An independent review of the UK counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, has recommended that the government increase its efforts to tackle Islamist extremism.
Prevent was launched nearly two decades ago to divert vulnerable people away from radicalisation and terrorism. It has been controversial from the outset, criticised by experts and campaigners alike for its tight focus on Islamist extremism in particular and the alleged targeting of Muslim communities in Britain this results in.
William Shawcross, a British journalist and current commissioner for public appointments, has conducted an independent review. In his 200-page report, he outlines how Prevent is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism or to tackle organisations operating within the law and below the threshold of terrorism.
He also criticises “a double standard when dealing with the extreme right-wing and Islamism”. Prevent’s view of Islamist extremism, he says, is often too narrowly focused on banned terrorist organisations. Its view of extreme right wing, by contrast, is often too broadly focused on “mildly controversial” mainstream rightwing-leaning commentary.
One fundamental question this review poses is what exactly “Islamist extremism” is. This matters because many professionals (including teachers, lecturers, social workers, health workers and prison guards) are now legally obliged to watch out for it. Research I have recently published with Maaha Elahi, a pupil barrister, shows that a clearer definition is possible.
A new definition of “Islamist extremism”
The UK government defines “extremism” as “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”. This general definition has done little to improve the public’s understanding or to clarify what might distinguish Islamist extremism from other forms.
According to Prevent: “Islamist extremists regard Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war with Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’.” This ideology, the definition says, includes the uncompromising belief that people cannot be both Muslim and British. “Islamist extremists specifically attack the principles of civic participation and social cohesion,” it says. “These extremists purport to identify grievances to which terrorist organisations then claim to have a solution.”
The problem is that Prevent’s definition is rooted in the government’s favoured concept of “British values”. It says little about how extreme Islam differs from more mainstream forms of the religion. And it offers little practical guidance for the professionals now under a legal duty to be aware of terrorist risks.
To explore how this might be improved, we revisited the 2013 libel case brought by a London imam, Shakeel Begg, against the BBC. In a televised interview conducted by journalist Andrew Neil with the Muslim Council of Britain, Begg was described as an “extremist speaker” holding “extremist positions”. He subsequently sued the BBC.
In deciding Begg’s case, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave distinguished between extreme and mainstream forms of Islam. Among other expert sources, he relied on philosopher and sociologist of religion Matthew Wilkinson and his 2018 book, The Genealogy of Terror, to set out ten indicators of what he termed “extremist Islamic positions”:
- Having a Manichean view of the world – a strict divide between “us” and “them” – including between the “right” and “wrong” kind of Muslim.
- Reducing the idea of jihad to armed combat (or qital); the term can, in fact, also be translated simply as “striving”.
- Ignoring the established Islamic doctrinal conditions for the declaration of qital, including support for terrorism.
- Ignoring the Islamic regulations governing armed jihad, including attacks on civilians.
- Advocating qital as a universal, individual religious obligation.
- Interpreting sharia law to require breaking domestic (in our case, UK) law.
- Classifying all non-Muslims as unbelievers (or kuffar).
- Adhering to the extreme Salafist position that the Muslim faith negates and supersedes family, kinship and nation.
- Citing or approving legal opinions (or fatwa) from Islamic scholars with extremist views.
- Delivering or following teaching which encourages Muslims to engage in or support terrorism or violence in the name of Allah.
This is helpful because it roots “Islamist extremism” in Islamic concepts, not British values. It reduces the risk of the British state implying that Islam stands apart from British society. According to UK census data from 2021, 6.5% of those living in England and Wales – nearly 4 million people – are Muslim. Following Haddon-Cave’s lead would enable the government to play a more active role in protecting mainstream Islamic values for these Muslim communities.
Further, Haddon-Cave’s checklist approach offers a more practical solution to some of the uncertainty people feel. It helps to communicate more clearly what is meant – and what is not – by the term “Islamist extremism”.
This will contribute towards more positive relations between, for example, the police and Muslim communities. Checklists have a long history in both the engineering and medical professions. They are easy to use and, as our understanding develops, easy to adapt over time. Although not strictly a checklist, the most widely used definition of “antisemitism”, for instance,
employs a working definition with a list of examples to help its users.
This checklist approach could also be easily adapted to other forms of extremism, from the far right to far left. The various properties of rightwing extremism that criminologist Elisabeth Carter identified in 2018 include authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, xenophobia and anti-democratic values.
Early definitions, for instance, of “rightwing extremism” often excluded populism because it was mainly considered a speech-writing style. As our understanding of it as a political ideology developed, later definitions included it. Carter’s study shows how a checklist could be adapted in line with such developments in our thinking.
There are differences of opinion over which is the more serious issue, Islamist or far-right extremism. Some point to the MI5’s annual threat update, in which Director General Ken McCallum stated that Islamist terrorism represent three-quarters of its terrorist caseload. Others highlight recent data – from Prevent itself – that shows that extreme rightwing cases (between April 2021 and March 2022) in fact outnumbered Islamist cases for the second year running.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has pledged to fully implement the review’s recommendations. Campaigners, meanwhile, have called for Prevent to be scrapped. Either way, accurately defining and identifying extremism, in all its guises, remains crucial.
The research study reported here was not funded by a specific research grant. Maaha Elahi and Dr Julian Hargreaves are grateful for support from the Woolf Institute.
Dr Julian Hargreaves had an advisory role for the Commission for Countering Extremism and has offered academic advice to Counter Terrorism Policing.