The Government’s proposed counter-extremism measures

The Sunday Times reports today on the Government’s proposed new crackdown on extremism.  This problem may be something of a Gordian knot in its tangled complexity, but it’s hard to see how to cut through to an easy solution.  Inaction won’t do, but action risks being counterproductive or else in conflict with some of the values it seeks to protect.

Plans include the creation of ‘a blacklist of radicals and extremist groups subject to banning orders.’ But what is extremism and how is it best dealt with?

The extremism strategy will target militants even if they do not specifically advocate violence as well as racists, anti-semites and those who spread conspiracy theories.

There are some potential contradictions in the plans.  Here are two proposals.

Some of the money will be spent setting up a newspaper to be run by moderate imams to counteract Isis propaganda.

Close mosques where extremist meetings have taken place

Although much will depend on how ‘extremist’ is defined, there is probably a fair degree of intersection between mosques which have held such meetings and mosques whose imams oppose ISIS.  The plans do specify ‘moderate imams’ – but again, who makes that call, and, if truly moderate, how effective will they be in reaching their target audience?

The first passage I quoted suggests that the bar will be set reasonably low for extremism.  Some preachers use disdainful and hateful language without advocating violence.

Here’s Shady Alsuleiman

“It is the greatest gift to be in the house of Allah in a moment of corruption, in a moment of affliction, you being in the house of Allah worshipping Allah. That’s why the scholars said that in a moment of people committing corruption, a true believer will start worshipping Allah. A true believer will show Allah that he is there for him, worshipping him. Because all this is worship of Satan. A New Year’s party, it’s worship of Satan. A Christmas party, it’s worship of Satan. Any other events are worship of Satan.

And here’s James McConnell:

“Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”

“Fifteen years ago Britain was concerned of IRA cells right throughout the nation.

“They done a deal with the IRA because they were frightened of being bombed.

“Today a new evil has arisen. There are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain, can I hear an Amen, right throughout Britain, and this nation is going to enter into a great tribulation, a great trial.”

Of course there isn’t complete symmetry here.  McConnell may be motivated by a theological dislike for Islam, but there is some basis for concerns about violent and non-violent extremism, even though (of course) many Muslims wholeheartedly oppose both these positions.  But describing the celebration of Christmas as ‘Satanic’ reflects a purely theological opposition to the ‘kuffar’.  Plenty of mainstream Muslims are relaxed about Christmas – to the irritation of others.

Here’s another bullet point from the government’s plans:

■ Outlaw groups that foment hate

Yet again, this invites debate over what exactly is meant by ‘foment hate’.  Some have sought to ban the EDL on such grounds.

This is a rather narrower proposal.

■ Force public sector organisations to boycott those on the blacklist

This seems welcome – it’s frustrating seeing supposedly respectable organisations working with extremist groups.  Without going so far as to ban all groups which might be termed extreme, they should not be sought as partners.  Public funding of questionable organisations is of course another problem.

But this is perhaps more problematic

■ Let employers check whether an individual is an extremist and bar them from working with children

especially if extremism is deemed to include ‘spreading conspiracy theories’.

Meanwhile this seems sensible:

■ Strengthen the powers available to Ofcom, the media regulator, to strengthen sanctions against channels that broadcast extremist content or give a platform to hate preachers.

as does the pledge ‘to act on a current review of the operation of sharia courts’.

The Sunday Times notes David Davis’ reservations:

“Extremism banning orders just won’t work. The government of the day cannot easily lay down what British values are. If you enforce tolerance of other religions you cramp free speech,” he said.

“All that will happen with a newspaper is that anyone associated with it will become an easy target for the Islamists who will label them collaborators. Being quite so crude and heavy-handed may backfire and undermine people we want to support.”

Davis’ point about tolerance of other religions seems a good one. Here’s a reminder of Michael Gove’s thoughts on this issue.

In June, the then education secretary Michael Gove, said pupils must be made aware of fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different beliefs.

According to many who insist their interpretation of Islam is normative, Michael Gove’s statement that pupils must respect different beliefs would seem to demand that we respect illiberal and draconian positions.  And should we be forced to ‘respect’ religion (or atheism) even in its more benign forms? Of course the government’s new proposals reflect the reality that tolerance of extreme intolerance is not really a virtue.

I’m not sure about the details of the proposals, but there is clearly a problem, and I completely agree with David Cameron here:

“We need to systematically confront and challenge extremism and the ideologies that underpin it, exposing the lies and the destructive consequences it leaves in its wake.

It’s difficult to know how best to deal with extremism. Hardliners may be most effective when it comes to dissuading youth from joining ISIS – yet they may also help sow the seeds of radicalism by promoting views which (while less horrifically extreme) overlap with those of ISIS.  And of course – even if they don’t drive people to ISIS – their views are utterly vile. Yet clamping down on (non-violent) extremist voices may fuel a grievance narrative – and extremism.  Liberal Muslim groups do much good work – yet are often targets for abuse from other Muslims.  So what is to be done?

Many non-Muslims commenting on this news story seem more interested in gleefully suggesting the Tories should investigate their own party for ‘extremism’ rather than engaging with the problem.  One solution – though it’s beyond legislation – would be for more mainstream secular voices to speak out against extreme views.  It’s no particular shock that Islamists are going to be Islamists, but – to cite just one small example of the problem – why does the Guardian promote extreme voices and bury Maryam Namazie’s recent piece, meaning that only those following a direct link were likely to find and read it?  Other sections of the media create problems too.  Spiteful articles about complete non-issues make both Muslims and many non-Muslims focus on anti-Muslim bigotry at the expense of extremism, and may make them more sceptical when real problems are brought to light. And such stories are a great tool of deflection for extremists and grievance mongers of course.