Treating religion as a primary identifier unwittingly reinforces Islamist aims to promote religious identity above all others
Part of our failure to prevent radicalisation stems from the lack of political or civic engagement among our target audience, those vulnerable to radicalisation and those showing signs of sympathy or support for extremism.
Effective primary prevention must include increasing engagement with communities and more accessible education about democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civic responsibility.
By teaching young people about alternatives to extremism, or more assertively about British values, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, we can build their resilience and improve integration. Our school system has begun to do this.
If we promote ‘positive’ liberty to equip citizens to enjoy their freedom and combine this with the established ‘negative’ freedom from discrimination, we achieve active citizenship, a natural grassroots antidote to extremism. This is valuable for all young people, not just those in the target audience mentioned above – see it as a vaccination rather than a medicine.
The negative perception of preventative counter-extremism work is a real problem. Incomparable to any other policy area, the perception of counter-extremism work among the target audience seems crucial to its effectiveness.
This is because, correctly, it is not a security issue, but rather a community cohesion and a counter-messaging issue – a battle for hearts and minds – that requires grassroots engagement instead of top-down impositions.
This is even more important when perception of counter-extremism is itself listed as a grievance, manipulated in the radicalisation process. When our target audience, those vulnerable to radicalisation, is often more influenced by those sympathetic to or supportive of extremism, than it is by those doing counter-extremism, failure to address this perception deficit could neuter a strategy before it gets off the ground.
In recent years, the Preventing Prevent lobby has deemed it prudent to aggrandise counter-extremism work as a grievance among the target audience, worsening its perception through spreading of conspiracy theory, myopically questioning its academic credibility and ad hominem attacks against practitioners.
This group provides neither constructive nor progressive alternative solutions to the problems they set out. I daresay that some opponents of Prevent see it as a threat to their continued extremism, some are fundamentally opposed to the human rights norms it seeks to preserve, and some have themselves been manipulated by others.
To more effectively challenge extremist narratives, the government has recognised that community engagement is essential to build a strong civil society coalition. Increased duties for frontline workers, better communication of government policy, a focus on other kinds of extremism like anti-Muslim hatred, and the empowerment of new voices are all great ways to do this. So too, this coalition can start to challenge the negative perception of counter-extremism.
However, we must avoid the primary political engagement with a disenfranchised audience being clumsily centred around a policy area that is perceived as controversial. Instead, let’s engage with Muslim communities like any other part of our society that are traditionally disenfranchised.
Engaging Muslims communities solely through a security lens will neither improve community cohesion nor will it improve the perception of counter-extremism, in turn reducing its effectiveness.
So too, let’s not view Muslims solely through the lens of their religious identity and understand that they may also be butchers, bakers or candlestick-makers. Moreover, treating religion as a primary identifier unwittingly reinforces Islamist aims to promote religious identity above all others and will mean that grievances can be manipulated into an extremist narrative much easier, rather than progressively addressed through a liberal, democratic lens.
As for the broader strategic response, we should push for liberalism not just as an antidote to extremism itself but rather a necessary lens for this policy area. This means a consistently-applied human rights threshold, more checks and balances, policy improvements based on a robust evidence base, greater transparency, further desecuritisation, an internationalist outlook that sees global solutions to global problems.
At the same time we need decentralisation so that the policy is delivered by those as close to the target audience as possible. If we get this approach right, then we will be able to address the perception deficit without tackling it head on.
Lastly, let us understand that counter-extremism, if a battle for hearts and minds, is all about messaging. The counter-extremism strategy will empower society to challenge extremist propaganda, even if it is non-violent, when it promotes an ideology that is antithetical to human rights and normalises a narrative based on conspiracy theory and grievance culture that prevents integration.
Part of this is being confident that a newly liberalised counter-extremism strategy is part of the solution not part of the problem, and communicating this effectively so that civil society is empowered to deliver it.
Jonathan Russell is political liaison officer at Quilliam
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