Last year, the Government set up the Commission for Countering Extremism with a remit to “identify and challenge extremism in all its forms and provide the government with advice on the policies needed to tackle it. And a few days ago, the Commission duly published its first major report: Challenging Hateful Extremism.
‘Extremism’ is a word that was little used in either the UK or USA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Look at political biographies of the post-war era, and you will see it occasionally used to refer to those at one of end of the mainstream political spectrum. In the pre-Thatcher era, it was actually used to describe those with the temerity to challenge the so-called ‘post-war consensus’ of a partly nationalised economy.
After 9/11, first in the USA, and then in the UK under Tony Blair, it primarily came to refer to Islamist extremism, meaning those holding more extreme views than what was sometimes called ‘mainstream Islam’. However, not only did this approach ignore non-Islamist extremism, but there were two more fundamental problems with it.
First, it became clear that Blair’s government had little understanding of the potential points of conflict between the legal and political aspects of what had been historically taught in classical Islam and the values of a free democratic society.
Second, this definition of extremism allowed the then Labour government to engage with a range of Islamist groups who were demanding, for example, a partial implementation of sharia law as a legal system in the UK. Blair’s government simply pointed to other Islamist groups which were even more extreme than those they were working with. Its policy even led to extremists being allowed to join the security services.
That is why during those years a number of us argued, including on ConservativeHome, that if ‘extremism’ was to be a useful term at all – it had to be defined as meaning extreme in relation to historic British values such as parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and one law applying equally to all people.
That paradigm shift was enacted when David Cameron’s Conservative led government came to power in 2010 – and some of the credit for that must go to ConservativeHome’s editor, Paul Goodman, who was shadow Communities minister for the period leading up to that. To some extent, however, determining what those ‘British values’ actually are remains contested territory, not least because of attempts by some social liberals to hijack them as the Casey Review did in 2016 (Casey incidentally is now part of the Commission’s expert group).
It is worth reflecting quite how much progress we have made in understanding and tackling extremism since 9/11. The official report into the 7/7 London bus and tube bombings concluded that we did not understand what motivated the bombers. Politicians and public figures went out of their way to blame various social factors such as deprivation. As someone who had just returned to the UK after several years living as an aid worker in Afghanistan, including under the Taliban, I was astonished at the lack of understanding of Islamist ideology.
That is why I find this first report from the new Commission for Countering Extremism so troubling. In one sense, it ignores the very substantial progress that has been made since 9/11. It provides no significant analytical framework for understanding extremism, contains a whole section on ‘drivers of extremism’ which describes five social factors – but ignores ideology.
Although one cannot adequately summarise a 139 page report in a few words, one of the key thrusts of the report is that it is critical of the Government’s current counter-extremism strategy because, among other reasons, its definition of extremism is too broad and not well understood. The basis for this claim and for much of the report is a survey of just under 3,000 people undertaken by the Commission. At best, this was a questionable basis on which to base public policy recommendations, risking being little more than a large-scale focus group or simply reflecting the views of lobby groups.
In case you missed it, the Government’s definition of extremism set out at the beginning of the 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy is:
Extremism is the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values…Life in our country is based on fundamental values that have evolved over centuries, values that are supported and shared by the overwhelming majority of the population and are underpinned by our most important local and national institutions. These values include the rule of law, democracy, individual liberty, and the mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of different faiths and beliefs.
What the Commission found was that just over half of ‘practitioners’ who responded to its survey thought the government’s definition of extremism was helpful, but three quarters of the members of the public who responded did not. That may well mean that the Government needs to do more to promote it, help people to comprehend it – and, crucially, help people to understand the story of how these fundamental British values developed over the centuries.
However, what the Commission proposes is that instead the Government should replace the definition with something that they claim will be clearer and easier to understand: a focus on ‘hate’.
“We currently summarise this hateful extremism as:
Behaviours that can incite and amplify hate, or engage in persistent hatred, or equivocate about and make the moral case for violence;
And that draw on hateful, hostile or supremacist beliefs directed at an out-group who are perceived as a threat to the well-being, survival or success of an in-group;
And that cause, or are likely to cause, harm to individuals, communities or wider society.”
I am probably not alone in thinking that is a good deal less clear than the government’s definition. Not only that, it simply ignores the hugely problematic nature of ‘hate speech’ – particularly in English law, whereby any third party can, however unrelated to the event, claim that something is motivated by hate.
This has affectively allowed hate speech to be weaponised by various groups intent on censoring any public disagreement with their own ideological beliefs, which incidentally includes those intent on imposing an Islamic blasphemy law by the backdoor.
Yes, the Government’s definition of extremism could be tightened up a bit. For example, ‘equal treatment of all by the law’ would be better than ‘the rule of law’: after all, Islamists also believe in the latter – it just happens to be sharia. However, Ministers have rightly shied away from including certain types of speech in the definition of extremism for fear of creating a sedition law. Free speech is after all one of our historic British values.
What this report admits we need – but fails to provide – is a counter-narrative.
In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, provided a counter narrative to the extremism of the French revolution. In twentieth century, Winston Churchill, who had begun writing his History of the English Speaking Peoples prior to the Second World War, saw the narrative of how our democracy and freedoms had been established over the centuries as a counter narrative to Nazi ideology. During the Cold War those such as Roger Scruton and Margaret Thatcher actively sought to develop a counter narrative to Communist ideology.
That too should be a central role for the Commission for Countering Extremism.