Opinion: Why both sides are wrong in the counter-extremism debate

Julian Hargreaves (Centre of Islamic Studies) discusses the Government’s Prevent strategy and counter-extremism in Britain.
Recently published evidence submitted to the parliamentary inquiry into extremism and the government’s Prevent strategy sheds light on the current debates around counter-extremism in Britain - and it’s clear from reading the submissions and watching the evidence that the debate has reached an impasse.

Those who support and those who criticise the government’s Prevent strategy are in deadlock, caught in a cycle of unhelpful rhetoric and political posturing, and unable to offer viable alternatives to the problems they perceive.

Under the direction of chair, Keith Vaz MP, the Home Affairs Committee is investigating issues around Islamic extremism, terrorist recruitment, and the effectiveness of the Prevent strategy.

The de-facto leader of the pro-Prevent lobby is David Cameron who has repeatedly voiced his concerns over extremist Islamic ideology while calling for a Muslim revival of "British" values. His position has been backed by the Tony Blair Foundation which also regards "bad" ideology as the prime driver of extremism. The Quilliam Foundation, meanwhile, identifies the ongoing threat of "salafi-jihadi" ideology and assorted think-tanks applaud various sophisticated programmes of initiatives (usually their own). But there are some major weaknesses in their position.

Need for clarity

First of all, they ignore the problems faced by teachers and lecturers - now under a legal duty to report and tackle extremism - who are clearly confused about the implications of this new duty and are ill-prepared for the problems that will inevitably arise in the classroom. And who can blame them when the very notion of what constitutes "extremism" or, for that matter, British values, is so vaguely defined in the Prevent strategy.

The strategy also ignores the main drivers of this so-called "extremism" among many young people - not just young Muslims. Young Muslims are angry about British foreign policy, about perceived injustices to Muslims living abroad, and the relentlessly negative reporting in the UK media of Islam. They bear the brunt of Islamophobia, now increasingly apparent in civil society (especially against women), as well as the social and economic disadvantage caused by high unemployment.

These criticisms of perceived extremism fail to tackle the question of what sorts of attitudes and practices might be considered "less dangerous" and what exactly should lawful political dissent among British Muslim youth look like? What are the "acceptable" limits of social and religious conservatism within Britain’s mosques and madrassas, for example? How should increasingly online global communities of Muslims forge their identities? And how can we increase mutual trust between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain?

Cameron and his supporters offer us few clues. Alison Jamieson, the author of Radicalism and Terrorism: A Teacher’s Handbook for Addressing Extremism , recommends (in arguably the most coherent written submission to the inquiry) the creation of "safe spaces" that might encourage classroom discussion of political violence, the terminology of terrorism, and peace-making through conflict resolution. It is hard to argue against such sensible suggestions. None have come from Cameron’s speeches.

Anger and confusion

But few of the critics of the government’s counter-extremism policy offer reasonable alternatives. There are some sensible voices: Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors and principals of British university institutions, argues, with much justification, that current counter-extremism laws create anger and confusion among their members, pose a threat to freedom of speech, and drive controversial and offensive views underground.

The National Association of Head Teachers, while broadly supportive of the legal duty on teachers, criticises the current lack of effective training and the uncertainty around ill-defined terms. Others argue more forcefully. In their written submission, representatives from the East London Mosque repeat the words of former senior police officer Dal Babu, who last year described Prevent as a " toxic brand ". Cage UK, which has campaigned against the perceived impacts of the "War on Terror", calls for the abolition of all counter-extremism legislation.

These submissions demonstrate the growing confidence with which the government’s counter-extremism strategy is now attacked. But a glaring absence from this side of the debate is the lack of any suggestions concerning alternative models of security and policing. What are the current threats we face? What are the "acceptable" boundaries of our freedoms and our security? How should the government protect us?

Squandered opportunities

Organisations representing the interests of British Muslim communities could more often dictate the pace and direction of the extremism debate - but the inquiry evidence suggests only squandered opportunities. Several written submissions contain complaints (some more understandable than others) about inquiry questions perceived by the witnesses as excessively hostile. Others waste energy debating funding and transparency issues, pursuing personal interests rather than community concerns.

There are notable exceptions - various community groups presented evidence of actual criminal activity by Muslim perpetrators, while another submission raised the issue of the repatriation of those who have returned from IS-held territories - a real-world problem requiring a practical solution.

The Home Affairs Committee is now in recess, deliberating over the submitted evidence and no doubt drafting recommendations. Mine would be two-fold: first, and as Anderson argues , an independent review of the government’s Prevent strategy is urgently needed. Second, we need a government-led initiative that encourages mainstream political engagement from young British Muslims.

Cameron talks of "British" and "liberal" values - and there are none finer than our tradition of political dissent. British by Dissent , a report published by Muslim Youth Helpline provides an example of how Muslim organisations can take back control of the debate around political engagement among British Muslim communities.

It’s clear from the submitted evidence that a better balance of freedom and protection is needed. Such a balance is achievable - but only if each side in the extremism debate begins to the see the world through the other’s eyes.

Julian Hargreaves , Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

Inset image: Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into counter-extremism measures ( UK Parliament ).

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