A recent conference hosted by The Democracy Forum addressed some of the moral and political questions facing society today
Feelings of social alienation, misinterpretations of theological concepts and the dangers of ‘us and them’ engagement were among the themes discussed at The Democracy Forum’s autumn seminar on the threats and challenges posed by extremism in the UK.
Introducing the event, held at London University’s Senate House, on behalf of TDF president Lord Bruce, the Forum’s chair, Barry Gardiner MP, read a message from Lord Bruce which described extremism as a ‘growing phenomenon that risks destabilising our society and poisoning community relations’ and ‘a parasite that feasts off fear and hatred’, whose origins and true nature it is important to understand. In facing up to the challenges which confront our society, he added, we must of course be vigilant, but we must also be careful not to sacrifice the freedoms that define our open and inclusive democracy.
Before welcoming the panel, chair Humphrey Hawksley touched briefly on his own experiences of extremist violence in Sri Lanka. Extremism happens when people feel that the system no longer works for them, he said, or when there are vested interests at work that will find those who think the system doesn’t work for them and corral them into a militia force.
Based on her field research, Dr Elizabeth Pearson of Swansea University addressed ‘Masculinity and the radical right’, outlining the importance of masculinity within the radical right movement and notions of ‘toxic masculinity’ as ‘the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence’. Angry, disenfranchised white men who want to establish a space for themselves feel betrayed by political elites, and believe that multiculturalism has failed, said Dr Pearson, who also addressed women’s attempts to find a space within the radical right. She concluded that radical masculinity has continuity within society, patriarchy and Islamophobia, and is hence a wider social problem.
In a talk entitled ‘Good news, bad news and agendas’, the Henry Jackson Society’s Dr Paul Stott addressed the rise and fall of radical preachers in the UK, and the ‘characteristically fluid’ nature of extremist venues including mosques, charities and social clubs. There is good news, said Dr Stott, in the progress being made, with venues as locations of integration, local authorities and police developing good relations in many areas with Islamic centres, mosques, etcetera, and the establishing of a narrative that is now far wider than ‘extremism’. Another positive is the rise of mosques as community actors, diplomatic actors and, arguably, political actors.
However, there is bad news in what he called ‘paradox and politicisation’, with limitations on debate and many universities being reluctant counter-terrorism partners. There is also a narrowing of political space via skilled lobbying and problems surrounding the APPG British Muslims definition of ‘Islamophobia’ being passed at the local level. In conclusion, Dr Stott felt that, vis-à-vis extremist venues, and indeed preachers, we were taking ‘one step forward, two steps back’. ‘We arguably have less of a problem than before,’ he said, ‘but it will become harder to discuss those problems’, as criticising certain mosques or organisations may become increasingly difficult.
A strategic overview of the UK’s early post-9/11 counter-terrorism policies was the theme for Dr Edgar Tembo of Nottingham University, including the need for further investment in counter-radicalisation programmes, treating terrorism as ‘an ordinary crime’, and the ‘dialling down’ of ideological rhetoric. He stressed the importance of context in understanding counter-terrorism, considered the dilemmas of counter-extremism and counter-terrorism programmes, as they risk sacrificing democratic structures, and highlighted contentious practices such as ‘stop and search’, detention without trial and torture, which lead to ‘a deficit of trust’.
Dr Tembo also spoke about intelligence sharing and various projects related to the Prevent agenda, and called for a single, unified counter-terrorism command, similar to the FBI, with law enforcement and intelligence agencies working together. In conclusion, he pondered whether states have struck an adequate balance between the accessibility and the effectiveness of their strategies.
Quilliam’s Dr Usama Hasan considered the cultural, socio-economic and other reasons why people are drawn to extremism, and said there is a way forward in dealing with this at the grassroots level. Summarising the Muslim’s world’s battle between God’s law and human law, he stressed the need for correct interpretation of the former in the Quran. Theology &religion are an important part of extremist/terrorist ideology, he argued, and extremist/terrorist cognitive arguments must be addressed logically.
He examined key Quranic concepts that are misinterpreted by extremists, such as the concept of Ummah (nation), the Islamist interpretation of this concept as Muslim nation only – ‘us versus them’ – and the inclusive Muslim interpretation, which brings in all of humanity; or that of Sharia (law and ethics), which Islamists see as imposing a narrow version as state law, yet which, in the inclusive Muslim interpretation, holds that Islamic ethics and law have always evolved and are universal, inclusive, gender-equal and based on human rights. He also gave examples of two case studies in which a discussion of theology had led to successful deradicalisation of young Muslim men convicted of terrorist offences. The Islamic tradition is rich with appropriate material, said Dr Hasan, and it is key to use inclusive language, and not to demonise others, as they are our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity.
‘If we only focus on so-called extremism and extremists, we are not fully addressing the problem,’ maintained Professor Bill Durodie of the University of Bath. This is because extremism and extremists are an expression of a much deeper underlying problem that lies within the mainstream of our own society. He gave an example of one of the Mumbai bombers who, on being asked what his demands were, had to ask his co-perpetrator – an illustration of how countless extremists are often unclear about what they are trying to achieve.
We are increasingly oversensitive to causing offence to the presumed beliefs and feelings of others, he warned, walking on eggshells when we need ‘robust discourse’ on politics, religion, et cetera. This has led to a degree of paralysis and a ‘moral capitulation and confusion as to our moral values’. Indeed, Western society today is far less clear today about what it stands for than formerly. Prof. Brodie also spoke of our inability to provide young people with things to believe in and belong to, which leads them to search elsewhere. Hence, this is a failure of the mainstream rather than a supposed attraction of the extremes. We need to shift the mainstream in the right direction, he concluded, and to address the sense of confusion among, not only young Muslims, but a much wider layer of disconnected, alienated British youth.
Emma Webb of Civitas looked at ‘extremist ecosystems’ within the context of non-violent extremism, defining these as the building of institutions and organizations with their many benefits: for example, a small number of individuals can create a large number of institutions, giving them a veneer of respectability and allowing them to present themselves, especially to government bodies, as ‘gatekeepers’ to the Muslim community.
Describing extremist Islamism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, democracy and the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for different faiths’, Webb cited defining characteristics of Islamist ideology in a legal context, including interpreting Sharia law in way that requires breaking the law of the land, approving fatwas, and so on. She spoke, too, of the problem of ‘merchants of hate’ who ‘produce’ or promote terror and terrorists, yet don’t use violence themselves. These people ‘encourage use of the democratic system to play the long game in establishing a caliphate in the UK’. We often talk about online space and the influence of online material in radicalising people, she concluded, but social spaces and face-to-face forums are also important to consider, especially regarding non-violent extremist networks and how they inflate their influence.
In summing up, Barry Gardiner MP spoke of a ‘dialogue of rapprochement’ and how humans are essentially part of the animal kingdom, which, he said, related to notions of extremism in that it often showed a cycle of violence to ‘others’ so often seen in our society. We must understand ourselves as a species different but not separate from the animal world, said Gardiner, in order to develop a better understanding of why violent extremism exists and how to deal with it.