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Why we must back the new anti-extremism tsar

The attacks Sara Khan has faced so far unwittingly suggest the scale of the challenge which she will face

    Sara Khan who will head up the newly-created Commission for Countering Extremism (Photo: PA)
    Sara Khan who will head up the newly-created Commission for Countering Extremism (Photo: PA)

    Between the terror attacks at Manchester Arena and London Bridge last year, the UK Prime Minister announced that she would appoint an independent commissioner to look into the problem of extremism in the UK. With unusual speed the government announced its appointee last week.

    Sara Khan is a deeply admired and respected figure among the small community of people in the UK actually dedicated to challenging Islamist extremism.

    She is a Muslim herself, is the founder of the Muslim women’s group Inspire and has proved herself over more than a decade to be a serious and resilient opponent of the extremists.

    Despite constant attacks from pro-Islamist quarters, she has always remained cool and calm and just impressively and un-showily got on with her meaningful work.

    In many ways the reaction to her appointment was a vindication of it, smoking out as it did a range of embittered critics.

    Before it had even been announced Baroness Warsi, the former Conservative cabinet minister, was furiously tweeting denunciations. “For the commissioner to be effective,” Baroness Warsi announced, “the person had to be an independent thinker, both connected to and respected by a cross-section of British Muslims.”

    She went on: “Sara is sadly seen by many as simply a creation of and mouthpiece for the Home Office.”

    Baroness Warsi has never been one for self-awareness. She herself is only in the Lords because she was the creation and mouthpiece of David Cameron when he was Conservative leader, only resigning her cabinet position in 2014 over British support for Israel in the war against Hamas.

    Even less surprising was the criticism from the Labour MP Naz Shah. This is the woman whose antisemitism saw her disciplined two years ago by the Labour party.

    According to Ms Shah: “Khan is widely seen as the creation of the Home Office and lacks the crucial independence required to meet the requirements of this role.”

    Presumably Ms Shah envisages someone with the kind of independence and credibility that might come from indulging in regular bouts of antisemitism?

    Elsewhere, an assortment of Islamists and fruitcakes condemned the appointment. Ms Khan’s support of the UK government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme was a consistent theme in these attacks, perhaps the least successful of which came from the Muslim convert and professional sister-in-law Lauren Booth. Her elaborate denunciation of Sara Khan showed she had evidently confused her with the former Apprentice star and Loose Women presenter Saira Khan.

    All these attacks and more unwittingly suggested the scale of the challenge which Ms Khan will face. For the problem is not her support for the government’s current counter-extremism programme.

    The problem is that large portions of Britain’s Muslims do not merely have a problem with Prevent, they — and numerous groups who speak in their name — would oppose any counter-extremism programme.

    This is either because they do not believe that there is any extremism, or that they support such extremism, or they think that it is in some way wrong to single out the biggest security threat to our country.

    This is not to smear an entire community, merely to observe the evidence. A 2016 poll showed that half of British Muslims would not go to the police even if someone they knew was involved in Isis-like activities.

    Ms Khan is going to have a serious problem trying to get communities this deep in denial to support any counter-extremism activity proposed by the British government.

    Her other problem is more bureaucratic. It is still unclear what resources will be allocated to her, what inter-agency cooperation there will be or what other powers the commissioner will in practice end up having.

    If anybody can overcome these challenges, it will be Sara Khan. As her 2016 book, The Battle for British Islam, showed, she has a serious and open-eyed awareness of the scale of the task.

    And she understands the cost of failing. Not just for people of every other faith and none but for progressive Muslims like herself who, perhaps even more than Jews in Britain, receive the ire of the fake-moderates and real extremists.


    Douglas Murray is associate director of the Henry Jackson Society and author of “The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam”