Jonathan Russell is Head of Policy at the Quilliam Foundation.
Since our inception in 2008, Quilliam has constantly fought to improve counter-extremism (CVE) at a policy level and in the public domain. We come at it from a unique point of view – many of my colleagues are former extremists – and we therefore celebrate the advances which mean counter-extremism strategy has come on leaps and bounds in the last eight years, amidst a backdrop of severe geo-political turbulence – think of Al Qaeda’s franchising, upheaval of Arab dictators, and the re-birth of the foreign fighter phenomenon following Daesh’s rise to top of the jihadist league tables.
Particularly, in the last year, the UK has been at the forefront of developing a holistic approach to CVE and leading Europe in the way we go about it. From the Prime Minister’s Community Engagement Forum, to abandoning the idea that using non-violent extremists to de-radicalise violent extremists was a good strategy, it is fair to say the UK has come a long way. Progress comes through the great liberal and democratic tradition of evidence-based criticism, and we will always offer alternative solutions when there are policies we oppose.
The new Counter-Extremism Bill, to which Her Majesty referred a week ago, is one of these governmental approaches, where there are elements that we oppose. It has the potential to disastrously unwind the advances of the last five years and set a dangerous precedent moving forward. We are alarmed and here is why.
An integral part of the new Counter-Extremism Bill is the ‘Banning Orders’. These civil orders would use a legislative power to target those who operate in what the police call the ‘Pre-criminal space’, expanding the definition of people who could be incarcerated from those who do bad things to those who think bad things.
Firstly, the Banning Orders are illiberal and likely ineffective. This is a no-brainer. The cornerstone of liberal western society is the right to free speech and we have rightly drawn the criminal line at violence, though even that has bled into ‘incitement of violence’ since 2008. The government is right to see the link between words and deeds – we make a similar point in our award-winning counter-narrative film #NotAnotherBrother – but these bigoted views, even if they create an atmosphere conducive to violence, cannot simply be legislated out of existence.
They would infringe on the rights we hold most dear. It is a weak response, not the strong one the Home Office intends, and will simply drive these extremists underground. A totalitarian response to totalitarian ideas is not the way that extremism is defeated. Look how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt went from strength to strength while banned under Hosni Mubarak – they innovated and infiltrated business and NGOs. Moreover, the political and social costs to such a move would be severe in the upmost, both ushering in a new phase of community polarisation, whilst signalling to the world that the shutting down of debate is the way we move forward. In this regard, with our power comes responsibility – from a position where we lead the world in CVE, we cannot lead it in an illiberal direction, particularly given the uncomfortable fact that even close allies of ours take a different, more politicised, definition of extremism.
Secondly, pushing forward with this bill would be counterproductive. One of the biggest recruitment narratives for extremists is the idea of victimhood – the idea that you are under attack, that you don’t belong, that you are marginalised and that your voice will not be heard. The three big grievances that extremists exploit for recruitment are state, societal and media ‘Islamophobia’. This would go right next to Guantanamo Bay and Stop and Search in Cage and co’s Manichean press releases. Equally important is that it allows extremists to build allegiances with the Left and with human rights activists over a shared worry for civil liberties. We should be looking to make the CVE tent more inclusive and that means liberalising counter-extremism strategy, not the opposite. It gives easy wins to a Labour Party considering going backwards on CVE, and easy wins to Islamists around the world.
So what is the solution? Ideas cannot be destroyed, but they can be challenged, they can be exposed and they will be found wanting. Far from shutting extremist views down, we must draw them out into the open, interrogate them and then intellectually deconstruct them and strangulate their emotional appeal. Instead of attempting to legislate our way out of danger or ban ideas, we should instead lionise voices who oppose them. We cannot afford to martyr extremists; we absolutely can afford to challenge them.