How many extremists does it take to change a light bulb?
If the Home Secretary, Theresa May were asked for the punchline, she would struggle, not because she doesn’t possess a sense of humour, I’ve heard she has a cracking sense of humour, but because she isn’t able to clarify what extremism is.
And she’s not the only one to struggle in this regard. Yet this hasn’t stopped the Tory government from proposing a set of wide ranging counter-extremism bill with a raft of measures to tackle “non-violent extremists”.
There is much to be said but let’s just focus on a few to start with.
The Prime Minister and his government are couching these draconian proposals in language that gives the impression no single community is being targeted, especially not-Muslims. This is not a crusade against Muslims, because far-right will also be dealt with and it is aimed at the Islamists and not the ‘silent majority’. Yet it is clear that far-right groups are only mentioned as a fig leaf measure to justify clamping down on the real targets – Muslims; any Muslim that does not conform to the government’s expectations of how Muslims should behave: subservient and grateful. It is clear that the proposal, announced last week, to mandate police forces to record anti-Muslim attacks as a separate category was merely the carrot to enable it to justify these extreme measures.
The PM talked about launching a battle of ideas, not by illustrating the strength of the ideas he wants to protect, but by banning, censoring and threatening those that hold alternative views, yet do not resort to violence. Are the values he wants everyone to adopt so weak that he has to cajole the opponents of said values into adopting them? It is ironic that in taking this approach the government undermines the very values he claims to uphold.
Are any ideas so sacrosanct that they cannot be open to challenge?
The government’s anti-extremism report, which outlines its legislative intentions, is analogous in its desperation to a weak, puny, martial arts wannabee who, in facing off against a self-selected enemy, throws everything that passes as a weapon, hoping that one of the desperate objects will hit its intended target. Having thrown everything in his arsenal, he decides to throw the last item he has left, his belt. Although the belt is thrown with all the force he can muster, and although it hits his target, albeit rather unconvincingly, his opponent remains unscathed and looks on, bewildered by the spectacle before him. Upon surveying the damage inflicted, he finds his trousers humiliatingly wrapped around his ankles!
FGM, forced marriage, honour-based violence, school takeovers (Trojan Hoax), Lutfur Rahman’s undue ‘spiritual influence’, Muslim schools not teaching dance and music, University ISOCs not being inclusive, Sharīʿah courts, Muslim charities, prisons, the only thing that was absent was darn paper cuts!
Listing unrelated incidents together under the headline of extremism adds to the preconceived notions that Muslims are a fifth column, this does nothing besides reinforcing suspicion about Muslims, which feeds into the rising tide of Islamophobia.
Extreme Thought Policing
One example alluded to, in order to illustrate that Muslim pupils of Islamic schools, are susceptible to extremism, is the narrow view some children had about the role of women. They saw them as mothers! How distasteful. Is it a measure of our society that motherhood is treated with such disdain? The very Ofsted inspectors that conducted the witch hunts which brought to light this damming evidence entered these schools with a clear agenda and line of question. Had they entered a white, upper-middle class school and asked the pupils how they viewed the women in their family and if they answered something like, “well, certainly not as mothers, our nannies raise us while the women in our lives do real work”. Would they be accused of possessing a narrow view of women? Certainly not.
Therefore the most innocuous of values and opinions are being used to illustrate susceptibility to extremism. Anything short of western defined secular-liberalism is unacceptable. This is not only founded upon an academically savaged model which predicts future terrorists based upon conservative values, radical yet non-violent ideas and a belief that heightened religiosity leads necessarily down the path to terrorism.
That is why the new language of counter-extremism (not counter-terrorism) uses the phrase ‘drawn into terrorism’ and that is also why this Mccarthyite agenda seeks to re-define what the state considers to be an acceptable manifestation of Islām. This is not only in line with the government’s own interpretation of British values but also seeks to re-calibrate expressions of acceptable and non-acceptable Islām.
The government seeks to target the key ‘extremist influencers’, yet refuses to clarify who they are. It is a bigger secret than next year’s Oscar winners. Maybe they’ll come up with a short list of nominees in different categories and then announce them at a star studded awards ceremony. ‘The award for best newcomer to extremism goes to’…a hushed silence followed by the announcement, applause and cheering echo across the prestigious hall. The winner approaches the stage, and delivers an acceptance speech gushing with surprise and a list of people that made it possible. I would not be here without the unwavering support of two people, this man and woman made the impossible, possible. Six months ago I was a nobody, doing a mundane job in a Muslim school, I took part in interfaith events, even sat on a government task force against extremism and now I’ve just won this prestigious category. Without David and Theresa, who in the face of immense pressure, refused to succumb to pressure and define extremism. Well let’s just say I wouldn’t be here without them.
Who are the key extremist influencers?
All we are told is that they operate within the law! The dastardly so and so’s!
Other than that we are told very little about them. But what we do know is that the vagueness of British values which ‘extremists’ ‘reject and undermine’, enable any and all dissenting voices to be silenced either when they are passed or in the future. All a government needs to do, is talk up a threat, work hand in glove with sections of the media to shape public opinion, isolate the intended targets and then add them to the ‘extremist list’. The reality is that this needn’t be restricted to Muslims but also could include campaigners, activists, religious people with socially conservative views and anyone else that undermines a set of values, called British values, the parameters of which the government is in control over, such that they can draw and re-draw them on a whim.
In one sense, defining extremism is not in the interests of the government, such a definition can be open to legal challenge, it can be ridiculed and lambasted as a blunt instrument to transform the country into a totalitarian society, the kind that George Orwell warned against.
For a term that is so frequently used and will be the basis for far-reaching legislative and societal change, including fundamental changes to individual freedom, there is a great deal of confusion about what the line between acceptable dissent and extremism is. If someone critiques democracy in theory or application, should that person be labelled as an extremist? If that same person states God is far superior as a legislator over man and is a Muslim, does that make the distinction clearer? In order to highlight the laughable disarray that the government’s counter-extremism strategy is in, earlier this year a number of government departments, local authorities, police forces and quangos were contacted to clarify this very point.
“Disclosing information to the public about the details of training materials used to inform inspectors about how to be alert to signs of extremism or radicalisation in schools would undermine the prevention and detection of crime and the apprehension or prosecution of offenders. This is because it would enable the perpetrators to deduce how Ofsted inspectors detect extremism and radicalisation in schools and so potentially assist individuals or groups involved in evading arrest.”
This is akin to saying, murder ought not to be clarified, otherwise potential murderers will be able to evade arrest by not murdering. Surely the indicators/signs of extremism as understood by Ofsted and other public bodies ought to be made public, rather than hidden or worse still, subjectively interpreted by individual teachers.
We do understand that Muslim schools that do not teach music, art and dance, whether due to constraints on time or due to theological reasons will be considered extremist, and are on the road to extremism.
The Home Office stated:
“Disclosing the information could provide useful information to extremists who wish to radicalise others about how public sector workers are trained to spot the signs of vulnerability. Such extremists would then be able to provide advice to those they wish to radicalise on changing behaviour to avoid detection and potential referral to Prevent programmes.”
Newham Council has admitted to holding a list of extremist speakers, but refused to disclose the names.
Tower Hamlets Council said:
“Extremism itself covers a wide spectrum of acts right up to violent extremism (which itself is defined widely) and the WRAP training (from the Home Office) covers this entire spectrum.”
Note that they do not define the spectrum of acts considered to be non-violent extremism. The Home Office is also unwilling to publicise the contents of the WRAP training.
The Charity Commission in its response defines extremist views as criminal,
“Some views may not be the norm or traditional. They may be controversial. That does not necessarily mean they cannot be promoted or supported by a charity.
At one end of the scale, there are extremist views which are criminal. These are clearly not acceptable under any circumstances for charities to promote or support.
Beyond that there are a range of views that may not be appropriate for a charity to support under charity law. Charities will be in breach of charity law where they promote extremist views and use radicalising materials.
This may be the case even where those extremist views are not violent or not likely to incite violence, or even if they do not breach terrorism laws relating to the glorification of terrorism, or constitute incitement to racial or religious hatred. These extremist views may also be unlawful under other laws which apply to particular types of charities, such as schools, under education law.
If a charity provides a platform for the expression or promotion of extremist views this is not likely to be in furtherance of the charity’s purposes or comply with the public benefit requirement. Trustees are also likely to be in breach of their fiduciary duties as trustees.”
