What would a real counter-extremism policy look like?

Wednesday 7th October 2009, 12:30pm

Chair: Charles Moore, Chairman, Policy Exchange

Guest-speakersBaroness Pauline Neville-Jones, National Security Advisor to the Rt Hon. David Cameron MP; Maajid Nawaz, Director, Quilliam; Paul Goodman MP, Shadow Communities Minister; Paul Richards, former Communities and Local Government advisor to the Rt Hon. Hazel Blears MP

**Please note that this is a summary of the event rather than an exact transcription. If direct quotations are needed, please contact us and we will endeavour to provide them.


Key policy suggestions:

– Establish a ‘Military Home Command’ for responding to potential Mumbai-style terrorist attacks in UK cities.

– Government to stop holding Muslim-only or Jewish-only meetings relevant to public or foreign policy; rather start to engage with Jews and Muslims as equal citizens (1).

– Education role for government to inform citizens about Islamism without fear of reprisal – moving away from RICU’s ‘politically correct’ conditions (2).

– Set up a ‘Due Diligence Unit’ to oversee Prevent funding allocations to avoid past mistakes.

– The need for an integration policy, not just a counter-extremism policy.

– A national holiday to reinforce Britishness.


Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, National Security Advisor to the Rt Hon. David Cameron MP

– What we share with the government:

  • We agree that the counter-extremism framework — the Contest strategy — is a good and intelligent one. We will base our own policies on it, hoping that the next government will be a Conservative one.

– Our areas of criticism lie more in delivery rather than ideas, which is probably a Conservative complaint across the board. 


– Performance under different strands has been variable.

  • Pursue: Resources have been put in, and the results are there to be seen. That does not mean that there is no threat, but that vulnerability to it has been reduced.
  • Protect: Also had quite a lot of money put into it. The government has done quite well, although it has done less well on things which are less evident. For example, our critical national infrastructure, our water systems, our power grids etc. We need to organize resources to increase our strengths there. Where we are still vulnerable — and here I have a major criticism of the government — is some of the more extreme attacks we may face, for example commando attacks like Mumbai. Threats have been reduced but not excluded and, with the Olympic Games, we need to be extraordinarily vigilant. We need a small home command in this country, involving the military and in support of the civil authority that can look after this threat. 
  • Prevent: It is widely accepted that there is a process of radicalization. I freely acknowledge that this is a difficult area and that government have been pioneers here. The main problem is the sole focus on violence. Of course you have to focus on it, but you have to go much deeper than that. John Denham MP admitted, at the Labour fringe event last week, the mistakes that have been made here. I am extraordinarily glad that the government have started to reassess the situation.

– What do we need to do?

  • We need to focus on radicalization. Government services, local authorities and communities themselves need to be active in this. It has to be a cooperative effort. Multiculturalism has dignified separation. We will put the accent much more on integration.
  • We need the cooperation of local communities to tell us where the problems lie. They are the ones with this knowledge, but this requires trust. The police are well aware of the challenge that they face. For example, getting a successful prosecution is integral to creating confidence in the community. These communities need to become a key part of the counter-extremism strategy.

Maajid Nawaz, Director, Quilliam

–  I agree entirely that radicalization is an issue and that terrorism doesn’t occur in a vacuum. 


– We need to focus very much on Prevent as the most important strand of our counter-extremism strategy. When doing so, we need to have a clear understanding of how to navigate through that terrain — who and who not to speak to. 

  • Initially, we must recognise the distinction between religious conservatism and modern politicized interpretations of Islam. It is not necessarily about appearance or dress. 
  • We need to go beyond the representative game. We need to recognize that there is no monolithic Muslim community in the UK, and that when engaging with Muslim communities we must not adopt the colonial attitude that our own citizens are too difficult to understand and therefore turn instead to their self-appointed leaders. National representatives only reinforce the Islamist narrative that Muslims hold a single united view. During the recent Gaza crisis, the FCO organized two meetings: one for Muslims and one for Jews. There were Muslims in the ‘Muslim-only’ meeting that were blaming Hamas just as there were Jews in the ‘Jewish-only’ meeting blaming Israel. By acting in this way we are reinforcing the Islamist narrative that Muslims have one political voice. Instead, let’s start looking at issues and at Muslims as citizens with diverse opinions. 
  • The government is becoming aware that they shouldn’t be funding extremist organizations, though mistakes are still being made. Funding is one problem; reinforcing existing prejudices through the mechanisms and the structures that we use to engage is another. In our actions we need to move away from reinforcing the Islamist narrative; incorrect paradigms that we don’t apply to any other citizen in this country. Call it racism or colonialism — it is incorrect.

