New counter-extremism laws must not cut out spaces for dialogue

This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net.

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, commonly described as the foundation of the freedom of the individual and the protection of liberty, and often regarded as the cornerstone of 'British values' of justice and fairness.

But today, debates on threats to civil liberty and justice rage on. Almost a decade after the attacks on London on 7 July 2005, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, the Muslim population in Britain has become the subject of intense scrutiny by the media, policy-makers and the wider public.

Still fresh from a general election victory, the government has announced a new programme to protect 'British values', alongside fresh measures to counter extremism.

These measures will include restrictions on those trying to radicalise young people and will give the police the power to apply to a high court for an order to limit the 'harmful activities' of individual extremists. They will also give authorities the power to close premises, including mosques, if 'extremists' are found to be influencing and inciting others, while giving new powers to the Charity Commission to stop inappropriate use of funds towards extremism and terrorism.

Fears of radicalisation and terrorism have already translated into concrete laws that test society’s notions of liberty. Take, for example, the PREVENT component of CONTEST, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The act stops people travelling abroad if there are suspicions that they could be involved in terrorism. In theory, it requires the police, prisons, local authorities, schools and universities to have due regard for preventing people from being 'drawn into terrorism' and asks each local authority to identify persons at risk of 'radicalisation' and violent extremism, and take action to 'de-radicalise' them.

However, there appears to be an increasing consensus among the Muslim and parts of the non-Muslim population that, despite placing PREVENT on a statutory footing, it is a 'toxic brand'. They view it with suspicion, arguing that it has morphed from being a strategy of engagement into being one predominantly of enforcement. The use of terms such as 'British values' by the government also sheds light on how they are grappling with changing populations that have multiple identities, arguably creating a 'with us or against us' scenario.

New proposals from the government present an opportunity to examine if the current methods of countering violent extremism and radicalisation are working, or are actually preventing young people from speaking up without being labelled a 'threat'. It could be possible they are doing both.

It is also an opportunity to examine if, as a society, we are in danger of confusing activism and the value of free speech with radicalisation. This confusion has resulted in the closing or limiting of spaces for dialogue, especially for those who seek to challenge the current securitisation agenda, and ironically those who seek to engage young people who are at risk of being drawn into violent extremism.

While securitisation may be required in cases of imminent threats, if used too widely it can reinforce fears and increase the alienation that drives people to hold violent extremist views in the first place.

Such widespread use of securitisation alienates parts of the Muslim population who do not support terrorism or violent extremism, but view government policy as discriminatory and hypocritical, particularly in light of the UK’s current and past foreign policies and practices.

Domestically, the use of surveillance and detention of suspects that does not result in arrests and convictions exacerbates the sense of alienation and distrust not just of the Muslim population. There is also the wider question of the restriction on all of our civil liberties, whereby schools, colleges and charities are feeling pressured to comply with the securitisation agenda and curtail discussions, actions and projects.

What’s the answer?

How do we address extremism in a way that does not impinge on civil liberties and exacerbate tensions in our communities?

First, we must create more spaces for dialogue, enabling young people to quench their inquisitiveness around forms of extremist ideology, and equip communities and organisations to hold such discussion spaces.

Holding discussions that feature different perspectives could also provoke more thought on whether we should be talking less about 'radicalisation' and 'counter-extremism' and more about the 'vulnerability' of young people and how we can best 'safeguard' their wellbeing. Building greater connections and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslims is also important.

In addition, we should increase our understanding of the complexity of issues of extremism, including its global dimensions, and the notions of identity and values.

And finally we may actually want to think about reclaiming the word 'radicalisation' to include a positive interpretation. Radicalisation may positively benefit our society – surely there are not many better examples in UK history than the proposal of the Magna Carta itself.