Counter-extremism experts need more protection

There is far too little support afforded to those working on the front line to tackle the problem


Dame Sara Khan, whose report, 'Challenging Hateful Extremism', was published last month

April 03, 2024 08:56

Everyone understands the merit in countering those intent on diminishing women’s rights, restricting sexual freedoms, sowing fear between groups, supporting terrorism and celebrating violence against those who insult their belief system.

Yet in practice, those of us who work in counter-extremism are hounded, demonised and too often left with little support. The perpetrator is seen as the victim and the counter-extremism professional as the villain. In that context, Dame Sara Khan’s report last week, Challenging Hateful Extremism, shines a much-needed spotlight into the culture of timidity and fear that frustrates well-thought-out strategies, and the perverse pandering to extremists.

She makes the simple but crucial point that the victims are those who receive death threats and not those issuing them. A particularly egregious recent example was the public grovelling by the terrified mother of an autistic teenage boy who, after scuffing his own copy of the Koran, was suspended from school, received death threats and temporarily had a non-crime hate incident issued against him. Instead of receiving support, he found himself treated as a perpetrator by both authorities and society at large.

Khan finds that 44 per cent of the victims of what she terms “freedom restricting harassment” by extremists say it has affected their personal and/or family life, while 32 per cent say it has affected them psychologically.

I started as a Prevent practitioner aged just 23. By 24, I had been publicly accused of an affair with a married man, been called every expletive under the sun and been made to feel my employment could be snuffed out by the extremists. By 26, I had indeed lost my job on account of the very timidity shown by local authorities towards tackling Islamism; my proactive approach had me earmarked as politically risky, so the extremists took to X/Twitter claiming victory over my career.

Since I have subsequently carved out a more public role, my inbox has been filled with attacks on my appearance, my intelligence and threats that “you will fall”. Most recently, supporting Jewish students harassed on Exeter University campus has had me labelled anti-Islam, a Zionist and the Jewish students as fascists. Many of the students have since left campus and have gone quiet. The exodus of these students represents the very failures Khan points to: the failure to protect the most vulnerable from harassment and intimidation.

Friends of mine in the field have resigned as a consequence of freedom restricting harassment. One, Fiyaz Mughal, received threats from the far-right and Islamists (including the same organisation that has hounded me for years and is reportedly soon to be publicly denounced by Michael Gove for its extremism). Mughal had been put forward for the role of adviser on anti-Muslim hatred to the government, owing to his pivotal work recording anti-Muslim hate via Tell Mama UK and his lifetime dedicated to tackling hate of all kind. Despite his impeccable credentials, he received threats so severe that he is leaving the field entirely. While we are awash with extremism-related government reports at the moment, their recommendations will go unimplemented if the very experts primed to implement them are not spoken up for and protected.

Central to any effective strategy is a shift in focus towards recognising and supporting the true victims of extremism. This means prioritising the safety and well-being of those facing threats rather than cowering in fear of being branded “racist” by the perpetrators of hate. Transparency from central government, such as the forthcoming release of the list of extremist organisations, is a crucial step towards confronting the sources of extremism within our midst.

Let’s turn to that list. I have worked with it in the past, a central database of in-depth research on a number of extremist groups from the far-right to the far-left and Islamist groups. We were trained in dealing with and recognising these groups and then placed on the front line, myself in east London. Yet when we have started to tackle the very groups we had been trained to work on, all too often we have been hung out to dry, with the Home Office nowhere to be seen. Why? A mix of infiltration by those sympathetic to the extremists, ignorance and fear.

Making the list of extremist groups public will help tackle infiltration by their supporters into positions of political influence, along with conflicts of interest between central government and local authority implementation of anti-extremism work.

The myriad reports and recommendations released in the last two years, from the Prevent review to those I have published on extreme anti-blasphemy action, antisemitism, anti-Hindu hatred, and now Khan’s review, all point towards greater engagement with experts and better-equipped public bodies. How awful that it has taken an impending election and a record breaking rise in antisemitism to publish what, when put together, has the potential to bring effective and sustainable change.

It will now, most likely, be for a new government to pick all of this work up, put the different parts together and really get to work.

April 03, 2024 08:56

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