Both far-right and Islamist groups feed off the alienated. The better way to deal with extremism is to challenge it
David Cameron’s Prevent review may already be learning the wrong lessons from Labour’s attempt to tackle extremism. A combination of the weakest instincts of the Tories and of the Liberal Democrats may leave us both less able to reduce support for extremism and to prevent extremist action.
The pattern is clear. Alienated, vulnerable young men gain status and self-respect in extremist groups. Through their impatience for change, rather than grand conspiracy, they become murderers. Woolwich appears to fit that pattern, but so too do the Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik and the 40 British far-right extremists convicted of terrorist and violent offences recently and over past decades.
We don’t have to equate the EDL and Islamist terrorism to recognise that they seem to need each other. The Woolwich attackers claimed Islamic motives and part of the response must be with and within the Muslim communities, but we might reduce terrorism more effectively if we took a common and coherent approach to all extremist violence.
Reducing the number of potential extremist sympathisers is only partly about winning ideological arguments: crucially we need to give stake, voice and status to the vulnerable and alienated. This means engaging them, not rejecting them. Banning radical preachers and shutting internet sites is tempting but, with the stuff everywhere, a huge effort might achieve very little. If you set the wrong boundaries of acceptability there’s always the danger of alienating potential support and actually feeding the seditious claims that “they want to silence you”.
Our Labour government got terribly tangled up trying to define “acceptable Islam” and for a time even refused to talk to Britain’s largest Islamic organisation, the Muslim Council of Britain. Suggesting that every aspect of Islam outside mainstream liberal British thought was on the slippery slope to extremism made many in the Muslim community feel their entire faith community was being made responsible for the perversions of a few.
With no clear national guidance on forging allies against terrorism, mistakes were inevitable. Some council and police leaders had no idea where to begin or who to work with. Despite this, Prevent did good work in areas where people worked through the challenges for themselves.
In 2009, though, Labour introduced a different way of tackling extremism. In the wake of widespread BNP gains, Connecting Communities was aimed at undermining far-right extremism in deprived, white, working-class communities. Far from suppressing dissent or de-legitimising uncomfortable views, Connecting Communities encouraged residents to voice their frustrations and trained council staff, voluntary organisations and councillors to handle it.
We knew this would include racist views but reasoned that the drive to extremism was only fostered by the sense that these views were being suppressed. The risk worked. Instead of consolidating racist ideas, it became the first step to winning trust and challenging extreme ideologies. Connecting Communities was dumped by the coalition along with the Prevent community programme, but its model of engaging community concerns may be more useful than Prevent’s attempts to suppress them.
Let’s set out a consistent stance against all extremism. The EDL and the Islamist extremists seem to need each other. See them as a common enemy and don’t single out one community as the problem. We need to show the vulnerable our willingness to engage and debate with difficult ideas and uncomfortable challenges. We have laws to deal with hate and incitement; beyond that, suppression of things we don’t want to hear will make things worse.
For all that, we will never reach everyone. The myth of the isolated “lone wolf” is just that. Almost all violent extremists, Islamist or fascist, have had identifiable engagement with radical groups before they passed beyond the reach of ideological engagement and the powers of persuasion. Police and security agencies need to refocus their efforts not just on organised conspiracies but the signs of personal paths to violence.Loose condemnation of “snooper’s charters” simply gets in the way of a serious discussion of the powers that are needed to monitor and disrupt the slide from extremist thought to violent action. If the police and security services can convince us they need them, they should not be lightly dismissed.