Quilliam Political Liaison Officer Jonathan Russell gives his assessment of UK Home Secretary Theresa May MP for Prospect Magazine.
The reports of Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference will inevitably focus on the counter-terrorism commitments made as part of the party’s 2015 election manifesto. This is understandable, but it is also clear that there was a crucial shift in May’s rhetoric from promoting hard counter-terrorism measures to supporting soft counter-extremism measures. Extremists and terrorists share an ideology but differ in strategy and tactics. Terrorism is used as a political strategy by extremists and is illegal. Extremism, when not violent, is not illegal but a social ill that British society should be intolerant of. The main thrust of May’s speech did not concern terrorists or the legal and security challenges they pose. Rather, the focus was on non-violent extremists and the best ways to counter the ideology that underpins their worldview.
In announcing that her department would be responsible for counter-extremism strategy next parliament should the Conservative Party be in power, May admitted that this government’s Department for Communities and Local Government has failed by not coming up with a strategy in the last three years. She accepted that this strategy, if it is to be coordinated by the Home Office, must deal with the entire Islamist ideological spectrum, rather than the jihadist and illegal terrorist fringes of it that the Home Office has traditionally focused on.
What May and her Home Office colleagues now must appreciate is that the toolkit required to tackle extremism differs from the one required to counter terrorism. It should neither be so law-heavy nor viewed through a security lens; rather it should tackle the ideological roots and the myopic narratives of extremism through education and social action. For this reason, I am pleased to see that she wants to promote Muslim organisations, such as the Association of British Muslims, Inspire or Faith Matters, who uphold British (read universal) values rather than extremist ideologies, and guide civil society in the best ways to beat extremism with a proposed central hub of knowledge and expertise.
New specific powers aimed at tackling non-violent extremism were also announced. Extremism Disruption Orders are gagging orders aimed at stopping those who “spread hate” but do not break existing laws. It goes without saying that we should be cautious when it comes to changing the law or clamping down on free speech. The Extremism Disruption Orders look, at this stage, guilty of doing both—like ASBOs for extremists. They could prevent people taking part in protests, using broadcast media or working with people vulnerable to extremism. There are significant concerns about whether these would be workable and, indeed, whether they fail to strike the balance between the protection of national security and upholding civil liberties. But, given that they would go through the courts and be time limited, I am hopeful that they can work to prevent known extremists from radicalising others.
Finally, May discussed the challenges that Islamists pose to British institutions through “entryism:” the infiltration of these institutions by Islamist activists. She is concerned about the proliferation of extremists in some Birmingham schools—including the so-called “Trojan Horse plots”—and notes in the speech that Eric Pickles has sent inspectors to investigate Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman following “divisive community politics” in his borough. Proposals to raise awareness of extremism in the public sector and civil society, and improve vetting procedures to prevent extremists working in schools are welcome. Entryism may not be as obvious a strategy of spreading Islamism as waging jihad or proselytising online, but there is certainly a need to counter it. British institutions such as schools, local government and charities should remain a key component of the Britishness that David Cameron is so keen to promote.
Reducing the size of the extremist pool from which jihadist organisations recruit was the central theme of May’s well-received speech. This is vital work that is absolutely necessary to deal with the current challenges posed by al Qaeda and the Islamic State (otherwise known as Isis). While policy makers may be tempted to tackle the short-term threats of terrorism in the run up to the election, it is essential that they commit to tackling the long-term challenges of extremism and understand the different approaches required. Combating Islamic State, the organisation, may be done through law and war; combating Islamic state, the idea, needs more.
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