19 Oct 2015

Government unveils new counter-extremism strategy

David Cameron says the fight against Islamic extremism is “one of the great struggles of our generation” – but critics say the new strategy will alienate British Muslims.

What’s new?

The government has unveiled its new counter-extremism strategy, and announced a raft of new measures designed to stop radicalisation.

The new powers build on powers announced in July.

An existing scheme for passports to be withdrawn from under-16s whose families suspect they may be planning to travel abroad to join groups like the so-called Islamic State – referred to by the acronym Isil by ministers – will be widened to include 16 and 17-year-olds.

And people with a conviction or civil order for terrorism or extremism will be barred from working with children and vulnerable people.

Why now?

Home Secretary Theresa May says extremists are “operating at an unprecedented pace and scale, seeking to divide our communities and cause great harm”.

In a foreword to the strategy document, she refers to the terror attacks in Tunisia in June and in Paris in January, saying: “The rise of Isil is particularly alarming, driven in part by their sophisticated use of the internet and social media. More than 750 UK-linked individuals have travelled to take part in the Syrian conflict.”

The government points to police figures that show 338 counter-terrorism related arrests over the past year, 157 linked to Syria and 56 relating to suspects aged under 20, which is “a growing trend”.

What is the government going to do about it?

There are four parts to the strategy, as revealed in David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham in July: countering extremist ideology; supporting mainstream voices; disrupting extremists; building cohesive communities.

The government says it wants to apply the lessons learned from campaigns aimed at removing child sex material from the internet to extremism.

Internet companies will be encouraged to filter extremist content, and efforts will continue to “make young people more resilient to the risks of radicalisation online”.

Ofsted already assesses schools and further education colleges on whether they are teaching “British values” and safeguarding pupils from extremism.

Pupils at the Waverley school in Birmingham (Reuters)

Now the Department for Education will launch a new system of intervening in unregulated supplementary schools where there are concerns, and the government is recruiting advisers to monitor colleges that are not publicly funded.

Universities, charities, local councils, the NHS, prisons and faith groups are all being asked to priorities efforts to identify and tackle extremism.

The Home Office will create “a new network, linking individuals and groups around Britain who are already standing up to extremists in their communities”, with £5m available for new groups.

Guidelines will be tightened so people who have supported extremist views can be denied or stripped of their British citizenship.

And the government has promised to legislate so that the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has the power to shut down radio stations that broadcast “unacceptable extremist material”.

The Home Office will launch a new de-radicalisation programme for people who are “further down the path” by spring next year.

String of reviews

An independent review will look into Islamic Sharia law and whether it is being “misused or applied in a way which is incompatible with the law”.

Another major review will look into the risk of “entryism” by extremist infiltrators in the public sector.

This follows former senior police officer Peter Clarke’s report into allegations that Islamists had gained control of several schools in Birmingham in the so-called Trojan Horse plot.

Both reviews are expected to report back by 2016.

What is extremism?

The government doesn’t provide a precise definition. But the strategy document mentions four key themes: justifying violence, even when groups do not plan to commit violent acts themselves; promoting hatred like antisemtitism and Islamophobia; rejecting democracy by urging people not to vote; promoting “harmful and illegal cultural practices” like forced marriages and female genital mutilation.

A 2005 leaflet urging Muslims not to vote (Reuters)

The document says extremism is not all about Islamic radicalism. It mentions far-right groups and refers to hate crimes in which British Muslims have been attacked.

David Cameron writes: “One of the greatest threats we face is the scourge of extremism from those who want to divide us. We see it in sickening displays of neo-Nazism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism and, of course, Islamist extremism.

“The fight against Islamist extremism is, I believe, one of the great struggles of our generation. In responding to this poisonous ideology, we face a choice.

“Do we close our eyes, put our kid gloves on and just hope that our values will somehow endure in the end? Or do we get out there and make the case for those values, defend them with all that we’ve got and resolve to win the battle of ideas all over again?”

What do the critics say?

Muslim groups, civil liberties campaigners and politicians expressed concern over the strategy.

Rachel Logan of Amnesty International said: “Clearly there exist real and serious threats from people who advocate violence and hatred, but some of the proposed counter-measures are worryingly vague and may undermine our freedoms while trying to protect them.

“The government’s definition of ‘extremism’ is ill-defined, and using overly-broad terminology creates a risk that the authorities could curtail freedom of speech, association and assembly in this country.”

Labour MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee, said: “These measures will only be successful if we have a big conversation with the Muslim community, and let them take the lead in eradicating radicalisation.”

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said: “This is the greatest challenge of our age and the Prime Minister is right to devote his focus to it.

“For our part, we will always support measures that are reasonable, proportionate and evidence-based. But we have a job to ensure that, in this difficult area, the Government gets the balance right doesn’t go beyond that.”

Shuja Shafi, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “Whether it is in mosques, education or charities, the strategy will reinforce perceptions that all aspects of Muslim life must undergo a ‘compliance’ test to prove our loyalty to this country.

“We cannot help but also detect the McCarthyist undertones in the proposal to create blacklists and exclude and ban people deemed to be extremist.”