The Rise of Cultural Elevation

By Peter Stanners

This summer it was revealed that surveillance cameras were installed in a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham as part of a counter-terrorism scheme.

Over 200 cameras were installed including a network of automatic number plate recognition cameras that encompassed two whole suburbs city that left no traffic in and out unregistered.

There was uproar when the true intentions of cameras were revealed. Local councilors felt they had been misled having been told the cameras were meant to tackle local crime. In the backlash it was agreed the cameras would not be used, but many felt the damage had been done and the government had undermined its own efforts to protect the country from domestic terrorism.

This is not to suggest that British Muslims don’t become terrorists. From the London underground bombings in 2005 to US spy planes picking up northern English accents on Taleban radio communications in Afghanistan, some British Muslims are definitely at war with Britain at home and abroad. But if indiscriminate blanket surveillance of Muslims communities only serves to heighten mistrust and alienation from conventional British society, what alternative methods do we have to encourage British Muslims from turning to lives as terrorists?

We need to go to Crewe in 2004. A railway city with seemingly little to offer except dual carriageways and business parks. And two out of three Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) campuses. Students from across the country, excited at the prospect of going to university in the cultural hub of the north, were dismayed to find themselves dumped in semi-rural Cheshire.

One of them was Rob Croll. Originally from London, he found Crewe did not cater to the cultural needs of sophisticated urban students. So he set up Cultural Elevation (CE), a night dedicated to showcasing a broad spectrum of art and music.

“Cultural Elevation is all about learning about each others cultures and maintain culture aswell.” he said.

“It’s about enjoyment as well. Cultural Elevation is not just about education, but also about having fun, dancing and making money for charity.”

As time went on their remit got larger. Fundraisers were put on to raise money so art students could exhibit their work in London. Money was raised for breast cancer awareness, deprived children in Manchester’s Moss Side, We Are Macmillan and the Student Union. In 2005 CE became a student union society in which volunteers could pitch in their time to help put on the monthly events and turn would learn process learn business and promotional skills.

Last year CE took on its biggest project. At the time the Home Office, through their counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, was offering money to British universities to fund projects that would help prevent people from becoming or supporting violent extremism. The scheme was met with skepticism, with many believing the projects would simply operate as surveillance of the Muslim community within universities. As with Birmingham, there was fear that surveillance would simply alienate the Muslim community even further.

But those working on CE believed there were better ways to prevent extremism.

Rob said: “We wanted challenge the idea of violent extremism because it isn’t a purely Islamic phenomenon. There are extremists in every community whether it’s the Islamic community or Jewish community or Christian community. So we wanted to create a space for different cultures to explore different political contexts and at the same time find resolutions and hopefully find some social cohesion. “

CE applied for the money and was granted access to £25,000. It has since been planning outreach events to foster discussion of the nature and causes of extremism. The basic idea is that people have to be approached on their terms. Only in spaces where they feel comfortable would there be any chance of open dialogue on the issue.

Rob said: “It’s about approaching the issue in a way that they might approach the issue. About understanding how they feel and understanding that extremism doesn’t come from the Muslim culture. It’s an attitude people turn to when they feel there’s no other option so they go to war. War is an extreme thing and it’s not just Muslims that go to war.

“We need to explore alienation and identity using the arts, lateral thinking and different methodologies in order to really address how people feel about that issue. It’s about feeling that your voice is valued and is being heard. Only in that way can you change your understanding.”

The basic principle is that preventing people from committing acts of terror starts with listening to the vulnerable people who are likely to commit such acts. By empathizing with these people and valuing their position, they are more likely to listen to arguments leveled against them.

This empathetic approach is miles from simply keeping tabs on high risk communities in order to prevent planned attacks. Instead of regarding terrorism as merely an issue of protecting the population, CE’s approach is an attempt to appreciate the reasons why people would plan such attacks in the first place. And it makes sense. A counter-terrorism strategy that solely focuses on preventing acts of terrorism does little to prevent the disaffection which causes people to plans such attacks in the first place.

And yet the MMU didn’t seem to understand CE’s approach. So they asked Rise, an organization that works with the government to help shape its counter-terrorism policies, to come in and give CE some guidance.

But Rise saw what CE was trying to do and they loved it.

The founder, Raja Miah, is an expert on social and community cohesion having founded PeaceMaker in Oldham in 1998 that sought to tackle issues of racial segregation and privilege through cross community outreach.

He said: “Cultural elevation wants to engage in controversial and difficult agendas that aren’t necessarily palatable. They completely align with our values and our beliefs.”

Rise’s work focuses on creating intelligence based interventions by working with young people who are referred to them.

Raja said: “We work with people assessing risk and determining whether or not they are vulnerable instead of making whole hosts of assumptions. Historically our field is based upon stereo types and assumptions instead of intelligence and fact.”

No small time organization, Rise actively helped shape government policy on counter-terrorism.

“We helped the government come to the realization that it needs to change its current strategy through positive engagement and working alongside people in government. We know the last report they produced had our work throughout all of it in quantifying why they were making the changes they were making.

“Fundamentally what we believe in is that it’s better to engage with the agenda and try and shape it to deliver it more effectively than to stand on the outside and throw stones.”

Rise’s philosophy of engagement and empathy is one founded on the belief that alienation is one of the main reasons why people become terrorists.

“You can change people either by shouting and screaming at them, which they’ll resist, or you can change people by putting your arm around them and saying this is why we think this is wrong, and this is how we can do it better.

“We’ve got a methodology and approach. It’s a case of trying to help the government to use that methodology to inform their work. The way we work is unique, our products are unique and what we try and do with that is say here are some solutions, use these solutions and apply them elsewhere.”

Rise is now helping turn CE’s approach into a framework that can be transferred to similar situations in different parts of the country, whilst also keeping them up to speed on the current government counter-terrorism policies.

Rob appreciates that their approach to such a touchy subject is unique. “That aren’t many people who are trying to do what we’re doing. We’re not doing anything new, we’re just trying to bring a different type of thinking to such a serious issue.

“CONTEST has done nothing but waste money and has only served to alienate the Islamic community. We want to say this is the alternative.”

And so from the desire to simply have some good music to listen to in a sleepy railway town, a progressive movement for social change might have been born. CE is now in the process of formulising its methodology with Rise, whilst continuing putting to put on its regular nights in Manchester and Crewe. And while this might mark the end of this story, their story surely has only just begun.

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