Another man's freedom fighter

Eleanor Penny talks to Dr Salman Butt about extremism, terrorism, and how to challenge violence without propping up prejudice.

Eleanor Penny
23 December 2016

Mosques have been critical of the anti-radicalisation strategy 'Prevent'. Photo: dgeezer. Flickr. “More people die from bee stings than terrorism in the UK.” Dr Salman Butt smiles and shakes his head. By now, he’s pretty tired of the myriad confusions that clutter the way we talk about terrorism and extremism. And little wonder. Dr Butt has himself been labelled a ‘non-violent domestic extremist', falling foul of the notorious 'Prevent' legislation that aims to identify nascent extremist sentiments in order to rout them from public institutions such as schools and universities.

In September 2015, a government issued a press release entitled: ‘PM’s Extremism Task Force: Tackling Extremism in Universities and Colleges top of the agenda’. It named Dr Butt as an dangerous speaker; a mouthpiece for the kind of extremist agenda that should, according to Prevent, have no place in public institutions. As the Editor in Chief of the website ‘Islam in the Twenty-First Century’, Dr Butt is accused of expressing opinions contrary to ‘British values’, and has therefore been labelled a ‘non-violent domestic extremist’. To him, this is a ludicrous mis-application of the term. “This press release didn't mention anyone who's been ostracized by other muslims, such as Anjem Choudary, or anyone who actually caused violence or supports ISIS. The people that it actually mentioned were on record distancing themselves from ISIS and condemning political violence. So that was when a lot of people thought, they've gone a bit too far now. They’re just mentioning random Muslim speakers.”

Indeed, Butt has espoused some opinions unlikely to win him friends on university campuses, which tend to leand socially liberal. He's previously stated that homosexual acts are not permitted by Islam. But according to him, these statements don’t merit his being targeted as an extremist. And you might be forgiven for assuming that the government should broadly agree with him on this point; numerous Conservative MPs, having expressed similarly abhorrent homophobic sentiments, are left to pursue political careers untroubled by accusations of extremism. “Contrary to popular belief, I've never denounced British values, I have no issues with them. But I would fight for somebody's right to do so in a peaceful, non-insulting manner. I would want to live in a society where someone can do that. They're not committing crimes, if they're just saying 'what's so good about democracy or tolerance?'. Why not let them have that conversation?” For Butt, this was a call to action. He is in the midst of a legal challenge to UK Prevent legislation, on the grounds that it constitutes a violation of the human right to free speech. If the High Court rules in favour of Butt, declaring that Prevent does indeed constitute a violation of free speech, it could undermine the legal and constitutional basis of the entire strategy.

Contrary to popular belief, I've never denounced British values, I have no issues with them.

A softly-spoken man in his early thirties, he’s not someone you’d immediately peg as some kind of firebrand rabble-rouser. “It was a surprise to me to find my name on the press release… I thought, maybe it's a different Salman Butt. I genuinely thought maybe it was just a blunder on the part the Home Office.” This seems like a fairly reasonable assumption, given the blunders and missteps that have dogged Prevent guidance ever since it was rolled out in 2015. Earlier this year, a ten year old was interrogated by police over what turned out to a spelling mistake that confused ‘terrorist’ with ‘terraced’. 

But Dr Butt takes issue not with these farcical cases of carry-on counter-terrorism, but with the model at the heart of the legislation. According to his lawyer “It is has been impossible for the government to arrive at a credible definition of "extremism" which works in practise and targets the mischief that it is aiming at. The government's view that there is an escalator which starts with religious conservatism and ends with violent extremism is not proven.”

Snagged in the wide net of Prevent guidance, Butt fears that the policy has some deeply dubious assumptions lodged at its heart. “Those people who are studying the actual causes of terrorism and political violence, they almost all unanimous: A particular ideology is not a cause for terrorism - it's incidental. The actual, empirically determined causes of political violence and terrorism are things like alienation despair, disenfranchisement, anger. Types of particular mental health states as well. That all of these things mixed in a perfect storm to create the conditions where someone might be able to go to the path of so-called radicalisation. To simplify into non-violent extremist causes violent extremism, causes terrorism, is highly problematic.” 

Those people who are studying the actual causes of terrorism and political violence are almost all unanimous: A particular ideology is not a cause for terrorism. 

Butt tells me that Prevent isn’t simply casting the net too wide; it’s a fundamentally flawed strategy. “I think that it suffers from some very systemic problems. How can you prevent extremism when you don't have a cogent, coherent definition of what that is?” But beyond this lack of clarity, he cautions that Prevent may end up alienating people. Although the Prevent duty namechecks far-right organisations and non-Muslim terrorist groups such as the IRA, it’s come under fire for targeting Muslims, and a society of mosques has even boycotted the duty, condeming it as islamophobic. It’s hard to deny such accusations when Muslims make up only 5% of the overall population, but 67% of those referred to authorities under the Prevent duty. Some London Imams have claimed that Prevent is "spying on [their] young people", spurring on a creeping feeling of alienation. On the government website, the guidance is translated into Urdu; the national language of Pakistan, spoken by many British Muslims. Translations into Spanish, French and Polish - languages that are also commonly spoken in the UK - were nowhere to be found.

