We can't win the argument for liberal rights by taking rights away
David Cameron today outlined a series of measures aimed at tackling the ‘poisonous ideology’ of extremism. These included banning orders for hate preachers – defined very loosely as those that act within the law (yep, within the law) but may create hate or spread anti-democratic sentiments.
The government will also investigate shariah councils, and strongly enforce codes and existing legislation on charities. (Presumably they will also look at those charities which violated legislation by advocating that British Hindus vote for the Tories?)
These measures are designed to challenge extremist ideology, not just terrorism. The government defines ‘extremism’ in the Prevent Strategy as that which rejects basic freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law. Many people have pointed out that this may mean looking at groups which violate basic human rights as well as individuals who spread certain ideas but which can’t be considered terrorism.
Besides whether this may include certain cabinet ministers – who haven’t exactly been advocates of rights for minorities, women or disabled people, or the rule of law regarding how B&Bs treat homosexuals – or the highly politicised discussion about scrapping the Human Rights Act, there are actually serious issues with the government’s approach.
First, it is problematic to conflate extremism and issues of social and religious conservatism.
Many of the things advocated by preachers and certain institutions are problematic in the views they manifest about rights for women. For example, their approach to women who believe they must get a religious divorce (talaq), in a similar manner to how some in Jewish communities require a Ghett. This may well apply to other, larger institutions and the views they promote – the views of the Catholic church towards homosexuality or women in positions of religious leadership.
These cultural issues will arguably not change by state engineering, but by organic movements within these groups which promote equal rights for all being supported, as opposed to creating an atmosphere of state hegemony.
Second, extremism as an ideological phenomenon is distinct from terrorism. Terrorism is a criminal matter and requires very clear legal measures.
The broader Prevent policy is still widely misunderstood as an exercise in intelligence gathering and criminalising Islam, which it isn’t: it works in the non-criminal sphere, for a start, and tries to support vulnerable individuals at risk of radicalisation.
But extremism as a social and ideological phenomenon is much broader. And whilst aspects may well and do fall under preventing terrorism by preventing individuals being radicalised, extremism is much more a social cohesion problem: the spread of anti-democratic ideas; the spread of anti-semitic tropes by groups such as MEND while they promote political participation; the promotion of bigotry against minority groups, or even anti-western sentiments, which create more issues for us as a society than just terrorism.
Extremism in this sense cannot be tolerated and needs to be challenged.
The fact that society has failed to do this has arguably led the government to consider reactionary and illiberal measures like banning hate preachers.
Fundamentally, we cannot win the argument for liberal rights in modern society by taking rights away from people, especially rights we have established through centuries of tradition, philosophy and law. Banning people from publicly challenging democracy or liberal values is undemocratic and illiberal.
Moreover, this approach creates a natural response to protect the rights of individuals to hold beliefs and ideas and express them within the confines of the law. Hence it will – and already has – had the opposite effect to that intended, with advocates of liberal rights joining hands with the most regressive ideological groups so as to protect their rights.
The government’s measures are a product of the lack of a civil society response to extremist Islamist ideas in the public space, and the lack of impact within the Muslim communities in challenging extremist narratives. Trying to solve that failure by banning them from the public space is a sign of this failure, but also it is emphatically not a challenge to the ideology. It is a defensive response.
And an intellectual response is what is fundamentally absent from this counter extremism strategy.
For we must be able to challenge extremist ideology, not try and hide it from the public domain.
We must be able to show the historic connections between fascism and the founders of Islamist movements, such as praise for Nazi-loving Mufti Amin by the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
We must also challenge the religious narrative of ideological separatism peddled by groups like al-Muhajiroun or Hizb ut-Tahrir, who reject democracy and social and political participation, (as we have done at participatedontisolate.com), so we can generate a rejection of these groups within Muslim communities, but also empower Muslims to challenge these ideas.
This involves demonstrating and arguing for rights for all – Muslims and atheists, women and men from all backgrounds – including the right to wear the niqab (face veil) or hijab (Muslim headscarf) or neither, as this is up to individuals. These rights allow people of all backgrounds to practice their religion how they see fit.
Which is my last point. We may allow different attitudes and behaviour across the spectrum, but we do not advocate them all as ideals, nor should we ban them. We should however promote a set of ideas and practices which are better for us as a society and for individuals within communities, and better for groups within those communities.
The government doesn’t actually have a plan to provide a real counter extremism strategy. It conflates terrorism, extremism, and conservative (negative or otherwise) versions of religion in unhelpful ways. We need an intellectual and civil society approach to counter extremist ideology and defend the rights of everyone.
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