On Friday 19th July, the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) released its statistics summary and the first of its commissioned academic reports.
Alongside this, Home Secretary Sajid Javid delivered a speech on ‘Confronting Extremism Together’ which managed to blend headline-grabbing threats against CAGE and Muslim organisations with praise for Nigel Farage, the now customary references to his own background – and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to produce a new Counter Extremism Strategy.
Coming on the cusp of Boris Johnson’s announcement as Prime Minister, the speech was undoubtedly a chest-puffing exercise for Javid, who was re-asserting himself politically after his own failed leadership bid.
Setting that side, it is worth exploring what we can expect from a new strategy of this kind, drawing both on the work undertaken by the CCE thus far, and the trajectory of counter-extremism since the first Counter Extremism Strategy was published in 2015.
The background of the Counter Extremism Strategy and the CCE
The Counter Extremism Strategy (2015) outlines the structure of the counter-extremism apparatus in Britain today.
Expanding from the foundations laid by PREVENT, this apparatus now consists of three interlinked poles:
1) Countering Terrorism, including through PREVENT
2) Countering Extremism, which deals with socio-cultural anxieties such as FGM and so-called “Sharia courts”, as well as extremist “entryism” in schools and universities
3) Integration, which aims to create ‘resilient communities’ which can resist extremist narratives
In combination, this strategy has ushered in an all-society system of counter-extremism, and stretched counter-extremism far beyond its former remit of violence, to penetrate society at large.
The CCE was drawn from the Counter Extremism Strategy, and focuses predominantly on the second strand, Countering Extremism – something CCE spokespeople use to disingenuously evade uncomfortable questions about PREVENT.
The background and aim of the CCE are covered extensively in our report CCE Exposed, but most important to note is how the work of the CCE picks up the baton from the shelved Counter Extremism Bill, first announced in the Conservative Party’s 2015 election manifesto.
The powers in that Bill were to include Banning Orders and ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’ against ‘extremist groups’, as well as powers to shut mosques and premises used for ‘extremist’ purposes, and facilitate greater regulatory power over broadcasts.
That Bill eventually failed to surface both over the government’s inability to legally define “extremism”, as well as due to the resounding backlash it received.
Enter the CCE and the notion of “citizens policing extremism”
Though many criticised the deeply authoritarian nature of the powers, other, more charitable, opposition came from the likes of now-CCE head Sara Khan.
Khan’s modest contribution was that, whilst the aims of the Bill were ultimately valid in her eyes, legislative power from above was perhaps not the best route to secure it – and rather that civil society should be encouraged to do the work of policing “extremism”.
As we stated in CCE Exposed: “The CCE has provided Khan with the opportunity to do just that, in building what she terms a ‘powerful counter-extremism movement’ whilst also developing a working definition of ‘extremism’ which the government was unable to previously….it is also entirely possible that the work of the CCE will lay the groundwork for the re-introduction of the Counter Extremism Bill, or similar powers, in the near future and a key starting point – as we are witnessing – is settling on a definition of ‘extremism’.”
The work of the CCE will likely be influential on what the new Counter Extremism Strategy will eventually look like, which makes it a useful starting point for considering what such a strategy may include.
A wholly subjective definition of ‘extremism’
The primary work of the CCE thus far has been to fill the gap into which the Counter Extremism Bill sunk: (re)defining “extremism”.
Whilst the functional definition of “extremism” currently used is the one defined in the PREVENT strategies – i.e. opposition to Fundamental British Values – the CCE has sought to develop a ‘working definition’ that extends beyond this, to which end it has recently carried out its survey to secure a public consensus.
Curiously then, for its evidence-gathering exercise, the CCE proceeded on the basis that “people are able to describe what extremist activities, attitudes and behaviours look like” and wanted participants to “use their own perceptions on what they consider to be extremism”.
Therefore, the statistics released by the CCE on Friday – such as the dramatic finding that ‘52% of all respondents had witnessed extremism in some way’ – was based on a survey presuming society’s supposedly innate instinct for spotting an undefined ‘extremism’.
This means that, in order to establish the scale of “extremism”, which will be used as evidence for creating a more concrete definition to be operationalised in law, the CCE has relied upon entirely subjective “gut feel” responses from the public.
This makes the survey the wholly subjective result of fear-driven, perhaps politically motivated, herd mentality.
The new definition will extend the definition of “extremism” to other communities
Nonetheless, the new Counter Extremism Strategy will very likely propose a revised definition of “extremism”, which will form the basis of counter-extremism interventions going forward – especially in light of the fact that the CCE’s survey found widespread dissatisfaction with the current definition.
Javid’s speech references, in the context of “extremism’”, protests against LGBT lessons in Birmingham schools, homophobic attacks, forced marriage, anti-semitism and racist attacks.
The CCE has also taken an interest in the idea of “far-left” and Sikh “extremism”, whilst last week the influential rightwing think-tank Policy Exchange released a report calling for the targeting of “green anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism” under the notion of “extremism”.
A mixture of these “threats” will likely be reflected in a new definition, and this highlights the direction of travel of counter-extremism today.
Having honed its craft on Muslim communities, it is being exported to other causes and communities, and being expanded to include more behaviours and “social ills”, which are far removed from political violence in any meaningful sense of the word.
The meaning of “extremism” is being stretched so far beyond the realm of violence that it loses any analytic power, which only serves to strengthen the state’s coercive power.
Increasing control over civil society will impact aid and foreign nationals
Javid’s speech was accompanied by headlines focusing on his bluster-fuelled pledge to revoke CAGE’s license for sponsoring migrant workers.
He also proudly mentions his revocation of British citizenship to expel “extremists” from the country – most prominently, this includes Shamima Begum – and his barring of undesirables from visiting the country.
This link between the coercive powers of immigration law and the counter-extremism apparatus has been a consistent feature of British counter-extremism, but Javid’s speech indicates that the new Counter Extremism Strategy will likely expand on it further.
The power to withdraw sponsor licenses, if successful, will certainly not stop with CAGE. Rather it will become the state’s latest weapon in its assault on British civil society, alongside the weaponisation of the Charity Commission, gag laws, the use of counter-terror laws against aid workers and aid convoys, and more.
The outcome on aid will be disastrous, and politically driven. It will be used to exert a disciplining effect on internationally-oriented organisations NGOs, severing them from their global base if they dare critique the government’s foreign policy – even when they are perhaps best placed to do so.
Javid’s speech also alludes to new “British Values Tests” for the purposes of the “Integration” strand, an idea which has long been circulated by government figures.
This indicates the hardening of “Fundamental British Values” as a tool of social management, and as a pretence for mobilising civil powers against migrants and foreign nationals.
Therefore the new Counter Extremism Strategy will likely include a suite of civil sanctions and powers to augment the already vast and punishing counter terror powers available to government, but which can be deployed by government ministers without any pretense of due process or judicial oversight.
The Strategy will likely facilitate the state’s monopoly over the online sphere
The government discourse around “extremism” in the online space has liberally conflated a broad swathe of social ills – from online abuse, hate crime, child sexual abuse, terrorism to gang violence, disinformation and “fake news”.
In turn, the government has been seeking to develop a means of regulating the hitherto ‘lawless’ online space, including placing statutory duty of care on providers and increasing disruptive powers to level against them if they fail to comply.
Considering this context, ‘online regulation’ by the state is likely to amount to a wide scale attack on internet freedom and encourage the self-policing of social media platforms – something that is already well underway.
The government’s Online Harms White Paper, for which it recently concluded its consultation, will return soon with a concrete legislative proposal for this regulatory framework.
Most troublingly, the White Paper explicitly aims to target behaviours and activities ( under the broad catch-all term, ‘Harms’) that fall well below any criminal threshold – just like with anti-migrant civil sanctions – and will undoubtedly be used as a political tool in the hands of the state.
Whilst it pays lip service to defending freedom of expression, the ability for society to organise in the online space will be diminished, perhaps irreversibly – and the focus on countering “disinformation” is less to do with fake news and everything to do with reasserting the state’s monopoly on truth.
The Strategy will draw legitimacy from broadly valid concerns about the state of the online space, primarily in order to institute drastic censorship and assert government control over the media – echoed by Javid in his appeal to broadcasters not to give a platform to “extremists”.
An all society system of censorship
It bears repeating: modern counter-extremism does not start or end with PREVENT.
It is vital to monitor and challenge the steady expansion of the counter-extremism apparatus as it captures more aspects of social life within its orbit.
The new Counter Extremism Strategy will likely draw upon the themes explored above, as well as other strands that emerge in the course of the CCE’s research, to cement an all-society system of censorship, surveillance and repression.
With this in mind, we reiterate our call for citizens – particularly Muslims – to cease any cooperation with the CCE, as to do so will truly be to collaborate on the terms of our oppression and further a fundamentally repressive project.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)