On Thursday 8th June the UK public goes once again to the polls only two years after the previous election. Brexit has dramatically shifted the political landscape making this one of the most interesting elections in recent history. The anodyne manifestos of the past have given way to genuine political choices. And yet one policy area with significant political implications has largely been ignored by the media: de-radicalisation. How we prevent individuals from moving into political violence is of great importance, particularly following recent events. Indeed the stark contrast between each of the parties highlights this: the Conservatives are seeking to criminalise non violent extremism (or the unidentified causes of it); Labour is advocating for a comprehensive overhaul of the counter-radicalisation programme ‘Prevent’; and the Liberal Democrats are seeking to scrap ‘Prevent’ altogether. So what do these policies mean and why do they matter?
Before diving into the policy debates we must first understand their context. In 2003 the then Labour Government under Tony Blair implemented the CONTEST strategy. This strategy was separated into four ‘strands’: Pursue, Prevent, Protect, and Prepare. The de-radicalisation policy primarily fell under the ‘Prevent’ strand defining radicalisation as “the process by which people come to support violent extremism and, in some cases, join terrorist groups” (CONTEST, 2009:11); identifying de-radicalisation and the prevention of radicalisation as fundamental pillars of the counter-terrorism architecture. The terminology and associated practices were bound up in tackling “violent extremism” (CONTEST, 2011) through five key areas: (1) Challenging the ideology used to justify violence; (2) stop those spreading such an ideology; (3) support those susceptible to accepting this ideology; (4) help (Islamic) communities know how to deal with advocates of such violence; and (5) address the underlying grievances which these ideologies refer to. Besides the preoccupation for lists and acronyms in policy papers, this illustrates how the primary focus of the ‘Prevent’ strand was targeted against Islamic ideologies which legitimised the use of political violence.
The coalition Government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats then built upon this developing the ‘Prevent’ strand of CONTEST into a strategy of its own in 2011. This strategy defined radicalisation more specifically, focusing explicitly on its relationship with ideology: “We judge that radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence….that sets Muslim against non-Muslim, highlights the alleged oppression of the global Muslim community and which both obliges and legitimises violence in its defence” (Prevent, 2011:5, 18). Obvious and legitimate criticisms followed challenging the almost exclusive focus on Islamic extremism, arguing that it would result in increased Islamophobia and potentially even of radicalisation itself (Abbas, 2012:356). Accordingly, the Coalition Government responded by broadening the definition to include far-right extremist groups as well.
This brings us to the 2015 General Election and the party manifestos. As you can see from Figure 2 radicalisation was clearly on the political agenda. For Green Party the focus was on individual radicalisation primarily within the prisons, an issue which has since caused considerable challenges and led to a Government review concluding last year. The Liberal Democrats essentially outlined the core points raised by the 2009 CONTEST strategy, that there needed to be strong community engagement as well as certain limited powers. Labour criticised the changes under Prevent saying it had been cut back and did not effectively work with Muslim communities. These are all fairly partisan and sterile political positions. The points made don’t give any real indication of policy transformation. The worrying exception was the Conservative and UKIP manifestos, because for UKIP radicalisation represented a battlefield where the ambiguous ‘erosion of British values’ is implicitly linked to the rise of extremism; whereas the Conservative manifesto stated explicitly that they would broaden the definition of radicalism to include nonviolence as well: “We will confront all forms of extremism, including non-violent extremism” (2015:63). The significance of this is marked by the fact that the Home Secretary who would have overseen this policy recommendation is no less than the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, making this not simply an idle device of political rhetoric. This marked a worrying development for a number of reasons tied to the very term itself.
The term radicalisation has been the subject of significant academic and public debate, leading some to call for it to be abandoned (Sedgwick, 2010), while others to add qualifying terms such as ‘violent’ radicalisation or ‘political’ radicalisation (McCauley et al, 2008). But from an analytical and academic perspective few have gone so far as to include nonviolent political expression, and for very good reasons. Much of the research on radicalisation refers to the importance that de-radicalisation efforts are designed in a way which avoids embedding the very thing they are trying to prevent. Specifically, the “racialised practices of Muslim profiling” (Monaghan and Molnar, 2016:410) can play into the very ideology of subjugation and repression which is exploited by violent extremist recruiters. Indeed, a study which provided a comprehensive overview of current academic findings argued that because of the diverse pathways into political violence, it is important “to combat the notion that constitutional politics is an ineffective way of seeking to address grievances” (Dalgaard-Nielsen, 2010:811). This is important because for at least some individuals non-violent political expression must be regarded as more effective than violence. But widening the radicalisation framework to encompass non-violence will achieve the exact opposite; in other words, increased surveillance and restrictions on certain non-conformist ideologies could act as motivating grievances to engage in political violence.
Take the following as an illustrative example. Below is an extract setting out the policy objectives behind Prevent (CONTEST, 2009), but instead of the terms ‘violence’ or ‘extremism’, these have been replaced by ‘nonviolence’ and ‘radical Islam’.
- To challenge the ideology behind non-violent radical Islam and support mainstream voices.
- Disrupt those who promote non-violent radical Islam and support the places where they operate.
- Support individuals who are vulnerable to recruitment, or have already been recruited by nonviolent radical Islamists.
- Increase the resilience of communities to nonviolent radical Islam.
When seen in the context of our counter-terrorism strategy this appears worryingly close to, if not a blatant example of, state repression. Broadening the definition, therefore, is not simply political rhetoric. It would involve a dramatic widening of policing powers, and a greater repression of legitimate non-violent alternatives to those encouraging political violence. This wouldn’t just alienate a portion of the population; it could itself become a source of radicalisation.
Now it is important to first qualify this discussion because thankfully these changes haven’t been implemented – yet. For instance in the Prevent duty guidance given to schools, radicalisation was still defined as: “the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism” (DoE, 2015:4). Likewise, the annual review of CONTEST last year had no mention of nonviolent political expression at all. However this is not for a lack of trying.
The Government has tried to broaden this definition to include non-violence through the Countering Extremism and Safeguarding Bill, but this has not come to pass due to widespread opposition. For instance, a cross party committee published a report on the proposals concluding: “The Government gave us no impression of having a coherent or sufficiently precise definition of either ‘nonviolent extremism’ or ‘British values’” (Joint Committee on HR, 2016:8). And recently the Guardian cited Government sources saying the Bill would likely be dropped. Indeed with the election there has been no mention of it at all.
This brings us right up to the present where there are a number of points I believe are important to highlight. Firstly, the Conservative stance has, if anything, hardened towards radicalisation. In their manifesto “Islamic extremism” is singled out as the target of counter-terrorism (marginalising the prevalence of far-right violence and the continuing threat of republican violence), and their solution is twofold: the promotion of ‘pluralism’ and ‘British values’; and the criminalising of extremism. I spend an awful lot of time researching and teaching on counter-terrorism, and yet I have no idea what either of these two policy positions would actually mean. Using ambiguous and undefined terms only creates more confusion and this is exactly what we don’t need when trying to address the causes behind political violence. So instead of addressing the causes of violence this is likely to become one of them.
But rather than conclude on such a pessimistic note, I will make two final points which I believe offer at least some encouraging signs. The first is that radicalisation as a term itself appears to have been dropped. The parties recognise its toxic legacy and have now taken on the term ‘extremism’, and have generally sought to link this to violence (except in the case of the Conservatives). Secondly, the Prevent strategy appears to have run its course. Each of the parties have drawn clear positions: either not mentioning it in the case of the Conservatives; calling for a major review in the case of Labour; or calling for it to be scrapped altogether in the case of the Liberal Democrats. So for one of the first times in recent history we are being offered a clear choice. Therefore, hopefully this election will mark the beginning of a counter-terrorism policy which seeks to work with communities, not one which subjects them to discrimination.
“Change Britain’s Future”, Liberal Democrats, 2017.
“Conservative Party Manifesto: Strong Leadership, a clear economic plan, a brighter, more secure future”, Conservative Party, 2015.
“CONTEST The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism: Annual Report for 2015”, HM Government, Cm 9310, July 2016.
“CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism”, HM Government, Cm 8123, July 2011.
“Counter-Extremism: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report of Session 2016-17”, House of Commons/House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights, HC 756, 2016.
“For the many not the few”, The Labour Party, 2017.
“Forward Together: Our Pan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future”, The Conservative and Unionist Party, 2017.
“Prevent Strategy”, HM Government, Cm 8092, June 2011.
“Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism”, HM Government, CM 7547, March 2009.
“Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point”, House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Eight Report of Session 2016-17, HC 135, 2016.
“The Prevent duty: Departmental advice for schools and childcare providers”, Department of Education, June 2015.
Abbas, Tahir (2012), The symbiotic relationship between Islamophobia and radicalisation, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 5(3):345-358.
Cambridge English Dictionary Online, (Cambridge University Press, 2017) http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/radical
Dalgaard-Nielsen, Anja (2010), Violent Radicalization in Europe: What we know and what we do not know, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33(9):797-814.
McCauley, Clark and Sophia Moskalenko (2008), Mechanism of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, 20(3):415-433.
Monaghan, Jeffrey and Adam Molnar (2016), Radicalisatoin theories, policing practices, and “the future of terrorism?”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 9(3):393-413.
Sedgwick, Mark (2010), The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion, Terrorism and Political Violence, 22(4):479-494.