Government definition of ‘extremism’ will alienate Muslims

Posted On: 
20th May 2016

Emman El-Badawy, a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, explains why the Government must be more nuanced in its approach to tackling extremism.

An open day at the East London Mosque in February 2016
Credit: 
PA

I expect David Cameron will be unpacking this in the debate. However, judging from the pre-briefing to the media on Monday, I believe the Government has plans to introduce new measures to ban individuals with known extremist views or backgrounds from working with children. As a safeguarding measure, I think this is sensible. To me, there should be little difference between banning teachers affiliated to the BNP or prohibiting known sex offenders from working with children. Last year, Cameron said that a key part of the government's counter-extremism strategy plan is moving towards protecting children and vulnerable people from the risk of radicalisation by empowering parents and public institutions with advice, resources and practical support. I think a ban on individuals with known extremist views working with children is such a measure that is consistent with the government's objectives last year.

However, banning groups and individuals alone will not solve the problem of extremism, but challenging their ideas will. Cameron also said last year in his speech introducing the new counter-extremism plan that 'ideology is the root cause [of extremism]'. Recognising this, it is with this rationale that the government will be targeting Islamist groups, such as Hizb ut-tahrir. The problem with outlawing Islamist groups, whether non-violent or violent, is that the networks are far more informal than the government might expect. The personal networks will survive any organisational ban. We have seen this in the Middle East, for instance, where outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not disrupt the grassroots network. Even in the UK, al-Muhajiroun (an Islamist group that was founded by Hizb ut-Tahrir leader Omar Bakri Muhammad and led by Anjem Choudary) continues to operate informally under one guise or another despite having disbanded in 2004. Informal coteries of like-minded figures can survive any loss of brand identity. In fact, al-Muhajiroun has since operated under a variety of names such as Islam4UK, Sharia Project, Need4Khilafah. Banning groups may make it harder to operate openly on a day to day basis , but a ban alone will not tackle the ideology that draws these individuals together in the first place.

Overall, i think there is still too much focus when tackling extremism and terrorism on the groups and organisations that form the broader movement, but it is the more informal personal networks  that keep these ideas alive and spreading. Furthermore, extremism is not solely contained within organised groups- religious extremism extends beyond one select group of militants.

There will inevitably be a backlash from those concerned that such measures will also further alienate Muslims. Any alienation is because we have failed to sufficiently define extremism. There remains no consensus, particularly when attempting to challenge 'non-violent extremism' which this government is particularly committed to, and it is particularly on this that Muslims have felt alienated and unfairly targeted. Tackling violent extremism is far simpler than tackling non-violent extremism simply because it is easier to define. But as this government recognises the role ideology has played in radicalisation of young Muslims, addressing non-violent extremism is considered a pre-requisite to countering violent extremism.

The link between non-violent and violent extremism continues to be heavily debated. There is undoubtedly a relationship between the two: very few individuals jump straight into violent extremism - most have either formal or informal interaction with non-violent (Islamist) networks first. However, in order not to alienate the Muslim communities in Britain and in order to uphold our own values, we have to be clear about the distinction between religious conservatism and non-violent extremism. Our failure to comprehensively define the latter has unfortunately led to Muslims and non-Muslims reading 'non-violent extremism' as 'religious conservatism'.