As a born and raised Yorkshire lass it’s always wonderful to be back up north. Someone remarked to me the other day that the tea is much stronger up north. It’s not just the tea that is stronger either. Some of the most resilient and no-nonsense counter-extremists are from up north, too.
Referrals for far right extremism now account for nearly half of all referrals for the first time ever. Last year saw the biggest far right marches in a generation and prosecutions for inciting racial hatred are at their highest since recording began.
This year alone we’ve seen a 10 per cent rise in hate crime and a further rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents.
Tech companies find themselves in a never-ending battle of removing and taking down hundreds of thousands of pieces of extremist content online. Islamist extremists continue to persist; often targeting other Muslims.
Other forms of extremism are also beginning to garner significant concern such as far left hateful extremism directed at Jews.
I’ve also heard about hateful extremist activity within other minority communities – often directed at other minorities or towards members of that same community. I’ve also heard frightening evidence from farmers targeted by animal rights extremists.
Extremists, whether far right, Islamist or other, are seizing on and exploiting local tensions in our towns and cities to cause division, to spread their disinformation and extremist propaganda in an attempt to recruit, normalise and mainstream their views. These activists are organised, active and often effective.
Victims are often targeted because of who they are or what they believe. Individuals from ethnic, racial or religious minorities are targeted as well as women, LGBT people and those who hold differing political views. The active attempts to diminish pluralism and normalise hateful narratives, which often include making the moral case for violence, demand an urgent response.
Inaction therefore is quite simply not an option especially when we recognise the wider harm extremist activity is causing. Yet unfortunately, some do make this very case despite the devastating impact of extremism. Counter-extremism is itself often viewed in a negative light, is perceived to be controversial and those working in this field, whether council officials or indeed local civil society groups often find themselves in the face of abuse. Some who oppose counter-extremism work even go as far as suggesting erroneously that counter-extremism work is a racist endeavour.
We need a new way of thinking about extremism that helps us make sense of it all. The E-word is also often misused, especially in these politically febrile times, to label opponents or to even shut down debate. It’s not surprising therefore that some are sceptical about the E-word. But I don’t think that this is enough of a sound argument to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Who can deny, for example, the presence of Islamist and far right extremist groups – and the harm they are having, not only in our country but globally? On the contrary I see it as the Commission’s job to get rid of some of that ambiguity and to ensure that counter-extremism work is proportionate.
We have shown that extremism is not confined to a single race, religion or ideology. Concerns were raised about the growing threat of the far right, far left, Islamist and other forms of religious extremism and even animal rights extremism.
Yet having reviewed the current counter-extremism approach including the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, it is clear to me that a complete overhaul is required in our counter-extremism approach.
Freedom of expression must be defended and protected; but it is a qualified right and can be limited. To date there has been little discussion of the victims of extremism; how extremists target them and the resulting abuse, harassment and curtailment of their rights; or the wider consequences to a democratic society.
A counter-extremism approach should also be much more effective in challenging extremist propaganda, narratives and disinformation – and crucially counter-extremism requires taking a stand and being proactive. As Albert Einstein famously said: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
I think this describes counter-extremism. Inaction is quite simply not an option.
In Bradford my home town, earlier this year we saw the controversy with the Bradford Literature Festival – where speakers decided to pull out because some of the festival’s funding included central government Building a Stronger Britain Together funding.
Some of the accusations levelled at the counter-extremism strategy included the claim that “taking counter-extremism money in any circumstances legitimises the strategy of the state which approaches Muslims as criminals” and that the “counter-extremism strategy relies on premise that Muslims are predisposed to violence and therefore require monitoring and surveillance”.
Islamist organisations like Cage and others have regularly promoted such views creating fear and distrust – and it is unfortunate to see an anti-counter-extremism lobby regularly peddle these false claims.
As one of the few people who has reviewed the government’s 2015 counter-extremism strategy and criticised the current approach as unfocused, unnecessarily broad and at times confusing, I have yet to see any evidence of these unfounded claims.
These claims are, at best, a misrepresentation of the counter-extremism strategy and of BSBT, at worst they are dangerous. Such false claims not only damage counter-extremism work but can help create a climate of hostility towards counter-extremists including the view that they are Islamophobic.
How can we do better on challenging extremism?
By recognising hateful extremist incidents far more quickly. By doing more to protect and support victims. By being more effective in challenging hateful extremists by using the right tools whether legal or otherwise. By everyone playing their part which includes recognising that inaction works in favour of hateful extremists.
We cannot turn a blind eye; to do so results in consequences advantageous to extremists.
I believe with our new approach – with greater clarity in our language – and by working together we can protect and promote a plural, peaceful and inclusive Britain.
Sara Khan is Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism. This is an edited version of a speech she gave in Leeds at the Local Government Association’s Bridging Northern Communities conference on November 5.