The table above is taken from Policy Exchange’s report Unsettled Belonging, which questioned 3000 British Muslims under the auspices of ICM – a large sample. About a quarter said that extremist views do not exist at all. And roughly a fifth didn’t have a view on how prominent such views are within Muslim communities. That leaves over half saying that extremist views do exist – with a third saying that mainstream and moderate ones get drowned out by them. The polling also found that about two in three Muslims supported “government funding for special programmes to help Muslim communities combat violent extremism”.
This big and detailed study suggests that a majority of British Muslims are opposed to extremism, and that there is strong support among them for Prevent-type programmes. One would not dream that any of this is true from reading the media coverage of the appointment of the new Counter-Extremism Commissioner, Sara Khan.
To say so is not to complain about media bias and distortion. Most journalists are not well briefed about British Muslims – whose religious practice, first language, ethnicity and national background varies widely. (The percentage born in Britain is about half.) So if a press release pops up in one’s inbox saying that a hundred Muslim organisations oppose Khan’s appointment, the easy response is to report it, bung in a quote from Sayeeda Warsi…and there you go.
We don’t have a strong view about whether a Counter-Extremism Commissioner is required. One the one hand, the Coalition was right to take the common sense view that one doesn’t commit an extremist act without first having extremist thoughts: in other words, that Islamist terror is the main threat to public safety in Britain, and Islamist ideology is the swamp amidst which crocodiles teem, to borrow Michael Gove’s figure of speech. Theresa May’s Home Office got hold of the anti-extremism brief from CLG, and ran with it: the Coalition’s strategy document specifically cited Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala’a Mawdudi, key figures respectively in the thinking and formation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat Islami.
On the other, the most effective counter-extremism policy is, as it were, negative rather than positive. Government and Parliament controls patronage and public money. It is relatively simple not to give either to Islamist groups: not to fund them with taxpayers’ money, not to appoint their members to public bodies, not to recommend them for honours, not to lend them credibility by sharing platforms with them. David Cameron’s Government turned most of the taps off. It is also straightforward to use the bully pulpit of government to call out practices that may be linked to violent extremism (though often they are not), and are certainly incompatible with common British norms: ethnic segregration, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, gender separation in universities: see the Casey Review.
It is far more problematic to start writing anti-extremism measures into law. The Government’s plans for an Extremism Bill collapsed, as we warned they would, because government couldn’t find a definition. There was a danger that legislation and the courts differentiate between, say, a tradition held by some Muslims that gay people should be thrown from heights and then stoned, and a church school teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman (or an Islamic one, come to that). A guidance letter for Conservative MPs said that the Bill would cover “activities that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred against a person or group of persons on the grounds of that person’s or group of persons’ disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity”.
At any rate, the thinking behind appointing a Counter-Extremism Commissioner was like that behind creating the College of Policing. Create a centre of excellence; undertake research; raise standards; call out racism and extremism. Ministers could do with a bit more of the last themselves. The system failed to respond to the Rotherham child sex grooming gangs, in which British-Pakistani men featured prominently – as it is failing to respond to the vicious campaign against a head teacher in an East London primary school.
Whether or not the initiative works, Khan has a long record of opposition of extremism, violent and non-violent: opposing gender segregation at universities; urging girls not to join ISIS; taking a stand against Boko Haram. We hope that the new role works out for her – and, more importantly, for those it is meant to help.
Either way, our media colleagues might have a glance at that Policy Exchange polling. It found that the Muslim Council of Britain was regarded by some nine per cent of British Muslims as the right vehicle of choice to engage with government. Warsi, whose ups and downs this site has explored exhaustively, has never won an election. But as we say, don’t blame papers and websites. Until or unless the Muslim mainstream organises in some mass form, its voice won’t be heard.