The UK government wants to get tough on fighting extremism, but will the extended approach help or is it a form of McCarthyism?
The British government has announced a raft of measures to help fight the war against extremism. It is part of a revised counterterrorism and counter-extremism strategy that aims to eliminate radicalization, extremism and detrimental political views held by members of the public and individuals working in schools, trusts, society organizations, the civil service and in society at large.
In the aftermath of the London bombings of July 2005, extremism was not seen as a problem per se. Rather, its vicious counterpart, the idea of violent extremism, was the greater threat. However, the Conservative government has upheld a dominant perspective that regards violent extremism as the end result of extremism itself—the conveyor-belt theory of radicalization.
This theory has been found lacking, yet it is still espoused by many in political authority. For the Conservative Party, no more can the promotion of “values” be regarded as the solution to a potentially violent form of extremism. For them, there must now be a more vigorous policy to weed out extremisms of all form, especially after Tunisia, Paris and other recent instances of violent political extremism.
Taking forward the conveyor belt theory combined with the importance of social media in the lives of people everywhere has meant the Conservative government feels even more driven to spread its anti-extremism wings.
The Counter-Extremism Strategy document highlights government intentions. The text has been careful to promote the idea that extremism is not merely a fight against Islamist extremism, but about all forms, including far-right violence and antisemitism.
The growing number of hate crimes means the police will now be required to record the religious background of the victim in crime statistics. This is a welcome development. However, the idea that extremism causes the creation of “separate lives” where communities seemingly self-segregate is directly framed to refer to Muslim groups; in fact, the most segregated groups are indeed the indigenous majority, as would be expected (by definition). Jewish groups in North London are self-segregated, but they are not as poor, disadvantaged or discriminated against compared with Muslim groups in post-industrial cities in northern England and in Midlands. Nor are they visibly marked out in the same way.
The focus on “Sharia councils,” rejecting democracy by not taking part in voting, or the practices of female genital mutilation are direct assaults on supposedly Islamic extremist norms and values. The emphasis in the strategy to tackle the “Trojan Horse” scandal that afflicted Birmingham schools was predictable, given the attention government officials and the media paid to it. It is seen as a reminder of the threat of extremism and “entryism” in British public institutions.
After-school madrassas also get a mention—as potential sites where radicalism can foment and where parents do not know of the dangers of what truly happens to their children while there. Universities, local authorities, charities and prisons are also mentioned. In fact, it seems that Muslims everywhere are a threat. Entryism, however, is carried out by all groups—neo-Nazis, Islamophobes and even ultra-pro-Zionists.
All of this is a backdrop to the enhancement of the new statutory Prevent duty, “so that all local authorities, schools, universities and colleges, NHS Trusts and Foundation Trusts, police, probation services and prisons are clear that they must take action to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.” The document sets out in great detail all the public bodies it hopes will target extremism further.
To this ends, the Home Office Extremism Analysis Unit will be established to help with this venture. However, the Home Office is traditionally a policing, crime reduction and counterterrorism department, when indeed the challenges facing communities are arguably more about development, opportunity, equality and social cohesion. Louise Casey has been charged with determining a plan to help with economic and cultural integration through opportunity and outcome. She will report its initial findings in 2016, as will the Home Office Extremism Analysis Unit.
While it is important to build effective community-government partnerships, there are also the problems of resources and capacity. Too often, those with specific personal ambitions, whose desires are about wanting to be accepted, kowtow to the authority of the state, acquiescing all their intellectual faculties, and merely rubber-stamping a narrow view on the problems and the solutions. There are many civil servants inside the government who are committed to equality and fairness, but there are also those who have the wisdom and guile to instrumentalize communitarians for political ends. Ultimately, we are dealing with society and its institutions—and there is a need to remember that people from all walks of life carry with them their own modes of being.
The only way to defeat extremism is to avoid stigmatization, provide targeted resourcing to specific issues within all afflicted groups, and to firmly understand the grievances that agitate some toward violence.
There is a discernible link between Islamophobia and radicalization that needs to be broken down. Here, the government must not paint a blanket picture of the patterns of radicalization and extremism, particularly in relation to Muslim groups. The government must also remain diligent about avoiding creating further problems of Islamophobia, as there is growing evidence of the correlation between messages uttered by senior parliamentarians and acts of Islamophobic violence on the ground.
In order for communities to challenge the rhetoric of extremism from within, the solutions must focus on capacity across a large and growing diverse body of minorities who are as divided within as they are without. In the constant focus on extremism among the populations, it is existing marginalized groups who face the brunt of attention—and it is they who are most vulnerable to resistance against the force of the state upon them, for they have little or nothing to lose.
The only way to defeat extremism is to avoid stigmatization, provide targeted resourcing to specific issues within all afflicted groups, and to firmly understand the grievances that agitate some toward violence. The latter is not about certain norms and values being outside the frame of acceptability, but about genuine material concerns characterized by local, national and global realities.
No society is perfectly equal, fair or tolerant. But the United Kingdom can go a long way by firmly understanding the link between disadvantage, dissemination and extremism for all groups. Simultaneously, the British government must recognize the importance of its own voice with regard to radicalism and extremism—that it does not brush entire communities, cementing the fear, isolation and lack of hope already facing highly vulnerable groups in society.
Finally, it must be noted that the state would not be able to abstract itself out of the equation with regard to violent extremism. However, it must be said that while it is right to focus on communities and the need to build effective solutions on the ground, the real causes of the problem are the War on Terror culture, dubious foreign policies since the end of the Cold War and ever since 9/11, specifically ineffectiveness with regard to Syria and Iraq, combined with decades of neglect in the regions and among existing marginalized groups in society.
There is also a small segment of society pulling far ahead, leaving the majority far behind. Their perception on the world is shaped by a narrow inward-looking perspective that seeks to merely reproduce the status quo. Fighting extremism, in this regard, is a mere afterthought.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.