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On extremism, radicalisation and British values

Some thoughts and a (very partial) reading list

On 18 May 2016, the UK Parliament witnessed the Queen’s Speech: an annual ritual in which the government lays out its plans for the forthcoming year. This year’s version, marking the beginning of the new parliamentary year, included mention of a new Counter-extremism and Safeguarding Bill. According to the accompanying Cabinet Office briefing, summarised in a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, the Bill’s measures will include the following:

The introduction of a new civil order regime to restrict extremist activity, following consultation.

Safeguarding children from extremist adults, by taking powers to intervene in intensive unregulated education settings which teach hate and drive communities apart and through stronger powers for the Disclosure and Barring Service.

We will also close loopholes so that Ofcom can continue to protect consumers who watch internet-streamed television content from outside the EU on Freeview.

We will consult on powers to enable government to intervene where councils fail to tackle extremism.

The Government will consider the need for further legislative measures following Louise Casey’s review into integration in those communities most separated from the mainstream.

The Bill is important as the latest stage in the UK government’s evolving counter-extremism framework. It follows, most immediately, an Extremism Bill announced in the 2015 Queen’s Speech – which did not come to pass – and, more famously, the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy, known as Prevent. Counter-extremism in the UK has been marked in recent years by, amongst other things, a focus on domestic or ‘homegrown’ extremists (especially since the attacks in London of 7 July 2005), and a widening of focus to include ‘non-violent’ and even legal forms of ‘extremism’ (on which, more below). The broader context includes, first, a growing concern with the perceived failings of multiculturalism that has gathered pace since the early twenty-first century in particular (including a fear that distinct communities were increasingly living apart from one another). And, second, a series of debates from the 1990s onwards about the changing nature of terrorist violence. Here, concepts including ‘religious terrorism’ and ‘new terrorism’ have been employed within and beyond ‘terrorism studies’ to capture a sense that we are now witnessing a fundamentally different type of terrorism to earlier – political – versions.

The most significant forerunner to the current Bill – the UK’s Prevent Strategy – has been subjected to sustained and significant academic critique for a number of years now. To summarise, very briefly, this critique includes:

Considerable concern about the strategy’s reliance on a problematic, and perhaps even fictional, notion of ‘radicalisation’ as a generally linear process through which a vulnerable individual becomes willing to engage in or support terrorist violence. This notion of radicalisation is problematic, because it: is an entirely new idea (it wasn’t used to describe, for example, republican or loyalist violences in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’); is not supported by any significant body of academic research; de-emphasises both individual agency and structural contexts such as foreign policy in the causes of terrorism, placing focus squarely on ‘vulnerable’ individuals; simplifies and homogenises what is likely to be a complex, multi-directional and variable process guiding any individual’s movement toward ‘terrorism’; and, justifies early forms of intervention in the lives of – typically – young men. Recent reports have identified eight people per day being referred to de-radicalisation initiatives, with more than a third of those being aged under 18.

Arguments that Prevent blurs community cohesion and counter-terrorism policy, such that Prevent money has been used to support initiatives such as providing sporting facilities for disadvantaged communities. Moreover, there is a further risk here that Prevent may have undone the good work by police and others around community cohesion by subordinating this, now, to the priorities of counter-terrorism policy. The current version of Prevent – published in 2011 – is marked by an attempt, at least in principle, to further separate social and security policy, in part in response to such fears.

Concern that Prevent singles out particular communities – especially Muslim communities – as especially vulnerable to ‘radicalisation’. Many have now described the strategy as a contributor to the construction of Muslims as a new ‘suspect community’ within the United Kingdom (although the 2011 incarnation also describes moving from a demographic-based focus to a risk-based focus). In related vein, other critics have, similarly, argued that Prevent involves the government effectively policing religion via its identification of preferred religious partners, and its creation of a distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslims.

Concern that counter-radicalisation policy in the UK (and beyond) relies upon stakeholders such as teachers, lecturers, and medical staff for its implementation. Such stakeholders may have insufficient knowledge or training to do this work, and may have other – more pressing – priorities, such as teaching, lecturing or delivering medical care.

