Countering Extremism

Glasgow City Chambers

The Muslim Council of Scotland held a seminar on "countering extremism" in Glasgow City Chambers on 2 March. Speakers included Scotland's  Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson MSP. The seminar was intended to "discuss the role of the community in challenging extremism while recognising the threat extremism poses to all of us" and to "highlight how current legislation is implemented".

In advance of the seminar the Muslim Council of Scotland proposed two questions to participants:

Question one:
What are the major drivers of, and risk factors for recruitment to extremist movements?
What are the priorities when dealing with these issues?

Question two:
How effective is the current strategy on responding to the challenges of extremism?
What alternative mechanisms can there be to the current strategy
What role can the community play in counter extremism measures?

A response to these questions is below, put forward on behalf of SACC by Richard Haley (SACC Chair), followed by some additional points. This response is intended to reflect established SACC policy, but has not been formally adopted by SACC.

1. Recruitment - Drivers, Risk Factors and Priorities

1.1 Question from MCS:

What are the major drivers of, and risk factors for recruitment to extremist movements?

Response from SACC:

The term "extremism" is too broad and ill-defined. Our response covers two specific areas that fall within the Government's apparent understanding of the term.

Recruitment to terrorist and other armed non-state groups that self-identify as Islamic.

Key Drivers
  • UK involvement in or support for unjust wars or other militarised or coercive interventions overseas, especially in Muslim-majority countries (eg Afghanistan, Iraq).
  • Overseas humanitarian crises (especially in Muslim-majority countries) where people appear to need external support for armed action undertaken in self-defence (eg Palestine, Syria, Libya).
      • Where UK policy has played a significant role in creating the conditions for a crisis, this may reinforce the role of the crisis as a driver towards "extremism".
      • Where the UK Government or UK media have given favourable consideration to UK military intervention in a crisis, this may encourage or be perceived as legitimising individual involvement with non-state groups and so reinforce the role of the crisis as a driver towards "extremism".
  • Conflation in Government policy of armed action by non-state groups with terrorism. This risks triggering, rather than preventing, a move from support for armed action to activity that amounts to terrorism under any reasonable understanding of the term.
  • UK policies that marginalise or de-legitimise opposition to UK foreign policy, especially where opposition from an Islamic perspective is a particular target (eg the Prevent strategy);
  • UK policies that criminalise opposition to UK foreign policy (eg some provisions of UK anti-terrorist legislation and potentially the still-unpublished Counter Extremism Bill).
  • Initiatives, by the Government or others, that exploit Islamophobic attitudes in the wider public to strengthen public hostility towards movements considered to be "extremist".
  • Government policies or legislation that seek to prescribe the religious views that Muslims may hold (eg potentially the still-unpublished Counter Extremism Bill).
  • Government and media policies and attitudes that tend more generally to institutionalise Islamophobia and that treat efforts to counter Islamophobia with contempt.
Key Risk Factors:
  • Isolation of individuals from broad-based political movements that campaign for a just foreign policy and against racism and Islamophobia; exposure to initiatives (eg Prevent) that tend to discourage political activity.
  • Exposure of individuals to officers (eg MI5) seeking to exploit them as sources of information.
  • Exposure of individuals to "extremist" organisations, either via publicity material or through active recruitment efforts.

Recruitment to Far-Right/Racist "Extremist" movements

Key Drivers
  • Economic or security (terrorist) threats facing people in the UK that are attributed to religious, ethnic or national minority groups eg Muslims, migrants, refugees.
  • The longstanding and continuing tendency within privileged sections of society to promote hostility to minorities as a bulwark against demands for economic, political and social change.
  • Longstanding and continuing efforts by small numbers of people in Britain to build a mass fascist organisation.
  • Wars that give rise to concerns over national security attributed to foreign religious of cultural groupings (eg the "clash of civilisations" narrative).
  • Government policies and media coverage that promote or normalise fears over immigration, fears over the presence of Islam in UK society, or other forms of xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism.
  • Government policies and media coverage that emphasise the importance of "Britishness".
Key Risk Factors:
  • Isolation of individuals from broad-based political movements that seek to bring together all races and religions in efforts to remove economic hardship, lessen economic inequality and promote security for all.
  • Exposure of individuals to people who attribute either their own poverty, or a sense that their prosperity is precarious, to religious, ethnic or national minority groups.
  • Participation in group activity where casual racism is normalised.
  • Exposure to far-right organisations.


1.2 Question from MCS: 

What are the priorities when dealing with these issues?

Response from SACC

Priorities
  • Deal, above all, with the UK's involvement in imperialist military interventions, and work to ensure a central role for Muslims in social and political movements directed towards this.
  • Deal with Government policies that threaten to isolate the Muslim community and inhibit the full exercise by Muslims of their political rights.

2. Current and alternative strategies

2.1 Question from MCS:

How effective is the current strategy on responding to the challenges of extremism?

