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The UK government thinks I am an extremist – and you might be one too

The UK government has turned to the policing of ideas in their efforts to pre-empt and thwart terrorism. Such a strategy makes anyone who rejects the status quo a potential suspect.

Theresa May as Home Secretary in 2015 speaking at Chatham House event 'Countering Terrorism: A Global Perspective'. Chatham House/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Given the recent attacks in London and Manchester, the violence of the far right in murdering the MP Jo Cox, and the images of the London bombings in 2005 still fresh in Britain’s collective memory, it is no surprise that preventing terrorism remains a high priority for the UK government. Yet, since 2005, preventing terrorism has shifted, from attempting to stop terrorist attacks, to attempting to pre-empt terrorism by discouraging the ideas that appear to be behind these attacks. Since 2005, the fear of ‘home-grown terrorism’ has led to a policy focus on ‘extremism’ – defined as a precursor stage on a ‘radicalisation’ journey towards political violence. Yet, what does ‘extremism’ mean? And what ideas are therefore considered threatening?

A certain logic appears to dictate how we comprehend an attack having taken place. The perpetrator of the violence is a ‘terrorist’ who must have been ‘radicalised’ to believe that violence is a legitimate action to achieve a political goal. Furthermore, this radicalisation must have been promoted by an ‘extreme’ political ideology that catalysed that journey. Whether we look at Mohammed Emwazi (the British ISIS fighter known more commonly as ‘Jihadi John’), or Thomas Mair (Jo Cox’s murderer), newspapers are awash with analyses of the ‘radicalisation journey’, which attempt to pinpoint the very moment, and the very factors, that caused that person to take up a violent struggle.

Yet, this fascination with journeys to terrorism, and this emphasis on ideology, is not supported by academic research. The fact of the matter is that the empirical evidence is very weak and uncertain. We simply do not have the ability to say why one person turns to violence, while another, under the very same conditions, does not. Despite this focus on ‘extremism’ and ‘extremist ideology’, we are no closer to saying what impact it has on political violence. In the words of terrorism scholar, Mark Sageman, “There is no doubt that ideology, including global neo-jihadi ideology, is an important part of any explanation in the turn to political violence, but we still don’t know how”. The American scholar Randy Borum is even more dismissive of theories of radicalisation: “None of them yet have a very firm social-scientific basis as an established ‘cause’ of terrorism, and few of them have been subjected to any rigorous scientific systematic enquiry”.

This uncertainty in the ‘science’ behind radicalisation does not appear to have translated into policy circles.

This uncertainty in the ‘science’ behind radicalisation does not appear to have translated into policy circles. In the 2011 major overhaul of the UK’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy, the emphasis on the ‘ideology’ of terrorist groups was made objective number one. The strategy writes that Prevent will, “respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it”. It is this transformation of counter-terrorism strategy into a counter-ideological project that makes the UK’s approach to countering terrorism so threatening to democracy and political change more broadly.

Prevent explicitly aims to counter extremist ideology. One arena in which it aims to achieve this is in schools. Since 2015, schools must by law, comply with the ‘Prevent duty’ – a legal requirement that teachers are trained to identify to relevant authorities any students that might display signs of ‘radicalisation’. Such a requirement has had profound and traumatic impact on some students, the vast majority of whom are Muslim. A report by the Open Society Justice Initiative entitled Eroding Trust listed a number of troubling cases including: primary school students having their political opinions recorded by the Home Office; a 12-year-old being interviewed by school leaders after playing a ‘terrorist’ in a drama class, and a secondary school-aged student being interviewed by police for expressing pro-Palestinian views in school. All of the students involved were Muslim.

But schools must not just scrutinise and survey their students. They are also regulated on their ability to promote “fundamental British values” and their ability to “challenge extremist views”. This curious expression of ‘fundamental British values’ was conceived within the first attempt by a UK government to define extremism – within the 2011 overhaul of the Prevent strategy:

“Extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas.”