– On how to move forward on this agenda, I often apply the analogy of a chess game. In chess you know clearly what your aim is — to check-mate your opponents and win. On the other side of the board your opponent is trying to check-mate you. In order to win, you sometimes sacrifice pawns and make moves that look very weak but end up being very strong. But the reason that you are able to do so is because you have planned ahead. With any counter-extremism policy, the first aim is to know where you’re going and what you need to achieve. What we are trying to achieve is a more socially cohesive society that reinforces secular, liberal, democratic values. With that aim in mind, in terms of engagement, we don’t want to be reinforcing the opponent when they are trying to check-mate us. What we want to be doing is reinforcing our goal, which can only ever be achieved if we know what direction we are going in. The problem with many in government at the moment is they don’t know where they are going and can’t navigate the terrain.

– I would divide engagement into two strands that the government needs to differentiate between:

1. Security — In order to gather intelligence, sometimes the police will need to engage with people who are in extremist circles. In so doing, however, they are not legitimizing these people because they are engaging behind the scenes.

2. Social cohesion — On the other hand, when government engages with extremists in a public way it is a disaster. They must not be propped up as legitimate representatives. An example of this occurred on the Islam Channel the other day. All the people on the show were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir (the producer, host and guest). The other guest was a lady who sits on President Obama’s religious affairs advisory council, whose statistics were inadvertently used to reinforce HT’s ideology. I don’t think she knew who they were, however, HT have now put the show on their website and regard it as a propaganda coup for them. We, too, need to start wising up on who we are engaging with and how we engage. 

– We also need to think about international dimensions. We have both imported and exported extremism to Pakistan — it’s a two-way traffic. We must therefore not neglect this flow of radicalization.

– Nor should we neglect the role that Muslims in Europe could play on the streets of the UK in terms of radicalization traffic. It has happened, and it has been documented in major terrorist cases. This needs to be looked at very carefully. 

– Nor should we neglect the rise of far-right extremism, and this is something I’d be happy to talk about in the Q&A. 

– My final point is that I do acknowledge that there is a serious lack of credible Muslim voices to engage with on the local communities level. 


Paul Richards, former Communities and Local Government advisor to the Rt Hon. Hazel Blears MP

– I have three broad conclusions:

1. We have to make clear the distinction between Islam and Islamism. This lack of clarity stems from how things are described in government.

2. There is a clear link between violent extremism and extremism. It is a steady process of extremism that leads someone to violent extremism, so we must have a policy that tackles both.

3. There is enormous ignorance of the true nature of the threat, and of the organizations involved (often because they hide behind front groups and a public face). There is therefore a huge education job needed — both for government and the broader public. 


– I would like to offer a critique of policy:

  • It was always a mistake to judge the Muslim Council of Britain as a representative body. It was a lazy policy solution. It was right that government tried to set up a plurality of different Muslim groups. 
  • Prevent funding was the right approach. You do need to create resilient communities in order to stand up to extremism, and you need consent in order to be able to do that. However, the issue was that once the money left government and went to councils, and from councils went to community groups, we didn’t know where the money was actually going. We need to make sure money is going to the right places.
  • RICU (the government’s cross-departmental research and communications body) researches how messages are received among key audiences. They say that we shouldn’t use the word ‘Islamist’ because people will confuse it with ‘Islam’, and so ministers have been using abstract terms like ‘criminals’. Instead, government needs to be educating people about the term so that they can name and define the problem and therefore have the resilience to tackle it. By hiding behind abstract terms, you fail to understand the true nature of the threat. The danger of the liberal mentality is a fear of not causing offence. 

– There seems to have been a bit of a roll-back on the MCB in recent months — my fear is that they will be back through the door. That is partly because the civil service likes lines of least resistance.

– There is also a sense that British Muslims are the victims of oppression and therefore to put that right they are able to do what they want, even if the Muslims we are talking to are not representative.

– Finally, I think there is also electoral cynicism whereby no one wants to upset anybody. 

– In terms of the question of what a counter-extremism policy would look like:

  • Educating the public about the true nature of Islamism as against Islam. 
  • There would be a clear link between extremism and violent extremism. 
  • Government would cease to legitimize extremist groups by sharing platforms with them. 

– In this task you will find enormous levels of support from the majority of Muslims who want to live in a democratic, liberal, modern Britain. 

– We need a tougher approach that understands the underlying issues.


Paul Goodman MP, Shadow Communities Minister

– The danger is that we move from panic to complacency. There is a slight risk that we forget the problem is there because we haven’t faced an incident since the Glasgow bombings. 

– We are now aware of how little we know. It is worth remembering how difficult it is for policy-makers. 

– If our subject here is extremism and not just violent extremism, there has been a significant change because we now have two BNP members in the European Parliament, one on the London Assembly, and about 50 BNP councillors. I am not for a moment comparing the BNP to al-Qaeda, but they are a serious problem. For those who do not see the connection between the BNP’s ideology and acts of violence, do remember the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho in 1990. Let’s not forget there are other poisonous ideologies out there.

– What would a counter-extremism policy look like? One of the virtues of the Cameron leadership is taking negative propositions and turning them into positive ones. Instead, then, what would a pro-moderation policy look like?

