The Government’s Counter Extremism strategy was published today following reports in the weekend papers about £5 million in funding being put aside to fund groups “to build a national coalition against extremism – in communities and online” and mention of the strategy including measures to ban “hate preachers from using the internet or working with children”.
The strategy published today is much the same in content as the report by the Prime Minister’s Extremism Taskforce which has laid much of the groundwork for what has since followed in policy announcements about tackling extremism. The criticisms levelled at the Taskforce report, about its lack of evidence base to validate assertions made and its overreliance on the notion of “ideology” being at the root of radicalisation are all repeated in the strategy published today.
The strategy also reiterates much of what we have already heard from the Home Secretary, Theresa May and the Prime Minister, David Cameron about the Government’s “crackdown” on extremism, with its conflation of integration policy, on “boosting opportunity and integration”, and racialised, essentialist assumptions about Muslims and “illegal cultural practices” such as forced marriage, honour killings and female genital mutilation.
The references to a review of shari’ah tribunals in the UK sits uneasily in a strategy supposedly about championing British values and celebrating the “vibrant, buoyant and diverse” British society that has been cultivated over the years.
More strange is a citation which presents evidence submitted to Baroness Caroline Cox as evidence of “extremism” – this is the same Baroness Cox who invited Geert Wilders to the UK and said of Muslims, “Islam is using the freedoms of democracy to destroy it”. There is a certain irony in making mention of individuals with extremist connections in a strategy about “counter-extremism”. Odd too that the Extremism Analysis Unit which is supposedly the holy grail in identifying “extremists” missed the likes of Baroness Cox and her association with the notoriously Islamophobic Gatestone Institute. A case of civil servants asleep on the job?
The strategy repeats that the policy is about targeting “all forms of extremism” although there is little doubt from the examples given and the profligate references to the ‘Trojan horse’ affair that Muslims are squarely in the policy frame. The Trojan horse affair, which has been used by the Conservatives to buttress arguments about tackling “entryism” and undermining extremists who “infiltrate” institutions to spread “extremist” ideas has got to be one of the weakest bases of evidence used in the government’s approach. Second only to that other canard popularised by Cameron’s Government, “terrorism is the symptom, ideology is the cause”.
The refutation of the ‘conveyor-belt theory’ on radicalisation has been so profound that it is mindboggling that in 2015, the Government persists in putting a flawed premise at the heart of something as significant as counter-extremism policy.
The strategy’s four-pronged approach is to:
- Counter extremist ideology
- Build a partnership with all those opposed to extremism
- Disrupt extremists
- Build more cohesive communities
It is apparent from the strategy that the Government is interested only in waging a “battle of ideas” not in confronting the more relevant causes of radicalisation such as foreign policy grievances, socio-economic factors or mental health. By sticking firmly to the realm of ideas the Government is pursuing a policy that has failed to date and which offers no observable metrics against which to assess success.
Consider that in its 2010/2011 review of the Prevent policy, the Intelligence and Security Committee singled out RICU as an area in which success was difficult to measure.
RICU’s aim then and now is “ensuring consistency, across government, on Counter-Terrorism and counter-extremism messages and developing a coherent narrative to challenge extremist ideology.”
In 2011, it had “22 full-time staff and its budget in 2010/11 was £4.25m (of which £0.3m was spent on research and £2.7m was spent on communication campaigns).”
One of its campaigns, “UK Counter-Narrative Campaign” was “a project to establish a loose network of credible community groups able to directly challenge terrorist propaganda”.
At the time, the ISC noted: “… this is a difficult area of work where progress takes time, and is hard to see and measure. We hope that the results will be visible in the future, but note that RICU itself has said that ‘communications can only take us so far’.”
The strategy published today mentions “build[ing] the capabilities of communities and civil society organisations so that they can campaign against the large volume of extremist material, including online”.
In its 2012 annual review of Prevent, the Home Office noted the support given by the Government to “community-based campaigns that rebut terrorist and extremist propaganda and offer alternative views to our most vulnerable target audiences. We have worked with digital communications experts to help fifteen civil society groups exploit the potential of the internet.”