Despite clear divergence and contestation in the academic literature regarding the meaning of extremism, the UK government defines an extremist as someone opposed to a certain group of values. These values have been critiqued for not being uniquely British, for being vaguely grouped under the word ‘including’, and for being potentially contradictory – the Suffragettes’ necessity to break the law in order to make Britain more democratic being oft-cited in this regard. Despite this, schools make frequent reference to this definition, with common citations in school counter-extremism policies, school assemblies on fundamental British values, and in classes that teach students about terrorism and extremism.

A suffragette meeting in Caxton Hall, Manchester, England circa 1908. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.But how do schools interpret ‘extremism’ and how do they challenge extremist narratives? Exploring this aids an understanding of the broader implications of this focus on ‘extremism’ in countering terrorism. This article reports findings from an on-going study, which has analysed nearly 200 lessons currently used in British classrooms that teach students about the issues of extremism and fundamental British values. Exploring schools’ teaching on the topic offers us all great pause for thought as to the dangers of current thinking about extremism and counter-extremism, and in particular its threat to democracy.

The study analysed how extremism was defined in each of these 200 lessons. It found three broad groups of definitions. Some lessons offered no definition at all – assuming students would already know what extremism is. Others would offer tautological definitions suggesting ‘extremists are people with extreme political or religious views’. The third group would cite the government’s definition straight from the Prevent strategy directly into classroom presentations.

It is heavily implied that the UK government holds British values, and that anyone who does not is therefore an extremist.

Students are thus being offered very little assistance in assessing what might be considered ‘extreme’, but they are certainly being aided in understanding what the ‘moderate’ or the ‘reasonable’ is. Through citing the government’s definition, students are being taught that the UK government is the barometer from which extremism is measured. It is heavily implied that the UK government also holds British values, and that anyone who does not is therefore an extremist. The government is thereby in a position to adjudicate the ‘normal’ or the ‘reasonable’. One sees this most clearly when the fundamental British values themselves are being taught. Democracy, for instance, is often taught in direct contrast to dictatorship. One presentation explains, “The UK is a democracy, of course”. Another compares the pros and cons of living in the UK or living in IS-controlled Syria, and asks students where they would prefer to live. That the UK could be more democratic is a suggestion that is very rarely offered.

In cases where definitions of extremism are absent or tautological, students are asked to fill in the gaps. But this does not stop these resources building up a picture of the ‘normal’ from which extremism is said to deviate. Extremists are painted as being ‘manipulated’, and ‘vulnerable’ to being ‘brainwashed’. As such, rational, moderate, correct views and values are implied into existence. Extremists are painted as abnormal. As one classroom presentation to students explained: “Extremism in its broadest sense is an individual or group of individuals who take an extreme position from that of the norm, or take an extreme action”.

Extremists are thus painted as people who have “crossed a line” from the permissible to the illegitimate. In an educational video, one interviewee explains: “Extremism for me is when somebody goes too far because of something that they believe in”. Exploring the multitude of examples of ‘extremism’ that are given across these lessons helps to explain both a lack of clarity as to what extremism is, and the sheer breadth of ideas that are seen to have crossed this line into extremism.

Alongside the many mentions of what might be termed ‘Islamic extremism’ and the frequent mentions of what might be termed ‘right wing extremism’, it is fascinating to examine the more unusual examples of extremism on show in these materials. In particular, these examples tend to focus on having crossed one of two ‘lines’ – into the realm of illegality or into the realm of violence.

Caroline Lucas MP’s arrest at an anti-fracking demonstration was given as an example of extremism.

With regard to the latter, it is interesting how often examples of genocide – the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide in particular – are given as examples of extremism. While these are both certainly forms of ‘extreme’ violence, they appear to bear little relation to contemporary threats, and are particularly at a distance from current terror threats from those inspired by white supremacists or the Islamic State. The violence of genocide is horrific, but is it terrorism? In another case of ‘extreme’ violence, students examine violent clashes that occurred between members of the EDL and anti-fascist protesters, and are asked, “when does protest cross the line?” – with the occurrence of violence demonstrating the presence of extremism.