  • Government needs an integration policy. Government has had a cohesion policy, but it doesn’t have an integration policy at all. This ranges from controlling our borders, ensuring English is taught to those who want to learn it, teaching British history properly in school, stopping local councils from endlessly translating documents, or even as Pauline (Neville-Jones) suggested in her report — having a national holiday on the Queen’s birthday.
  • There needs to be policy promoting shared values. Whoever one is engaging with needs to sign up to the basic liberal, democratic framework. Nor should we be rushing around looking for groups not to engage with. 
  • There is bound to be a Prevent policy of some kind. The label ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ has not only been a theoretical problem, but a considerable branding problem. There has been great resistance to it by certain Muslim groups, so we need to take a look at the title. We will obviously have a review to see if Prevent is working properly in such financially stringent times. There ought to be a simple test for who gets money — do those groups who receive money share our values? Otherwise, the people on the ground know where the money should go and they should have the maximum flexibility to use the money for cohesion policies, which gets you away from targeting specific groups.

– I think we made a lot of progress in this area, but over the last year this balance between extremism claimed in the name of Islam and extremism claimed in the name of nationality has balanced out somewhat, and government needs to keep a close eye on fascist groups.


Highlights of speakers’ responses to questions

Maajid Nawaz

– People who were critical of using the Prevent label to address Islamism in Muslim communities, are now pro-Prevent when it comes to addressing far-right extremism. We do have to be very careful of the double standard — many Muslims are calling for Prevent in terms of far-right extremism when they were anti-Prevent previously.

– In terms of using the word ‘Islamism’ — we have a role in terms of educating Muslims. It is a word that describes the politicization of the faith, which is completely consistent with other ideological words — socialism, communism etc. Islam is the justificatory claim made by Islamists to support their ideology, and while we are not validating it we must recognise it. There is a distinction between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’, and this distinction is made by the suffix. The word is being popularized, and we need to be in it for the long haul by educating people about the term.
Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones

– The Prevent strategy has many different strands and some facets are in tension with each other. You have anti-radicalization, community policing, engagement, and at the far end you have integration. The police have a certain function that you can’t entirely divorce from what the local authorities need to be able to first know, and be able to do in the course of a common effort. However, I can also understand that the local authorities don’t want to be tarred in the public eye by being seen to assist the police. So we have an issue of how it is done. Secondly, in its overt role the local authorities should be involved in the integration effort. When it comes to funding, local authorities should be promoting a single community and shared values. This is why we take a strong stand on the types of activity and the sorts of groups that Prevent money should go to. On the security side, we need to learn how to share information effectively where you don’t betray your source but are able to understand where the problems lie in local communities.

– Engagement is really difficult, and we have arguments inside the party about what it is meant to mean. The government should not dignify groups that do not share our values. They should not share platforms with these groups. That I am very clear about. However, there is a different form of engagement. Are you ever going to go and challenge these groups? And how do you do that effectively without either seeming to sponsor them, or have your words distorted and misused? I am equally of the view that we must be bold enough to challenge and take this risk. But when doing so, the government must be very clear about what it is doing, and say so in clear terms.


Paul Richards

– Fighting fascism and the BNP is different from tackling violent extremism, therefore I would not agree with conflating it with the Prevent strategy. It is a different threat.

– We have to push forward with the term ‘Islamism’ and educate people about what we mean; otherwise we get into terrible linguistic gymnastics.

– Prevent funding needs a more robust system of diligence and targeting. It is a policy that needs extreme fine-tuning but it doesn’t need to be thrown out of the window. You do need locally elected politicians to be involved in the process, but I don’t think that they should be the sole arbiters. Maybe there is a role for other forms of scrutiny as well; otherwise extremist front organizations will receive the money.

– In terms of how you engage as ministers — I err on the side of a no-platform policy. You do not appear alongside extremists. I think it is wrong to think that we can out argue the other people on the platform. Instead, you end up legitimating the wrong people and providing them with sound bites that can be manipulated as endorsements.


Paul Goodman MP

– While I think that local councils should have much more discretion and the task of central government should be simpler, somewhere there needs to be a ‘due diligence’ unit that can advise local councils if there are groups that they are concerned about.

– There is a real problem on the ground with the term ‘Islamism’. People do not hear much beyond the first five letters. On the other hand, I do agree that it is not good enough to talk of ‘criminality’ as it does not address the root of the problem. At the moment, we say ‘violence claimed in the name of Islam’, which isn’t ‘Islamism’, but it does confront the facts. However, there is clearly an ideology problem and whatever the language that is used, we need to recognise this.


1. Issues relating to individual religious matters would require specific advisory groups, but not concerns of general political interest.

2. RICU’s recommendations to ministers are said to be based on polling. By definition, this reflects the status quo. Islamist terrorism and extremism are new challenges that require new education for citizens, not reflecting the status quo. RICU’s terminology needs to change to be more effective in leading and thinking from the centre.