The threat of terrorism is severe – but we should still bin the counter-extremism bill

Protecting liberty and human rights must remain a priority when countering terrorism


The UK’s current terrorist threat level is severe, and the events of the past several months have shown the fragility of peace and safety.

The responsible thing to do is to take action in response to those startling examples.

However, it would be irresponsible to take action that would serve to alienate and marginalize those most vulnerable to extremist radicalization, particularly if there’s little agreement that it would reduce the threat level.

The proposed Counter-Terrorism Bill has several aspects that would do just that, and Friday’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) report on the proposed Counter-Extremism Bill recognises and vocalises concerns regarding the bill’s suggestion of a civil order regime against those not currently meeting the threshold of terrorism-related offence.

Quilliam has opposed this position for some time, and are in fact quoted in the report advocating for a better, full spectrum approach of legal tolerance and civil intolerance.

So why do we agree with the JCHR on this? You would think that a counter-extremism organisation would support a counter-extremism bill.

Well, the bill initially proposed a series of three civil orders: Banning Orders (a power for the Home Secretary to ban extremist groups), Extremism Disruption Orders (a power for law enforcement to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour), and Closure Orders (a power for law enforcement and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism). 

We think that this civil order regime is an approach that would be counter-productive and opposed to the liberal values of the society we are all striving to protect.  

Moreover, it is foolhardy to believe that government can shut down the digital and non-digital premises where extremist views are shared – surely these attitudes will be temporarily swept under the carpet but not really challenged, and develop a life of their own underground.

The imprecise definition of extremism has caused a degree of derision of lawmakers, and has today been picked up by the Government’s opponents (on the opposition benches and, one suspects, the intended targets of such orders) to form blanket criticism of all efforts to counter extremism.

This is unfair, but the Government has made a rod for its own back. The fact that there is no legal working definition of extremism is a straw man, because that only matters if you want to tackle extremism using legislative tools.

The broader, context-specific definitions of extremism that the government uses are adequate and appropriate when it comes to safeguarding children from it in schools, building partnerships with civil society groups to prevent it, and running communications campaigns to reduce it, just not when people may go to prison.

The JCHR doesn’t get it all correct though. Its misunderstanding that the government’s counter-extremism strategy draws a line between religious conservatism and jihadist terrorism is irresponsibly promoted, and has been gleefully greeted by extremist groups who perpetuate narratives of victimhood to radicalise, playing up the perceptions that everyday Muslims are targeted and marginalised by the state and society.

It does however make some interesting and nuanced observations about Prevent. The evidence given by the excellent Reviewer of Counter-Terrorism Legislation David Anderson noted both the apocryphal stories about Prevent echoing around British Muslim communities and the widespread perception deficit that the strategy suffers from, and the ensuing difficulties these two trends have had on the effectiveness of counter-extremism in the UK.

The JCHR report notes that the Prevent Strategy, unlike many aspects of counter-terrorism law, is not subject to continued review or oversight by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.

This is needed to ensure its responsible practice, but also to demonstrate to vulnerable communities that the government is committed to its responsible practice. I welcome the JCHR’s suggestions of greater transparency for Prevent, greater oversight, increased consultation, and regular independent review – all things that we have been calling for at Quilliam for some time.

However, these criticisms and recommendations are not new, and recent government responses to the growing threat of extremism indicate positive change in this regard, demonstrating the redundancy and danger of new legislation in response to extremism.

The recently published annual review of CONTEST boasts greater engagement with local coordinator networks. Schools, universities and faith institutions have been engaged to reduce the vulnerabilities that lead individuals to terrorism.

130 community based projected were delivered in 2015, compared to just 70 in 2014. Clearly, the needle has moved at least somewhat in recognising the need for more progressive, civil-society empowerment to counter extremism of all kinds.

Additionally, Home Office initiatives like that of Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) have worked in partnership with private sector experts to build the capacity of civil society groups to confront and challenge the ideology of terrorism and extremism.

Examples like this show the progress that’s being made in full-spectrum counter extremism policy. They also exemplify the redundancy and potential danger of new legislation which contributes to the victimhood narrative that extremists rely on to radicalize.

It is a testament to our commitment to liberal democracy that we have the JCHR producing such reports – preserving individual liberty even at times of security concern must remain a priority, and increased transparency and accountability of counter-extremism too.

I’m confident the government’s direction of travel is a positive one and I hope they bin the counter-extremism bill which would lead them off course.

Jonathan Russell is Head of Policy at Quilliam

See also: Did the Iraq war create ISIS and radicalise British Muslims?

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