Richard Walton is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police.
Every so often, it is worth noting the current threat level to the UK from terrorist attacks, which only hits the headlines when it is revised up or down. Right now, it stands at “severe”. This means that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre and the Security Service, MI5, think a terrorist attack is “highly likely”. Hidden away from most of us, thousands of public servants work day and night to stop these highly likely attacks and to frustrate those who seek bloodshed on our streets.
As the Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism Command from 2011-2016, I led a significant part of this work – and saw close up the men and women engaged in it, the costs and the sheer hard work that goes into keeping the public safe from terrorist violence. It’s an impressive national effort. But what worries me now is that the police, the intelligence agencies and Ministers could soon have their hands tied if the Government chooses officially to adopt the All Party Parliamentarty Group on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia.
This asserts that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. It is my firm view that this deeply flawed definition – which wrongly conflates the religion of Islam with a racial group – could over time cripple the UK’s successful counter-terrorism strategy and counter-terrorism operations.
And this warning is at the heart of a research paper that I have co-authored for Policy Exchange, published today. Adopting the definition would hand the initiative to those who have been trying to dismantle the Government’s Countering Violent Extremism programme for years; it is no surprise to see many of those same campaigners and radical groups have been closely involved in the APPG’s work in developing the definition (as authors or sources).
As my report sets out today, there are two kinds of legal challenges that we would see if the definition was made official – and which could hamper counter-terrorism efforts. The first would be Judicial Review of operational decisions by police officers, their counterparts in other agencies and by Ministers dealing with terrorism threats. The second would be challenges under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the right not to be discriminated against by public authorities. And just think: how could the police or anyone else disprove that they had targeted an expression of “perceived Muslimness”?
The definition would also severely hamper efforts to stop and search extremists travelling through ports. The success of the UK’s counter-terrorism model relies on legislative powers designed to disrupt terrorist activities. Schedule 7 and Section 47A of the Terrorism Act 2000 and Schedule 3 of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 give police important powers to stop and search people travelling through ports and after terrorist incidents. They couldn’t be more important, given the context of British ISIS fighters trying to return from Syria.
If the Government accepts the APPG definition of Islamophobia, all of these powers are more likely to be challenged by anti-Prevent campaigners and their supporters who would seek to label police officers ‘Islamophobic’ (and, therefore, racist). There would likely be an increase in formal complaints against officers, leading to futile investigations and potentially unfair judgements by the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC). This, in turn, could lead to the powers subsequently falling into disrepute with officers, who would be discouraged from using them. Thus, the UK would be made less safe.
It is institutions as well as individual officers or ministers who could be in the line of fire. Whole government departments, the entire police service, intelligence agencies, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), judiciary and HM Prison and Probation Service could be branded and labelled “institutionally Islamophobic” by anti-Prevent campaign groups. It would be an allegation that would be impossible to refute, owing to the indistinct and imprecise nature of the APPG definition.
A range of other counter-terrorism measures would be undermined. The APPG definition would thwart the prosecution of individuals for possession of extremist material and dissemination of terrorist publications; even prosecution for membership of (and encouragement of support for) proscribed terrorist groups. Imagine how Anjem Choudary might have used the label “Islamophobic” in his defence.
The Prevent strategy would also suffer, weakening the ability of the country to divert individuals away from all forms of extremism and terrorism, including Islamist and Far Right terrorism. And the definition would have a major detrimental impact on the UK’s ability to keep communities safe, including keeping Muslim communities safe from far-right terrorism, and intra-Muslim sectarian attacks.
Today’s report features a Foreword by Lord Carlile, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation from 2001 to 2011. He is in agreement on the legal problems the Islamophobia definition could throw up. As his Foreword states:
“The authors of this paper have exposed the difficulties left by the APPG. Successful and accepted counter-terrorism measures would run the risk of being declared unlawful. The Prevent strand of counter-terrorism policy, which would be thrown into turmoil by the APPG, provokes a refrain of clichéd criticism, but that is rarely evidence based: Prevent demonstrates statistically and evidentially a high net profit of success, which would be lost. The APPG definition would lead to Judicial Review litigation that would hold back the evolution of better counter-terrorism law and practice hand in hand with strengthened religious tolerance.”
Ministers should heed his words and not support those who seek to impose this all-encompassing definition on the Government and country. It would overturn the approach of governments of all parties over the last two decades who have grappled with how to deal with a growing extremist and terrorist threat. Ministers are understandably under pressure to be seen to act on Anti-Muslim prejudice. They should avoid the trap of adopting the off-the-shelf definition offered by groups who have an agenda of their own.
We must tackle all hate crimes and be alive to an increase these crimes against Muslims but adoption of this definition would actually make achieving this more difficult. Instead, I recommend that the Extremism Commission examine the issue as part of its national consultation, leading to a code of practice.