The scattergun attack on extremism

Over the past fortnight, Theresa May and David Cameron have outlined a new counter-extremism plan. Notable features include inspections and reviews of public services to protect against “entryism” (attempts by extremists to infiltrate public services) and powers to close down premises used by extremists. There is also a set of demands to internet providers, asking them to remove more extremist material, and the blueprint for an “extremism community trigger”, a more efficient way to complain about extremism in your neighbourhood. In May’s words, this strategy is (in a slightly Orwellian phrase) a “counter-ideology campaign at pace and scale”. This article makes a case for its inherent weaknesses.  

I should clarify that I do not want to talk about difficulties in execution, the “how” questions: risks of lacking judicial transparency, misidentification and quota-filling, to name just a few. Theresa May has been working on this plan for months, and has faced the criticism of multiple ministers during that time; I would hope that the logistics are sound. I’m interested in the “what” questions: whether this new strategy has a sound mechanism to make the UK, primarily the public sector, safer and happier. Here lie my doubts. 

On first impression, it seems this plan is essentially reliant on fear. A quick glance at David Cameron’s accompanying message heavily suggests so: phrases such as “extremists don’t just threaten our security, they jeopardise all that we’ve built together… we have to confront them wherever we find them” doesn’t ease the nerves. Nor do spot-inspections on public services, promising to identify whether or not extremists have infiltrated your department, promote open relationships in the work-place. If the Prime Minister’s great worry is that extremism “divides our communities”, then creating an ‘us-and-them’ atmosphere where perpetrators of extremism could be lurking unidentified anywhere is unlikely to help.

This fear is a particular problem for Islamic groups, whose members are most likely to be interrogated by investigators or isolated by colleagues. A recent YouGov poll suggested that already only twenty-two percent of UK citizens believe Islamic and British values compatible: whatever David Cameron says about “The incredible power of our liberal, democratic values”, they too frequently don’t extend to Muslims. These new measures thus seem set to enhance divisive fears, and thereby make challenging situations in work-places or the wider community worse.

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This increased fear might be acceptable if the plans focused on a tangible threat causing widespread damage; instead, the fear betrays a lack of clarity as to who will be targeted, or how any of the measures will stem radicalisation. There are a very small number of people who illegally spread extremist views (currently under one-hundred imprisoned in the UK); this number is not beyond the scope of MI5 and the police service, nor are many more likely to be uncovered by one-off inspections. There are even fewer individuals who seem intent on infiltrating the public sector: there is no apparent evidence of such a plan beside the ‘Trojan Horse’ incident, and there, even if we reject the Education Select Committee’s finding that no extremist views were actually taught, we have less than ten schools in question and specific preventative measures already in place. This is hardly justification for a national review of public services.

It is also unclear whether trying to uncover extremism in communities or ban suspects from buildings will in any way stop it growing: Lady Warsi describes online radicalisation as an enormous problem, and sees the government’s current response as “an ever-losing battle”. Tackling the presence of known extremists on particular social media or video-sharing sites with more energy would help cut off radicalisation at source; the recently announced strategy is, by comparison, is imprecise. It knows neither whom it is targeting nor where they might be. Such a plan risks both disrupting vital services and intimidating thousands who hold firm but harmless views.

Indeed, because there is no clear target, the language used to describe the strategy will do more to cause rifts than hinder dangerous extremism. Frequently, government statements refer to extremist behaviour as that which endangers “British values”, a rather vague barometer when judging harmful outcomes. If we are to fight against someone, we must be sure whom we are fighting and on what grounds. Yet because this new plan doesn’t focus on specific causes and perpetrators of harm, it attacks an unidentified set of people who don’t believe in “British values”, such as democracy, individual liberty and tolerance. I regard these values as good, but to hunt throughout the nation for those who don’t explicitly support them would be a thankless and indeed intolerant task. To then dress such a strategy as fighting for what is “British” runs an unnecessary risk of stoking xenophobia and alienation.

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The plan recently unveiled has at heart a critical weakness: it does not focus on specific causes or individuals, but instead an unknown, ill-defined group, and it therefore promotes fear and division. It is a scattergun attack on extremism, not targeted on the problem at hand. And if this problem is still with us years from now, we might ask ourselves: did these measures prevent the spread of discernible harm, or did they fuel the very intolerance we sought to subdue?