­al­­ists in extremist psychologies will talk of narcissism and status anxiety, of cultural deracination and personal anger; but they will not talk of faith. The fear of misin­ter­preta­tion — and, in particular, of being charged with Islamophobia — prevents the ex­­perts invoking that quality that galvan­ises all religious people, for good and ill. The power to move mountains and blow up buildings.

There was thus a sense of in­­com­pleteness to the discussions aired in File on 4 (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). The murder by Usman Khan last year of two people on London Bridge has forced the Gov­ernment to recon­sider its policy on early re­­lease of terrorist of­­­fenders, and those in­­volved in rehabilitation program­­mes to undergo painful self-assess­ment. Whether it be Healthy Iden­tity In­­ter­­vention (HII), or De­­sist­­ance and Disengagement Pro­gramme (DDP), or any of the multi­farious ways in which extremists bent on viol­­ence are coaxed out of their be­­liefs, on
the evidence of this pro­­gramme it seems clear that the com­mon re­­sources of liberal psycho­logy ­— such as virtu­ous role-models, theological re-education, and psychoanalysis — are not working.

There is good, bad, and ugly news here. The good news is that the reoffending rate for terrorists is only three per cent. The bad is that HII, DDP, and the rest do not appear to make any difference to who re­­offends and who does not. And the ugly is that, if your three per cent includes the likes of Khan, then it is still too high a percentage.

Two witnesses interviewed here gave bracing assessments of the real­ity behind these programmes. Sam Walker, an inmate of HM Prison Whitemoor, said that prison was fertile ground for radicalisation. And “Sarah”, a probation officer in the DDP programme, was in no doubt that the determined funda­mentalist could play the system.

Such is faith: among many other qualities, it bestows tenacity and guile. The story of the Scottish Cov­en­­anters, as told by Melvyn Bragg’s guests on In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), proves as much. Despite the conviction im­­plied by their rhetoric, the Coven­anters were not averse to political machination. No matter that you have called his father a heretic and his mother a whore: if alliance with Charles II is politically expedient, then so be it.

Professor Roger Mason was suf­ficiently empathetic with the reli­gious sensibilities of his subjects to exclaim that he, too, would be out­raged by the Laudian require­ment to kneel before the eucharistic host. Indeed, without such empathy, one might regard this whole period of Prayer Book rioting and liturgy-inspired violence as the behaviour of a society gone utterly demented.

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