There is more to be lost than gained from inviting extremists into Whitehall

If community cohesion is the aim, partnering with organisations that do not respect equality and freedom seems an odd choice


Lambertism, at its core, seeks to instrumentalise the knowledge and credibility of non-violent extremists in nullifying the threat of violent extremists. The most famous proponent, the eponymous detective inspector Robert Lambert, and his Muslim Contact Unit in the Metropolitan Police, was tasked with establishing trust-based relationships with community leaders who could help prevent terrorist attacks and counter the radicalisation of local Muslims.

Memphis Barker made the case for revisiting this approach in his Independent Voices piece yesterday.

If you are trying to reduce the immediate terrorist threat, a noble aim, and very much the domain of the Home Office and the police force, this may well be a wise approach. Disengagement is the objective, intent is largely unimportant, national security is the lens, resources are infinite, and evaluation of success is based entirely on whether or not there is a terrorist attack tomorrow.

It makes sense from a radicalisation perspective too, if you focus on violent extremism. Focusing on the nexus between contemplation and action, non-violent Salafists can be credible interlocutors for fellow Salafists who are more convinced of the scriptural legitimacy of using violence to achieve their shared aims.

“Yes, a caliphate that discriminates against women, gay people and non-Muslims is an appropriate aspiration; no, the Islamic State is not a legitimate caliphate.” Or, “yes, suicide bombing is an appropriate tactic against oppressive regimes such as Assad’s or occupying forces such as Israel; no, we have a covenant of security with our home country so it is not permissible in Britain.”

These arguments could well convince those on the brink of travelling to Syria or blowing up the London transport network not to cross that Rubicon from bad thoughts to bad deeds. And, in a liberal country like ours, we can tolerate bad thoughts, right?

Right indeed. Our laws must tolerate those with whom we disagree and those who believe in caliphates, up to the point that they commit or support violence, or join a group that does. But it does not logically follow that society must be tolerant of intolerant views.

We can simultaneously defend people’s rights to be a bigot, while opposing all forms of bigotry, even if it is cloaked in otherwise acceptable religious terminology. It also does not logically follow that the state ought to fund, partner with or engage with all bigots on an equal footing.

The police may, in their counter-terrorism remit, engage with non-violent Salafists to disengage the ones close to violence. But a decision by any public institution not to engage them does not equate to legal intolerance of bigotry, rather a tiered engagement system.

Alongside the legal tolerance-civic intolerance model for bigotry, this tiered engagement is central to progressive counter-extremism. At a macro governmental level, there is more to be lost than gained in inviting extremists into Whitehall.

It may facilitate Islamist entryism into British institutions, it may legitimise the bigoted messages of theocrats, and it may be a sin of omission, insofar as extremists continue to get face time with ministers rather than harder-to-reach minorities within minorities such as Muslim women or reformist voices.

At a micro level, such as in local policing, it may well be the case that there is something to be gained from engaging with non-violent extremists to keep our streets safe. That said, our values-based rules of engagement should be clear, due diligence should be thorough, and the philosophy behind such engagement should be consistent even at a local level.

To achieve this consistency and nuanced tiered engagement model, we should push for clarity between counter-terrorism and counter-extremism as I explain here. While perhaps useful for counter-terrorism policing, the short-termism of Lambertism fails to grasp the nuance of radicalisation and the extremist milieu, which has damaging and destabilising effects on societal cohesion.

If tackling extremism as a social ill is a long-term aim, then so too should counter-extremism practitioners avoid empowering or endorsing extremist voices. To do so creates a self-perpetuating cycle of radicalisation and gives platforms to extremists to build support for their ideology and normalize their narratives. Desecuritising counter-extremism can help mitigate such risks and will prompt increased focus on primary prevention and counter-messaging.

If community cohesion and integration is the aim, funding or partnering with organisations that do not respect equality before the law and freedom from discrimination for all citizens seems an odd choice.

This human rights basis is a very low threshold, but one that an awful lot of Islamists would fail to meet. With this in place, we can redouble efforts to build resilience in Muslim communities, reduce vulnerability to radicalisation, and improve engagement with a broader range of voices in these communities.

We simply must not fall in to our own orientalist bigotry of low expectations by presuming that most Muslims will struggle to support universal human rights norms.

While I accept that engaging non-violent Islamists for security purposes without empowering them is sensible, I’d conclude by suggesting that getting the right structural clarity between counter-terrorism and counter-extremism would help us to tackle extremism and improve both community cohesion and integration which would have positive long-term effects in our fight against terrorism.

Jonathan Russell is political liaison officer at Quilliam

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