SACC Response
  • The Government's current strategy is ineffective in preventing Muslims turning to terrorism, and is very likely counter-productive.
  • There is no reliable way to estimate the number of people who may be drawn to terrorism. However, we believe that:
      • The number of Muslims likely to contemplate an act of terrorist violence in the UK is extremely small, and likely to remain so regardless of Government policy.
      • The number of Muslims likely to become involved with armed non-state groups operating overseas is small, and likely to remain so regardless of Government policy. In any case this kind of activity does not necessarily lead to terrorist violence in the UK.
  • The Government's current strategy is ineffective in preventing people becoming involved in far-right violence/terrorism, tends to encourage and legitimise the racist and Islamophobic views promoted by the far-right, and tends to undermine political movements that aim to counter far-right organisation and ideas.

2.2 Question from MCS:

What alternative mechanisms can there be to the current strategy?

SACC Response
  • End the UK's involvement in imperialist military interventions. If this is done, the terrorist threat to the UK will be minimal and easily dealt with through the ordinary mechanisms of criminal law. Unless it is done, the other measures we propose, though beneficial in themselves, will not eliminate terrorism.
  • End Government measures whose effect is to place special constraints on the Muslim community. Full and normal engagement between Muslims and the wider community is impossible while these measures remain in place. These measures include the Prevent strategy, many provisions of the UK's extensive anti-terrorism laws, and the excessive police presence that is becoming increasingly normal in and around Muslim events and institutions.
  • Introduce a clear separation between policies directed towards equality, inclusion and community empowerment and policies intended to counter terrorism and extremism. The latter relate to national security, defence and criminal justice and belong in a quite different sphere.
  • Reverse the current UK trend towards legitimatisation and institutionalisation of anti-immigrant views, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia

2.3 Question from MCS:

What role can the community play in counter extremism measures?

SACC Response
  • The Muslim community and its institutions have shown great resilience and common-sense under the pressures that have developed since 9/11. These pressures are very largely the creation of successive UK Governments. We hope that the community will maintain and develop the course it has followed and will firmly resist efforts to scapegoat it.
  • We hope that mosques and other community institutions will continue to adapt, in line with Islamic scholarship, to the developing needs of the communities they serve, and especially to their young people.
  • We hope that Muslim institutions will resist pressure to promote Government policies that are unpopular within the community. Failure to resist this pressure will alienate many Muslims, especially the youth, and will pave the way for terrorism.
  • We hope that the Scottish Muslim community will maintain and develop its links with the global Muslim community. Besides their value to Scottish Muslims, these links are helping the people of Scotland to play their part in working for peace and justice worldwide.
  • We hope that the Muslim community will promote values that are shared between Islam and international systems of human rights law and humanitarian law, and will press everyone, from individuals to national governments, to adhere to these values.
  • We hope that the Muslim community will put opposition to imperialist wars at the centre of its engagement with the wider community.
  • We hope that the Muslim community will encourage and work with trade unions that oppose Islamophobia and the Government's Prevent strategy. The University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS) have adopted such policies at their national conferences and we expect that other public-sector unions will do so too. Support for these policies is the surest way to stop the spread of a climate of Islamophobic suspicion into the public bodies (local authorities, schools, universities and further education colleges, the NHS) that we all rely on.
  • We hope that the Muslim community will refuse to cooperate with the Prevent strategy. Waltham Forest Council of Mosques has said it will boycott Prevent. The Chair of Birmingham Central Mosque has also called for a boycott.
  • SACC is a civil liberties group that includes Muslims and non-Muslims. We recognise that the affairs of the Muslim community must be managed by Muslims, and offer our suggestions - which are just that - in a spirit of friendship and solidarity.

3. Additional Points

3.1 Extremism

"Extremism" is difficult to define. We believe that policies (such as Prevent) constructed around the idea of "extremism" are unworkable and threaten democratic rights. Any attempt to create criminal offences on a similar basis (as may happen in the proposed Counter Extremism Bill) will raise the same problems in an even more severe form.

We do not believe that the concept of "extremism" provides a useful framework for understanding or dealing with any of the matters that the Government has grouped under that heading.

3.2 Islamophobia and Prevent

Many aspects of UK anti-terrorism law are implicitly Islamophobic, but the Prevent strategy goes further and incorporates blatant and explicit Islamophobia.

Prevent focuses on "Islamist extremists". The term is not defined, but the statutory Prevent Duty Guidance for Scotland says:

"Islamist extremists regard Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war with Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’."

For some people, these wars are a consequence of global competition for resources, markets and geopolitical advantage. Others believe that they amount to a 'war with Islam. Both are views that may reasonably be held.

It is unacceptable that either of these views should be linked to extremism as a matter of government policy, and outrageous that it should be done in a document that has statutory force. The attempt to de-legitimise a view on UK policy that is likely to resonate with the views and experiences of Muslims is discriminatory, Islamophobic and likely to impede Muslim participation in anti-war activity.

3.3 Response to Resolutions from ‘Terrorism and Extremism: How Should British Muslims Respond?’

A conference on ‘Terrorism and Extremism: How Should British Muslims Respond?’, organised by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in London on 12 November 2015, agreed 9 resolutions.