“It's actually counterproductive. Because it exacerbates the actual empirically determined causes of terrorism. Such as alienation, feeling that the state is somehow against us. The ‘us and them mentality’, feeling of despair. […] When we're actually looking at the historical examples of radical political movements and their links between non-violence and violence, it's always accompanied by some for of state repression. Whether it be the anti-war movement in the USA, student anti-war movement against Vietnam. Whether it be the Provisional IRA. Whether it be the anarchist bombings in Paris 100 years ago. It's true that they started off as non-violent political radical movements, but it's only when they felt that there was some kind state crackdown on their ability to express their grievances that a very small minority of them actually were driven to the point of despair and actually went and took violent means to achieve their aims. So I think we're going down a very dangerous path, if the government or the state is seen to crackdown on the expression of non-violent, even radical political views.”

He doesn’t want to talk causes. When we ask whether religious conservatism ‘causes’ terrorism, we all too often mistake “the cause of something” for "its after-the-fact justification”. Butt explains: “Popular counter-terrorism policy relies on fudging the distinction between the two. So they'll see somebody blowing themselves up, saying “Allahu Akbar” or using the Qu'ran or something to justify their actions. As some kind of cause for their actions in the first place. And it's presented in a very simplistic way. It's just a fine individual, who has no mental health issues, no social, political issues, but he may have misread something in the Qu’ran, And said, oh, let me go and find somebody else to murder. […] That’s the narrative. And the result of this narrative is if somebody makes ideology, the last step in this so-called conveyor belt, we all want to stop the last product. So in order to stop someone moving along this conveyor belt, they're going to look for expressions of that ideology. Because you can't probe everyone's beliefs. So if someone starts growing a beard or wearing a hijab, or wants to eat halal meat, then that raises a flag as an indicator, potentially, for this person's journey towards killing someone in the streets.”

If somebody happens to be a Muslim and he wants to, or he's driven to the point of wanting to commit a crime - he's going to try and express himself and justify that in the language, ethics, and iconography that he knows

He doesn’t want to deny any link between Muslims and violence; just that that link is causal. “If somebody happens to be a Muslim and he wants to, or he's driven to the point of wanting to commit a crime - he's going to try and express himself and justify that in the language, ethics, and iconography that he knows. That's Islamic, if he's a Muslim. If he's a Christian, like the Lord's Resistance Army for example, he's going to want to justify his own action using the language he knows. Christian. If he's a Hindu, he's going to justify in Hindu terms and ethics. It’s not the actual motivating factor for his criminality.”

And as for combatting any genuine incidents, he claims again that Prevent is not fit for purpose. When young disaffected Muslims have been found teetering on the brink of violence, “it was Muslims who were speaking out and teaching the youth how to approach, how to deal with your grievances, how to deal with your anger and frustration, Muslim scholars teaching the people about their religion. And those very people who were teaching the people, teaching Muslims how to deal with your grievances in a productive constructive, not a destructive, way. Unfortunately, those very people are now being subject to restrictions in their right to speak under this who disastrous policy.”

For Butt, talking about criminality and violence is much more useful than talking about ‘terrorism’. “I tend to use a word like 'political violence.' It’s much clearer. […] I mean historically, terrorism has been used to give a special status to some types of crimes. To try and provoke an extra level of condemnation from the masses, as compared to regular crimes. There’s some kind of limbic system response, a pre-rational response attached to this word 'terrorism' for decades. It invokes a very emotional response from people that hear it. A person in power will generally try and exploit this, whether it's the Tory party or Kim-Jong Un, or whether it's Sisi in Egypt labelling opposition as terrorists. Whoever. This is always a very useful word to demonise somebody.”

I tend to use a word like 'political violence.' It's much clearer.

“That's not to absolve anyone of any kind of responsibility. It's just that - it's a fundamental question we need to ask society as to why we selectively apply this term 'terrorism' to some and not others. You've probably already seen those memes about lone gunmen being either mentally ill or terrorists or depending on the colour of your skin. So it's a type of bias we put onto things. Thomas Mair, the killer of Jo Cox, wasn't referred to as a terrorist, even though his motivations were explicitly claimed to be political.”

In the manner of a put-upon school science teacher, Butt pleads for a little more “statistical rigour”, both from the government and the media. “I don't want just for the sake of it, just to say get rid of [all anti-terror legislation]. What I really want is an evidence-based approach. A bridge between peer-reviewed research science and policy. At the moment what's happening is that we have a disproportionate influence from neo-Conservative think tanks on our counter-terrorism policy.” 

“I know an angry bearded person on the front page sells papers.  But we all have a responsibility to give people an accurate representation of certain threats that might face them. More people die from bee stings than terrorism in the UK. I think the threat of so-called extremist Muslims is way overblown in terms of the threat it poses to the average person. His or indeed her interests -just general day-to-day interests- overlap with the interests with the vast majority of the population. Going to school, getting a job, I need to pay the rent. It's unfortunate but I do believe they are used as scapegoats to distract people away from real causes of their problems. Just like our immigrants are blamed sometimes when they can't get an appointment with their doctor. Or they can't get a place in school. Instead of blaming the people who are responsible for your open doctor surgeries and schools and providing housing, they're told to blame the immigrants who are coming to take their job.”

“People should not be worried about their Muslim neighbours. They should be worried about those people who are telling them to be worried about Muslims or some kind of existential threat to the west. I think if they do so they'll find that people warning them about so-called Muslim extremism or terrorism they will often have a vested interest in keeping them in a state of fear and paranoia and disaffection. The message to everyone is that we have the same interests, we have the same enemies even. People who thrive off dis-empowering the masses. Making us fight with each other. They are the real problems.”

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