Quite aside from the obvious problems of community groups being paid propagandists for Government, is the issue of the Government’s interference in determining which groups represent “moderate” opinion.
Today’s strategy reiterates the Government’s intent to deny “funding or support which inadvertently gives extremists a platform or sense of legitimacy”.
Given the allegations of the Government’s plagiarising the work of a subordinate body of the Henry Jackson Society, and the inclusion of the Quilliam Foundation in the ‘Community Engagement Forum’ held last week, and given everything we now know thanks to investigative reporting of the links both organisations have to extremists at home and aboard, does it look like the Government is interested in heeding its own advice about “extremists” and “entryist” strategies? Hardly.
There is mention of all the sectors in which the Government proposes to crackdown; schools, prisons, higher education, the NHS, the charity sector and broadcasting, with proposals to strengthen Ofcom’s powers to “support them in amplifying mainstream voices”. Given the media’s penchant for the likes of Anjem Choudary, such a proposal might come as light relief until you consider that the alternative is perhaps just as worse; government stooges peddling a script prepared in Whitehall.
And then there’s the mention of the Government funding research: “to further strengthen evidence base, we will work closely with academics and universities commissioning and part funding research.” and yet all evidence published by academics refuting the ‘conveyor belt theory’ about ‘ideology’ as cause of radicalisation has been roundly ignored!
The Government’s proposed legislative measures on banning orders are not detailed in the strategy save to mention that “strong safeguards” will apply to their use. The protective clause is unlikely to satisfy those who fear the sum total of measures announced in the strategy as further entrenchment of the “suspect community” paradigm which already suffocates British Muslims and their free exercise of civil rights.
The Daily Mail front page today mentions one of the proposals in the strategy, the use of the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) to “enable employers to identify extremists and stop them working with children and other vulnerable groups”. The unhelpful analogy utilised is the sex offenders’ register. The proposal has a McCarthyite ring to it and a tinge of a more sinister mechanism currently deployed by groups in the US to deter pro-Palestinian activists from making a stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories. The disclosure of their pro-Palestinian activism is being used to harm employment prospects of US students. It is difficult to see how the proposal in the counter-extremism strategy will not have the same consequences with individuals subjected to the measure being those convicted of criminal offences or those subjected to the “civil” orders, such as “extremism disruption orders”.
The policy also appears to contradict “tried and tested” counter-extremism measures which involved former extremists visiting schools and recounting their change of heart to young people as a means of educating them about the dangers of extremism. Indeed, the Government’s favoured Quilliam Foundation,attempted just that with its “reformed” extremism former English Defence League leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.
And then there is a new moral panic button that seems to be installed in the strategy in the form of an “Extremism Community Trigger” which will “ensure that police and local authorities fully review any complaints about extremism”.
The threat of communities being stigmatised following errant or misguided complaints is palpable and yet the Government advances such a proposal in a strategy one of whose prongs is to “build cohesive communities”.
The announcement to record Islamophobia as a separate category of crime and the strategy’s references to anti-Muslim hate crime and the Islamophobic environment in which such violence festers is insufficient to mask the very real threats posed to cohesive communities by the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.
It is telling that less than a week after convening the ‘Community Engagement Forum’ the Government has announced its strategy. Was there any actual “engagement” in evidence? And by whom – since the list of those selected to represent British Muslims on the Forum was not made public?
The Prime Minister is right to argue that the fight against extremism is the struggle of a generation. But by refusing to engage with the solid base of empirical evidence about the actual causes of radicalisation and by refusing to engage with representative Muslim organisations, he has set the battle back by another generation. From all we have learnt about past failures by the Labour Governments of Tony Blair and in the Coalition Government of 2010-2015, we are no closer to having a strategy devised by Government with Muslim communities, not against them.
It is worth repeating the counsel of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, who wrote in his overview of the counter-extremism proposals:
“If the wrong decisions are taken, the new law risks provoking a backlash in affected communities, hardening perceptions of an illiberal or Islamophobic approach, alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile and playing into the hands of those who, by peddling a grievance agenda, seek to drive people further towards extremism and terrorism.”
The claim that this Government is committed to championing British values appears as hollow as its purported commitment to “build cohesive communities”.
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