Conservative Diary

« Sunday's polling: UKIP ride high, but face a gender split | Main | Plots and whispers »

Three tests for a counter-extremism policy

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

PICKLES-ERIC-WHITE-SUITMichael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale held reasonable views up to the moment they began the wicked and cowardly murder of Lee Rigby.

Reflect for a moment on the absurdity of the idea unpacked in that last sentence.  The minds of both men were not in healthy condition before the murder.  They were made sick long before it by the virus of Islamist ideology.  In other words, extremism is the soil from which violent extremism grows, and ideas have consquences. To say that extremism leads to violent extremism ought to be no more controversial than to say that violent storms lead to flooding.  But for all its good intentions and despite some solid work, the Government isn't facing up fully to this obvious truth.

Eric Pickles as good as admits it in his article in today's Sunday Telegraph.  "As we reflect on the events of this week, there is no doubt that more can and will be done by the Government to challenge radicalisation and extremism," he writes.  The Communities Secretary knows well that a counter-extremism strategy has been due from CLG for well over a year.  What reference there is in it to his Department's Integration Strategy was inserted at a late stage.  I wrote last year that "more details will be published in due course".  Over 18 months later, we're still waiting.

Rather than delve into the reasons for this unconscionable delay, or dwell on how sad it is that it's taken a murder to drag this admission out of CLG, let's remind ourselves of what action the Government has taken.  Theresa May began as she intended to go on, keeping the hate preacher Zakir Naik out of the country.  Counter-terror officials are quietly being put in place at universities.  Pickles himself has championed the local initiatives that his article describes.  But both Downing Street and the Home Office want more, and I think the Communities Secretary now does so too.

So what would a counter-extremism policy look like?  There must be more to it than encouraging mosques to join Near Neighbours programmes and children to join the Sea Cadets.  The Communities Secretary writes correctly that councils should not "give taxpayers’ money to organisations which promote segregation or shelter extremists".  This raises the question of what the test is for extremism (CLG ducks it at the moment, saying merely that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis).  How should goverment decide which people or groups to talk to, to give support to, to share platforms with, or to fund?

These different considerations yield different answers (for example, the bar for talking to a group, at least via civil servants, should be lower than the bar for funding it).  But there are two broad strategic options:

  • Groups and people which government treats with must sign up to liberal western values.  In other words, they must accept modern norms about the treatment of, say, women and gay people.  Broadly speaking, I think there is something in this approach, which has some support on the decent Left.  Government certainly shouldn't support, share platforms with or fund individuals or groups that believe that homosexuality should somehow be made illegal, let alone that gay people should be persecuted and murdered - even if they add the proviso "in the Islamic state" - or that women should be barred from education and the labour market.  But the idea of using liberal western values as a benchmark is problematic - at least in a society that prizes religious freedom  For example, traditional religious teaching on homosexuality (and, in some cases, the role of women) sits uneasily with modern liberal norms - and the tension between the two is exacerbated by human rights and equality laws that have no clear order of protected characteristics, and guide to what government should do if they clash.  Conservative Christians - indeed, Christians of all kinds - are critical of liberal western values.  So are Haredi Jews and many Hindus and Sikhs.  Any test based on such values poses more problems than it claims to solve.
  • Groups and people which government treats with must sign up to western liberal democracy.  At first hearing, this sounds like the same test as the one above.  But it is far more simple - and, I think, less disputable.  We live in a democracy (or, more exactly, under Parliamentary government, but let's not quibble).  Groups or people that don't accept it, and want instead to live in, say, what they call a sharia state - what I would call pre-modern government - or believe that citizens should be treated on the basis of religious affiliation rather than on that of common citizenship are those that government shouldn't support, share platforms with or fund.  This is the first of three tests that I believe government should apply - and it would, of course, also apply to fascist people and groups who believe in citizenship based on ethnicity.  The second test is that groups and people which government treats with must not support attacks on British troops.  This is pretty much in place now.  The third is that groups and people which government treats with must not support attacks that deliberately target civilians.  Backing for the practice abroad has serious implications for public safety here - as Usama Hasan suggested last week, for example, and Abdul Hakim Murad did in the aftermath of 7/7.

Pickles writes of the reaction among British Muslims that "unlike the events on 7/7, this time there were no attempts to justify these crimes - no condoning and no backtracking".  My sense is that this is broadly right, and it's interesting to probe what's changed.  There are several factors.  The "Arab Spring" has made Al Qaeda look behind the times.  Its record of killing Muslims in Iraq turned more Muslims in Britain against it - and very few of them supported it in the first place. The after-shock of the Iraq war is beginning to fade, and our troops are due to return from Afghanistan.

But changes in foreign policy, or rather foreign affairs, are only part of the explanation.  Government knows much more about Muslim organisations in Britain than they did in 2005 - and has become much more exacting.  Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith led the charge for Labour.  Pauline Neville-Jones did so in opposition when I was on David Cameron's front bench, and Theresa May has risen to the challenge in government - as has the Prime Minister himself.  How much of the difference of tone among some of these organisations reflects real change and how much is for public consumption isn't clear.  But the shift is unmistakable.

In 2005, Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain of Quilliam were subject to violent abuse from British Islamists - as was the organisation itself.  I expect that neither are exactly flavour of the month in 2015.  But the virulence of the attacks seems to me to have faded as the argument they have made has advanced - namely, that Islamist ideology must be challenged and confronted.  This is a sign of the times.  Above all, the claim of groups to represent British Muslims (which polling has found that none of them do) has been elbowed aside by those British Muslims themselves, who are using means that weren't around or developed in 2005 to make their views known.

If you doubt it, look at the condemnation of last week's murder on Twitter, or the emergence of a new generation of voices.  (Those who haven't done so should read Tameena Hussain's recent piece on this site.)  The time is right for the Government to set out its counter-extremism policy, and there should be no more delay.  Indeed, it is unfair to the groups and people being dealt with on that "case by case basis" for them not to have clear criteria against which to be considered.  Finally, consistency is everthing.  It doesn't do for one senior Minister to withdraw civil servants from a FOSIS event and another to speak at an event it organises in Parliament.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.