This is probably why the Charity Commission strong armed two charitable trusts to not only cease funding advocacy group Cage but also to agree never to fund them again. They do not explain what non-violent extremist views a charity would have to promote or provide a platform for others to promote in order to be in breach of charity law. Breaking the law is a given, did Cage break the law, of course it didn’t, it is important that the Charity Commission, as well as other public bodies, come clean about what it considers extremist thought, behaviours, views and outlooks.
The government defines extremism as: vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Extremism can also be calling for the death of members of the British armed forces.
Yet this PREVENT definition is far from clear. What does vocal or active opposition mean? Is critical opposition acceptable? What conceptions of democracy is it okay to propound or oppose? What does mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths mean? If a Christian argues that he believes everyone besides Christians will burn in hell, is that an extremist position? If a Muslim argues the same and says the belief in Allāh and His Messenger (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) are the sole creedal foundations for a Muslim and if someone rejects one or both of them he is not a Muslim, is that an extremist position? If a Muslim school says homosexuality is a sin is that extremist? If a Muslim says Christians once followed the truth but now they have gone astray, is that extremist? What if Jewish woman states that non-Jews are filthy, is that extremist? If an evangelical Christian argues that Muslims worship pagan gods, is that extremist? What about an activist that argues Israel should no longer exist, is that an extremist position?
At the moment the arbiter for whether an idea is extreme or mainstream is in the hands of the government, it shapes policies and makes laws. Is anyone comfortable with that reality?
We are told that the public will be able to report extremist behaviour, in the absence of clarity as to what that is, let’s just say that extremism equates to not placing recycling in its correct wheelie bin or actually standing up for someone who is less able to stand on the London Underground! Extremism is definitely in the eyes of the beholder, it means different things to different people.
Each area will introduce a new Extremism Community Trigger, now that’s not a much loved character from Only Fools and Horses (alright Dave!), but with a chainsaw rather than a broom. No, it’s a local mechanism to ensure all allegations to the police about extremism are investigated and persistent behaviour reviews. Cue malicious complaints against noisy neighbours or people with dogs that resemble shire horses, or even people with an irrational love of The Lord of the Rings!
Additional draconian measures will see employees deemed ‘extremist’ reported to employers through the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, employers will receive real-time updates on the ‘extremeness’ levels of employees as they increase during the day. Presumably there will be extremeness gauges in the workplaces, similar to a thermometer or possibly mandatory blood and/or urine tests, to test for extremolytes in the blood or urine. Maybe in future they will be able to predict through the existence of a gene, whether a Muslim baby is likely to travel on the path to extremism, and then a child can be de-radicalised before they learn to say ‘mama’, maybe their first words will be ‘democracy and the rule of law’.
The government’s counter-extremism report bleats on about how important learning English is for cohesion and integration! Yet it has cut the entire £45million from the ESOL mandated learning targeted at Job Centre Plus (JCP) claimants and slashed the Adult Skills Budget by 27.9%.
The government also wants to ban illegal cultural practices that harm innocent children, let’s hope that drone attacks over civilian areas will also be outlawed.
What is interesting is that the government is cutting faster than a clock watching barber. Yet the same government which is cutting tax credits which it promised would not be cut as a result of austerity, is the same government that seems to have a lot of money to burn on what are essentially political vanity projects. Projects that don’t make us safer or add to the quality of life for the average British person. People deserve better than the usual rhetoric.
The coming challenge will be the whether Muslims will be able to galvanise adequate opposition against the upcoming counter-extremism bill and whether level-headed people from outside the Muslim community also recognise this pernicious agenda.
“First they came for the ‘extremists’, and I said nothing because I am not an ‘extremist’, then when they re-defined extremist, and came for me, and then it was too late.”
Yusuf Patel is the founder of SREIslamic, which provides advice, support and training to parents concerned with how Sex and Relationship Education (SRE/RHE/RSHE) is taught in schools, particularly at the primary level. SREIslamic has conducted hundreds of seminars across the country since it was founded in 2008 in order to inform Muslim parents of their legal rights in the area of SRE (RHE/RSHE) as well as running workshops covering the responsibility of Muslim parents to impart age appropriate sex education in line with their values. Yusuf works for a mental health charity.