In other cases, it is breaking the law that indicates ‘extremism’ – the rule of law being one of the ‘fundamental British values’. One respondent in an educational video, when asked ‘what is extremism?’ answers: “Anything that doesn’t obey the law of the land is extreme”. Examples included students protesting tuition fees in 2011 damaging property, or an educational play in which a fictional ‘anti-capitalist’ group had planned to break into and graffiti a bank. It seems of little surprise, therefore, that Caroline Lucas MP’s arrest at an anti-fracking demonstration was given as an example of extremism by a police officer training teachers in the Prevent duty. It appears that civil disobedience, despite it playing a vital role in struggles for women’s suffrage or employment rights, both contradicts ‘fundamental British values’ and is ‘extreme’.

What is perhaps of most concern are examples of 'extremism' where it is merely an opinion or view, rather than an action.

What is perhaps of most concern however, are examples of 'extremism' where it is merely an opinion or view, rather than an action, that has strayed across a ‘line’ too far from the norm. The Westboro Baptist Church (organisers of the  “God Hates Fags” protests) is given as an example. One presentation offered a series of examples of ‘extreme’ views that students were required to challenge including “Multiculturalism is bad for Britain” – an argument made strongly in a speech by David Cameron back in 2011 – yet, one would be hard-pressed to argue the then Prime Minister was an extremist. One can be ‘extreme’ about a whole host of issues according to some teaching materials – rights for fathers, nuclear power, whale hunting, even vegetarianism. 'Extreme' appears synonymous with being passionate for unpopular ideas – and yet, these ideas are also being painted as threatening.

While these examples of extremism appear broad, and at times laughable, what is of most concern is the links drawn between these ‘extreme’ views and the potential for political violence. Despite, as mentioned above, the lack of scientific support that can link so-called ‘extremist ideology’ to the use of political violence with any certainty, the linkages between ideas and violence is made very clear in educational resources. As one teaching resource explains: “Extremism can lead to violence and so it is never OK because we can’t predict what will become of extreme views and innocent people don’t deserve to suffer.” As the UK government themselves argue in the Prevent strategy: “Terrorist groups of all kinds very often draw upon ideologies which have been developed, disseminated and popularised by extremist organisations that appear to be non-violent”. Extreme ideas in non-violent organisations may lead to violence, and thus need to be discouraged: the threat to democracy appears considerable.

As someone who has engaged in civil disobedience and been threatened with arrest, I have “crossed the line” into extremism.

In compiling this research, it appears that, according to the UK government, I am an extremist. As someone who has engaged in civil disobedience and been threatened with arrest, I have “crossed the line” into extremism. But moreover, even if I had not done this, and did not ever plan to do so in the future, simply acknowledging the legitimacy of civil disobedience might be enough to be considered an extremist if, after hearing my views, someone else went to protest illegally. In linking the term ‘extreme’ both to the threat of violence and to the idea of ‘abnormal views’, the UK government is transforming diverse ideas into a threat, and narrowing the window of legitimate opinion. In countering extremism, the UK government is therefore countering a key tenet of democracy – free and open debate of a diversity of views and ideas. It is deeply ironic that in attempting to protect so-called fundamental British values, the UK government appears to endanger those very same values it champions. It is deeply troubling that the window of ‘reasonable’ and ‘permissable’ political views that we are offering to our young people in their education on extremism and terrorism is so narrow.

It is clear a new strategy is needed if the UK wishes to both counter extremism and promote democracy. Perhaps clearly discouraging the use of violence rather than discouraging diverse political views would be a good first step forward.

About the author

Kieran Ford is currently a PhD student and researcher at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. Having grown up in the UK, Kieran has a background in education and activism. His research interests include education, extremism, community, peace and social change.


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