Fears that Prevent offers poor value for money – even in relation to its purported aims of countering ‘radicalisation’ – with limited metrics available to assess its successful implementation.

This government’s continuing interest in governing ‘extremism’ is likely to suffer from a series of similar problems to the above. Indeed, such problems might even give us further cause for concern, given that we are now in the realm of policing non-violent, and perhaps non-criminal, behavior. Let’s look at two of these.

In the first instance, the term ‘extremism’ is, if anything, more problematic than the term ‘radicalisation’. Both really make sense only as relative terms (see Mark Sedgwick’s article for a good discussion of this) and therefore require some sort of ‘other’ and some way of deciding how to differentiate this from extremism or radicalization. Where ‘radical’ has tended to be opposed to ‘moderate’, ‘extremism’ – in the UK government’s view – has been defined as ‘the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. As the government’s counter-extremism strategy from which the above is taken continues, ‘We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist’.

This effort to define ‘extremism’ by its opposition to British values overlooks not insignificant political questions around how the latter are decided, and by whom. Could a historical reading of ‘our fundamental values’ not, equally, tell a story of imperialism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and entrenched socio-economic inequality? It also: assumes that the meaning of such values are themselves self-evident (could this, really, be said of democracy?); overlooks significant ways in which such values might pull in different directions (for instance, individual liberty and tolerance of different beliefs); and flattens or homogenises what – I presume – are a plurality of different ways of thinking about ‘our fundamental values’ in Britain today. As a contributor to a focus group I ran on counter-terrorism policy, so nicely, put it: ‘having a debate about what it means to be British is so very un-British’.

Second, the proposed Bill will also work to further induce particular types of behaviour from particular types of people. It will likely encourage and reward performances of allegiance or conformity with ‘British values’, whilst discouraging and disciplining other types of activity and subject. This is likely to prove particularly troubling for expressions of dissent, resistance or opposition – in short, for democratic politics – further circumscribing the space available for political debate and diagreement. Just this week, the UK’s Police Lead for Prevent expressed fears that the government’s anti-extremism plans risk creating a new ‘thought police’. In some of my own earlier research with Michael Lister, similarly, we encountered a widespread concern – especially amongst non-white individuals – that contemporary counter-terrorism powers had rendered political participation far more difficult.

How these concerns play out will depend upon a number of things, including the Bill’s final construction, its implementation in practice, and public responses to this technique for governing extremism. Our ‘British [Muslim] Values’ project – which begins this September – represents one effort to explore the latter, but much work, I think, remains to be done. The following, then, offers a very partial list of relevant literature that may help to this end, much of which also informs the above analysis.

Related readings 

Aly (2013) The Policy Response to Home-Grown Terrorism: Reconceptualising Prevent and Resilience as Collective Resistance.

Awan (2012) ‘I am a Muslim Not an Extremist’: How the Prevent Strategy has Constructed a ‘Suspect’ Community.

Baker-Beall et al (2015) Counter-Radicalisation: Critical Perspectives (disclaimer – I co-edited this!).

Heath-Kelly (2013) Counter-Terrorism and the Counterfactual: Producing the ‘Radicalisation’ Discourse and the UK PREVENT Strategy.

Kundnani (2009) Spooked! How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism.

Lindekilde (2012) Introduction: Assessing the Effectiveness of Counter-Radicalization Policies in Northwestern Europe.

Neumann (2013) The Trouble with Radicalization.

O’Toole et al (2016) Governing through Prevent? Regulation and Contested Practice in State-Muslim Engagement.

Pantazis and Pemberton (2009) From the ‘Old’ to the ‘New’ Suspect Community.

Ragazzi (2016) Suspect Community or Suspect Category? The Impact of Counter-terrorism as ‘Policed Multiculturalism’.

Richards (2015) From ‘terrorism’ to ‘radicalization’ to ‘extremism: Counterterrorism Imperative or Loss of Focus?

Sedgwick (2010) The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion.

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Dr Lee Jarvis

Reader in international Security.
School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies

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