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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5 Responses to “There is more to be lost than gained from inviting extremists into Whitehall”

  1. Mark

    I was a bit surprised at the first comment on Ajmal Masroor’s Facebook post about him supporting Sadiq Khan for the London Mayor election. It said, “Does he support sodomy? Did he support terror laws?” No reply from Masroor as I write, but what is that all about?

    So is anti-gay and anti-extremism laws endemic or rare?

  2. Saleem Shady

    Memphis Barker’s approach would be disastrous and bring the dark days back.
    One reason why the likes of the EDL arose was because authorities were dancing with ‘non violent’ extremists

  3. steroflex

    Jonathan this has the odour of abstraction. Macro energetically speaking, in the footsteps of Jacques Derrida, let us deconstruct the whole concept of reappraisal. With specific reference to counter terrorist Lambertism, coming to terms with tackling extremism in the twenty-first century, surely some rapprochement could be positive? We do not, however, need to engage non-violent extremists in our remit unless, of course, they support human rights norms.
    (PS aren’t I clever?)

  4. Ken Bromfield

    What is relationship between authoritarian doctrine, and extremism?

    As a school governor I am may well be involved with issues concerned with safeguarding policies
    relevant to the Counter Terrorism and Security Act. The Act includes a new duty to prevent people
    from being drawn into terrorism. This duty applies to a range of organisations,
    including schools.

    As part of their Child Protection obligation, schools are required to respond with “safeguarding” policy statements that refer to the “Prevention of Extremism and Radicalisation”.

    Such policies refer to the “ideological challenge of terrorism” One such policy statement declares “The ideology of extremism and terrorism is the problem”, further; “legitimate religious belief emphatically is not.” This steers clear of the controversial nurturing process based on what may be considered to be “a legitimate religious belief?” or for that matter “legitimate authoritarian political doctrine”.

    Pernicious acquired attitudes, acquired for example, from what may appear to be benign but
    authoritarian religious instruction, could well be part of an induction process that makes individuals predisposed to the appeal of fundamentalist zealots. If so, “terrorism” might be considered to be not the primary challenge, but the consequence of exposure to strict doctrine.

    It is hard to find media discussion on the causal links between submission to authoritarian doctrine, and the example of extreme behaviour espoused by ISIS. The purpose of these questions is to bridge that gap.

    Radicalisation: The fundamental questions

    1. What are the cultural and learning precursors to radicalisation?

    2. How may (or does) exposure to authoritarian doctrine predispose some
    people to extremism?

    3. To what extent should our schools be involved in developing an understanding of potential consequences that may arise from a culturally influenced stipulation to exclude critical
    analysis of rigid religious (and political) doctrine?

    I am willing to work with others on this important issue.

    Ken Bromfield MBE Chartered FCIPD FIScT

    Skype: ken.bromfield937

    Twitter: @kenbromfield1

    Tel Office 0208 7488231

    Mob: 07835713109

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