As the government joins yet another coalition force to tackle the latest challenge emanating from the Middle East; namely, the so-called Islamic State (IS), it is keen to convince us that it is has everything – from the country’s economy to its security – either on track or under control. However, one does not have to look very far to see that actually, this is not the case. The home secretary, Theresa May’s recent pledge to develop a manifesto to effectively tighten the grip on extremism is yet another indication of the government’s inability to grasp the extent of the problem or accurately define the terminology that drives it.
In February 2011, David Cameron delivered his now (in)famous Munich speech in which he stated that all types of extremism must be addressed. Not many would disagree with his observation; however, the difficulty arose when he referred to non-violent extremism without so much as defining it or identifying supporters of this newly established category.
The term ‘non-violent extremist’ is one that has become an altogether familiar phrase in the UK directed toward individuals like me and the organisation I founded – Strategy To Reach Empower & Educate Teenagers (STREET UK). STREET, like a few other grassroots organisations, received funding under the previous PREVENT strategy to tackle violent radicalisation and extremism. However, if one was to approach the home office to enquire about the reasons behind the organisation being among the first to have its funding withdrawn in 2011, there would be no actual reference whatsoever to it or me being considered non-violent extremists. Instead, one would find obscure references to austerity cuts and a lack of ‘value for money’ being cited as the reasons behind such cuts.  However, these messages are contrary to those conveyed to the organisation’s former statutory partners and agencies who were told unequivocally to no longer work with STREET or risk funding cuts themselves. My organisation was now considered a non-violent extremist entity – despite it receiving a Government Of London (GOL) Award in 2009 for being the most innovative youth intervention programme in 2008.
The present issue is not one relating to funding cuts as that is any government’s prerogative and nevertheless, STREET continues to tackle social challenges like violent radicalisation, gang violence etc. The issue is in relation to the government’s disingenuous approach of attempting to disguise its failing and ill-thought out strategies to comprehensively address the problem of home-grown extremism, which is clearly getting worse.
Theresa May refers to having successfully dealt with a number of non-violent extremist entitities but cannot cite a single example of an individual or organisation fitting this description that has been effectively ‘dealt with.’ If she had, would there have been the need to announce a raft of new changes to tackle extremism in this particular area?
This then begs further questions – how or what defines non-violent extremism? In the absence of a clear definition, this term is subjective and open to limitless interpretations. Also, whose civil liberties will she attempt to restrict and on what premise? How will she classify who is non-violent and, by extension, considered a threat to society?
Perhaps, if Mrs. May decided to look beyond the apparently very blinkered advice she has received up until now, she would begin to appreciate the need to approach the terminology she uses to attempt to tackle radicalisation and extremism, more cautiously.
If she had approached the issue of extremism from a more academically astute perspective, she would have discovered more definitive terminology relating to the root causes of extremism. This would have provided a foundation upon which to differentiate between violent and non-violent extremism. Distinguishing between ideological (or belief-related) and behavioural (deed-related) types of extremism would have been a good starting point for her to determine the extent of the challenge faced today. Ideological extremism often points to the types of beliefs that need to be robustly challenged and defeated like, for example, in the case of a minority of Muslims, the belief that suicide bombings and the murder of innocent civilians are permissible under Islamic Law.
Behavioural extremism however is more difficult to discern due to its subjectivity. For example, in one society, publicly wearing the niqab might be considered extreme – as in the relatively recent example of France, which outlawed this practice, whereas in another society it is acceptable to publicly display symbols of religiosity – thankfully, the UK remains one such society. Growing a full beard is yet another example where one society may deem this to be behaviourally extreme in contrast to another where it is more widely accepted.
While someone may be considered behaviourally extreme in a particular societal context due to their physical appearance or attire, this does not render them extremist according to existing legal definitions of the term. However, if an individual possessed a combination of ideological and particular behavioural extremist tendencies, the potential for violent radicalisation is increased.
Before Theresa May decides to finalise her proposals for a new and extended extremism manifesto, it is hoped that she will be more diligent in researching and examining newly coined terminology that can potentially marginalise groups and individuals even more than before – particularly those who were not only effective in countering violent radicalisation, but who had also been formerly active participants as British citizens in publicly denouncing extremism in all its forms – regardless of it being violent or non-violent.
 Preventing Extremism: Minister for London presents awards to capital’s most effective projects, News Distribution Service for Government and the Public Service Sector – COI; 17th February 2009
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