Yesterday the UK government announced Sara Khan would be be leading its work on countering extremism. A corner of social media has been buzzing since. It was always going to be a difficult appointment to get right, one that would challenge the wisdom of Solomon, and the person chosen was never going to be popular with, or more importantly have the confidence of, everyone. Popularity is good but confidence is essential,
After the widespread criticism of government counter terrorism strategy, Prevent, designed to support people at risk of joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities, it was really important they get this right. While intended to look at all forms of extremism it is vital that the Muslim community felt it could engage with confidence with the commission process. The response from that community suggests Sara will not be able to effectively engage widely enough. The Muslim Council of Britain were clear that it was unhappy with Sara's appointment: "one of the tasks of the commission would be to define already contested notions of extremism. ... this appointment indicates that the task will continue to be elusive and divisive at a time when the fight against terrorism requires common purpose and partnership."
On Prevent, calls for an independent review have been loud and consistent, not least from the Luton mosques. As a result of this a large number of Christian leaders in Luton wrote to address the policy from the church's perspective.
While Prevent was initially focused towards Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE), in its most recent forms the Prevent strategy has become focused on the pathway to terror. Meanwhile over the last three years the government widened its efforts to address all extremism. A Counter Extremism Strategy was released in October 2015, with a core thesis being an escalator between religious conservatism and jihadism / terror. The understanding of religious extremism proposed has been widely criticised, not least by Christian groups, who claim it fails to understand the nature of conservative approaches to faith, confusing conservatism with extremism. Muslims reject it for exactly the same reason. The extremism policy was closely followed in late November 2015 by a government consultation on “Out of School Educational Settings”, that would require registration and inspection of all out of school educational contexts over a certain time threshold. This was designed to regulate Madrassas but would also impact Sunday Schools, church holiday clubs etc. This was again criticised widely, as were following attempts to progress their agenda. Finally in the midst of a summer in which we saw four terror attacks they announced in the June 2017 Queens Speech a Counter Extremism Policy, with its major task setting up a Commission.
I am not against a Counter Extremism commission. I want it to succeed. But we need an informed and measured view of extremism. It must be applicable to all forms of extremism. It must seek multi-factorial models of radicalisation, and recognise a one size fits all response model will not work. And it must engage intelligently with faith. If it is to understand what drives people of faith to extremism and terror it must understand faith.
Speaking of this at the time the government strategy came out the Archbishop of Canterbury was fairly forthright:
“The Archbishop of Canterbury has said the Government has "no grip" on what it is to be religious and "can't see really the difference" between Muslim extremist groups and those from the conservative evangelical wing of the Church of England. …. He said that he had once told a senior minister that he would himself count as a religious "extremist" under the definition being applied because he believed that faith could outweigh the rule of law in some circumstances. …. Our Government generally, is desperately trying to catch up, to understand a world in which they have no grip on what it is to be religious at all; where religious illiteracy is prevalent and extremely destructive of understanding and where they can't see really the difference between an extremist Muslim group like the Muslim Brotherhood and a sort of conservative evangelical group in a Church of England church," he said. "They assume they're a bit bonkers." He added: "It's fine to reject and condemn many of the things done in the name of religion but you still need to understand what it is that can so catch hold of someone that they think life itself is not worth living if that contradicts what they believe."
The Evangelical Alliance (EA) has consistently challenged the governments approach to extremism since autumn 2015. It made a strong response to proposals on extremism announced in the May 2016 Queens Speech:
"It's extreme to try and tell religious groups what they can and can't teach under the guise of fundamental British values. It's extreme to threaten to send Ofsted inspectors into churches if they don't teach British values. This government's trying to fight extremism with extremism and the main casualty will be our fundamental freedoms."
The EA have really been looking at this issue. They conducted research following the June 2017 Queens Speech on the public's views of extremism: What Makes Someone Extreme.
Over half over the public (54 per cent) said 'extreme' is not a helpful term to use in social and political discussions, throwing into doubt the viability of the government's plans to create a Commission on Extremism. .... Extreme has become a way of labelling ideas and people that we don't agree with and don't think should be able to articulate their opinions with the same freedom as others. In conflating violent action, and speech which incites that, with opinions we disagree with, we risk ending up with an overly sanitised and ultimately unhealthy society.
In a further article they suggested Four things that would be more helpful than a commission for countering extremism. Two of their suggestions are of importance here: Promoting Religious Literacy, and Fostering Good Disagreement. If we are to have a commission perhaps its chair could note these two factors in their selection of other commission members, their selection of those to give evidence. their process as a commission, and their final report. It is critical that the commission include, hear from and give place in their final report to religious conservatives - Christian, Muslim and other faiths.
I have chosen not to focus here on Sara Khan as chair, but the Commission she leads. It can still be successful though she has a lot of work to do to build the confidence necessary for that. It would have been easier with a different lead commissioner but I suspect we are now where we are.