Resolutions passed at the MCB Conference
  1. British Muslims - like the vast majority of Muslims everywhere - abhor and condemn terrorism. We have, and will continue to speak out against the terrorism that is carried out wrongly in our name.
  2. As parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, we are concerned that a minority of our young people are susceptible to poisonous propaganda, primarily from social media and the internet, that will lead them astray and into the arms of terrorists. We therefore support reasonable and proportionate evidence-based policies to combat the real scourge of terrorism.
  3. There are many pathways to lead someone to becoming a terrorist, they include alienation, socio-economic drivers, objection to foreign policy and a warped grasp of ideology. We believe that the small minority of young people who are radicalised, is outside the mosque, and on the fringes of society. We must tackle youth alienation and give our young people a stake in society, not treat them or their faith as pariahs.
  4. Religious belief or practice should not be considered a sign of radicalisation. There is no evidence to suggest that our religious institutions, be they mosques or madrassas, foster extremism. We are concerned that the faith institutions of British Muslims are being unfairly targeted.
  5. We are extremely concerned that subjective notions of extremism as expressed by anti-Muslim ideologues are being adopted into government policy.
  6. We recognise that there is much to be done in our own communities and by ourselves to confront this threat, including articulating more clearly and loudly the normative understanding of Islam which unequivocally rejects the violence of the likes of Al-Qaeda and Daesh. These true values of Islam include that of upholding ‘the middle path’.
  7. There is enough adequate legislation to prosecute people who promote hatred and actually incite violence. Additional retrospective laws to tackle people through subjective notions of extremism will only drive the debate underground, and increase a sense of alienation.
  8. We support further positive steps by Muslim communities to improve community cohesion and to encourage participation in society in spite of the challenges faced - but believe this is very different to the measures that must be taken to tackle terrorism
  9. To effectively tackle terrorism, and to understand properly extremism, we believe the government needs to engage with all sections of the British Muslim community

These resolutions are roughly in line with established SACC policy, with the following provisos:

  • Resolution 2 states: "We therefore support reasonable and proportionate evidence-based policies to combat the real scourge of terrorism." We agree with this, but wish to make clear that we do not believe that the Prevent strategy, or the general thrust of UK anti-terrorism legislation, fits this description. We believe that the current definition of terrorism in UK law is inappropriate and goes well beyond activities that constitute "the real scourge of terrorism."
  • We regret that Resolution 3 states that "pathways to lead someone to becoming a terrorist" include "objection to foreign policy" without also acknowledging that political situations create terrorism. "Objection to foreign policy" may put someone on the path to terrorism. It may also, more plausibly, put them on the path to peace and justice. Oppression and unjust war, on the other hand, are certain to create many forms of resistance, including terrorism.
  • SACC would be unlikely to whole-heartedly support resolutions that fail to identify UK miltary intervention in Muslim-majority countries as the root cause of the terrorist threat to the UK from Muslim individuals and groups.

About the Seminar

Counter Extremism Seminar: Challenging Extremism, Wednesday 2nd March 2016

Introduction to seminar, by the Muslim Council of Scotland:

"The Muslim Council of Scotland Counter Extremism Seminar will discuss the role of the community in challenging extremism while recognising the threat extremism poses to all of us. It will explore the underlying issues and triggers which can influence an individual to become an extremist.

There are many pathways to lead someone to becoming an extremist; they include alienation, socioeconomic drivers, objection to foreign policy, a warped grasp of ideology etc. Youth alienation is a key factor which must be tackled, to give our young people a stake in society. We believe that the small minority of young people, who are radicalised, are outside the mosque and on the fringes of society.

The discussion will recognise the positive role played by mosques and community groups in working with and educating communities to ensure a proper understanding and practice of the faith while contextualized to Scotland.

The seminar will also highlight how current legislation is implemented, particularly among service providers and academia, and the impact it can have on communities.

There is enough adequate legislation to prosecute people who promote hatred and incite violence. Additional retrospective laws to tackle people through subjective notions of extremism will only drive the debate underground, and increase a sense of alienation.

We recognise that there is much to be done by our communities to confront extremism, including articulating more clearly and loudly the normative understanding of Islam which unequivocally rejects the violence of extremist groups. Religious belief or practice should not be considered a sign of radicalisation, there is also no evidence to support the accusation that mosques or madrassas, foster extremism.

We support further positive steps by Muslim communities to improve community cohesion and integration in society in spite of the challenges faced - we believe these are the best measures that must be taken to tackle extremism."

Glasgow City Council leader Councillor Frank McAveety gave a speech welcoming the seminar. Other speakers included Scotland's  Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson MSP; MCS Vice Convenor Azzam Muhammad; MCS Director Dr Salah Beltagui; GCC Councillor  Archie Graham; NHS Equalities Manager David Morrison; MCS Secretary Mazhar Khan; Haq Ghani speaking about the role of mosques; Sajid Quayum representing the Islamic Society of Britain; Richard Haley representing SACC; Khadija Elshayyal representing Khadija Elshayyal and AbdulAhad Hussein representing FOSIS.

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mcs_counter_extremism.pdf

Photo: Glasgow City Chambers, © Sebastian Ruff. Some rights reserved.