Why UK’s extremism strategy is shifting

The starting point of any new government counter-extremism strategy should be understanding the ideology that motivates hatred, not the speech that it encourages

October 18, 2020 11:32

The Financial Times has reported that the United Kingdom counter-extremism strategy is to undergo a significant overhaul. Although the Home Office has indicated that the process is at an early stage, “insiders” have indicated that the new strategy will “focus less on extremism by itself, and more on the nexus between extremist ideology and hate speech”.

If this government is to reorientate the counter-extremism strategy in relation to speech, it is vital that it doesn’t put the cart before the horse.

There has been a tendency to treat hate speech, generally, as a matter of counter-extremism. However, the starting point of a successful counter-extremism strategy should be an understanding of the ideology that motivates hatred, not the speech that it encourages.

Ideology is not understood well by many who are tasked with implementing the strategy. It is easier to address the manifestations of extremism than it is to get to grips with the worldview that motivates it. The political theory that underpins extremist conduct may be complex and difficult to understand. But if we are to defeat our enemies, we need to understand how they see the world.

At present, counter-extremism strategy has both a broad and a narrow focus. Narrowly, through Prevent, significant efforts are directed to addressing the risk presented by vulnerable people who may be drawn into supporting or committing acts of terrorism. More broadly, much of the rest of the counter-extremism work addresses the conduct and rhetoric of groups and individuals that stop short of violence. These activities may not directly lead to terrorism — although they may normalise beliefs and attitudes that result in violence — but they emiserate the lives of blameless people and undermine social cohesion.

The most extreme hate speech is objectionable and is a proper subject of law enforcement, whatever its motivation. But not all forms of extremism are rooted in hate. There is a nexus between hate speech and extremist politics: but they are not the same thing. Not all hate speech is a matter of extremism, and not all extremists engage in hate speech.

For example, the conspiracist movement QAnon posits an imaginary grand Satanic child-trafficking ring, run by politicians and celebrities. Such theories have resulted in violence. For this reason, the FBI have identified QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat. But they do not incite hatred against groups defined by ethnicity, religion, sexuality or similar.

There is a difference between the deliberate instrumentalisation of hatred in order to promote a divisive political ideology and expressions of bigotry that are not primarily ideologically motivated or deployed to promote a particular political movement. A revised counter-extremism strategy should reflect that distinction.

There would also be value in ending the interminable debate as to the meaning of “extremism”. Extremism is a pretty open ended term. There are a host of people who have views which one might regard as “extreme”, but which are essentially innocuous, because their actions have no negative impact upon others. An open, democratic and pluralist society should be slow to intervene in such cases.

If we want an approach that does not suffer from over-reach, a model worth considering is the German State Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The State Office and its state-level counterparts scrutinise threats to the “free democratic basic norms”: respect for fundamental human rights, democratic participation, the separation of powers and judicial independence, and so on. If we start with a firm understanding of the ideologies which present challenges to these values, the prize is a counter-extremism strategy that is both focused and effective.

David Toube is director of policy at Quilliam

October 18, 2020 11:32

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive