Extremism in the UK: Threats and challenges – The Democracy Forum at Senate House, University of London


Ataul Fatir Tahir, London

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Despite constant vows by world leaders to “end” extremism, its spectrum continues to broaden. Right-wing attacks now spread across America to New Zealand, stern governments exercise unjust control, world leaders are seeking to divide between “us” and “them” and extremist religious preachers are gaining support.

Understanding the causes and solutions to extremism remains a vital discussion and debate. The Democracy Forum, a non-profit NGO aiming to promote ideals of democracy, pluralism and tolerance through public debate, held a seminar on Extremism in the UK: A discussion of threats and challenges.

The seminar took place at the heart of London at Senate House, London University. The day consisted of two sessions where researchers, professors and lecturers detailed their studies on various elements of extremism in the UK.  The whole event was duly chaired by Humphrey Hawksley, former BBC foreign correspondent.

Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade welcomed those invited to the seminar and read out a message Lord Bruce had written for the forum attendees, as he could not attend himself due illness.

His message encapsulated the threat of extremism and its causes, calling it a “parasite that feasts off fear and hatred”. Next, Lord Bruce quoted Edward Said’s views (known as the cornerstone of post colonial studies) about modern fragmentation of knowledge on the internet and media that “our students” use. He was also quoted to have said how regrettable statecraft in Washington was, writing, “It is quite common to hear high officials speak of changing the map of the Middle East as if ancient society and myriad peoples can be shaken up like so many peanuts in a jar”.

Next, Humphrey Hawksley spoke of his own experiences as a BBC Asia correspondent. Recalling two occasions, he said that he once covered a massacre by the Sinhalese government of a Tamil village. The government justified the slaughter saying that if they had not done so, the Sinhalese people would have been taken over by the Tamil Tigers. On another occasion, he read a news report of a Sinhalese village massacred by the Tamil Tigers. Upon interviewing the Tamil Tiger representatives in London, the answers he received were similar, they said, “Don’t you understand we have to. We have to show them that they can’t massacre our villages and we won’t massacre theirs”.

Hawskley then mentioned a demonstration several years later by the Tamil representatives in London. He said that he observed the very man who he had interviewed, shoulder to shoulder with British MPs. Acknowledging the human rights concern of the MPs, Hawskley also noted that the MPs needed Tamil votes and funding for their election campaigns.

Hawksley opined that extremism develops when one feels the system does not work for them anymore and then the vested interests at work “will find those people who think the system does not work for them” and then make them into a militia force.

“Masculinity and the UK’s radical right”

After these introductory observations, the first speaker to present her research was by a lecturer at the Cyber Threats Research Centre. The speaker’s identity was to be kept anonymous. The topic was “Masculinity and the UK’s radical right”.

Throughout this insightful talk, the speaker described the “culture” and “motives” behind supporters of populist groups like the English Defense League (EDL) and Britain First (BF), who oppose Islam. She explained how extremism amongst men stems from “toxic masculinity”, a term coined in the 1980s. It describes stereotypical norms of masculinity and manhood and the expectation from boys and men to be aggressive, tough, daring, dominant and have self-reliance. These traditional cultural masculine norms can be harmful to society at large.

The talk examined research suggesting members of the EDL and BF are often “angry, white, damaged and vulnerable” men who seek to protect themselves and use the “other” as a scapegoat. EDL demonstrations are noisy, vibrant and full of people who are “passionate about the problem of Islam”.

Right-wing members live in a niche of specific cultural traits and habits. Research indicates that 70% of British right-wing members have a football hooligan culture, assertion of ownership and a deep attachment to protect “their space”. Therefore, the loud and aggressive demonstrations allow them to express their emotion – a prime example of toxic masculinity.

The lecturer drew on right-wing extremism to also reflect the social psychology of men joining extremist religious group like Daesh. Though toxic masculinity serves as an essential piece in understanding extremist psychology, it is not all-inclusive and other factors play a role.

“Good news, bad news and agendas: extremist venues in the UK”

The second talk was by Dr Paul Stott, research fellow at the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism, the Henry Jackson Society. The talk was titled, “Good news, bad news and agendas: extremist venues in the UK”.

Dr Stott described the rise and fall of radical Muslim preachers in the UK and their influence. Further, he detailed the kind of places that have bred extremist cultures and ideologies. Venues included: Mosques, Islamic centres, fitness centers, street stalls, tables outside mosques, book shops, university campuses, houses and madrasas. The Muslim terrorists who carried out various attacks on British soil were found to be misled and radicalised in such venues.

These venues were also and to some extent still are, within their own bubble. However now “visit my mosque day” events have enabled interaction with the wider Muslim community and the British public, Dr Stott noted.

Dr Paul Stott took his discussion a step further and spoke on the politicisation paradox between political figures and mosques. He said that mosques in the UK have now become key political players for political figures to gain votes and funding. Mosques and organisations that have previously preached extremist ideologies were still used by politicians to gain support.

University campuses have been venues where radicalised actors may have met. Dr Stott explained how university lecturers will bar and discourage if people are from the right-wing. However, they are less comfortable doing so with Islamic actors. Though universities have struggled with these issues they are better than they were, Dr Stott said.  

Dr Stott mentioned the release of a book, The Qatar Papers that detailed very significant funding of Islamist terrorist groups and individuals across Europe by Qatar, including Britain. Articles about the findings appeared in most European countries, however, they nearly did not appear in the UK. He said it was in the public interest to know that funding comes from Qatar to the UK and then is sent to extremist groups around the world, however this was not reported. This, Dr Stott said was another example of how discussions have narrowed over the years about discussing radical trends.

“A strategic overview of the UK’s early post-9/11 counter-terrorism policy”

The third talk of the first session was by Dr Edgar Tembo, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism, University of Nottingham. His talk was to investigate the strategies and the effectiveness of the UK in reaction to 9/11.

He said that it is not easy for a government to develop a counter terrorism strategy as they need to find a balance between acceptability and effectiveness. For example, do we have to accept a certain level of terrorism in order to “maintain the civil liberties and political rights that we cherish?” Or do we want to “sacrifice some democratic substance in order to be effective against terrorism?”

He said this problem was perhaps encapsulated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) statement after their failed attempt to assassinate Margret Thatcher. The IRA declared, “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will always have to be lucky.”

Dr Edgar Tembo then spoke of the United Kingdom’s counter terrorism strategy, CONTEST. He explained the positive and negative elements of this multi-layered strategy.  The talk went into information sharing between security agencies within the UK and their problems while also speaking of the weaknesses of the Prevent strategy, a strand of CONTEST. Intelligence agencies can share more information with local police authorities, he explained.  However, now law enforcement and intelligent agencies are now working much better.

 “The importance of engaging with theology in countering violent extremism”

Dr Usama Hassan, Head of Islamic Studies, Quilliam and gave a talk on tackling extremism through changing the theology of extremists. He spoke of case studies where Muslims have reverted away from extremist beliefs after they were taught the true teachings of Islam. He referred to a quote of Hazrat Alira, who said the following about the Khawarij (extremist Muslims who opposed Khilafat-e-Rashidah): “They are our brothers who have transgressed against us”. Dr Hassan said that Hazrat Alira would often use dialogue to convert the Khawarij back.

He detailed his childhood and how he was bought up with a large map on a wall of his house that showed Muslim countries. He said this made him think it was “Muslims versus the rest”. In a similar manner, other Muslims are bought up with such beliefs which lead them towards extremism.

Caliphate was discussed and Ibn Khaldoon’s and Ibn Taymiya’s views about the Caliphate being about “good governance” and that there was no problem in having multiple Islamic states were expressed. Dr Hassan said that extremists have other views and present Caliphate as a super-state ruled by a dictator.

“The problem begins at home: domestic cultural drivers and alienation of extremism”

Prof Bill Durodie, Chair of risk and security in international relations, University of Bath spoke of his concerns about the lack of freedom when it comes to speaking about extremism. Prof Durodie said that people, in our current discourse, are “walking on eggshells” when engaging in their own beliefs regarding religion, politics and community. He said people have “paralyzed their views” for fear of “hurting others”.

Dr Durodie said that history teachers in France are afraid of saying certain things as it may hurt the Muslim students.  He said that we are in an “age of bad faith”. Younger people are energetic, passionate and looking something to believe in, however it is our inability to provide them with something to believe in, the professor said.

Prof Durodie also criticised the policy of “Run, Hide and Tell” as an official response to an attack or terrorist event for the public, taught by the police. He said that such a teaching highlights the problem within our discourse. He emphasised that problems should be openly talked about without care of hurting others.

“Extremist ecosystems: how do Islamists create power and influence?”

The final talk was under Chatham House Rules. The insightful talk detailed how extremist Muslim groups use Muslim television channels as platforms for support and funding. She explained that personalities who regularly appear on such channels have had direct links with promoting extremist ideologies.

The overall forum was certainly insightful and informative – a wealth of research was presented. Insights, through imperative data, into why and how extremist ideologies form gave the forum credibility and legitimacy

However, Dr Hassan’s quotes about Caliphate being only “governance” did not resonate too well with me, as the spiritual element of Caliphate was totally ignored.

After all, the true understanding of Caliphate and its purpose was unveiled to the world at the advent of the Promised Messiahas and his Khulafa.

Prof Durodie’s continuous assertive view of not caring about the sentiments of others seemed a bit obnoxious. Personally, I felt his opinion that society is “walking on eggshells” was exaggerated, as the media is saturated with hurtful discourse towards other groups; including anti-Islamic rhetoric. Not caring about the sentiments of others leads one to erase all lines of respect and honour. Yes, having open discussions is essential and vital but a sense of dignity and respect should follow.

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