Preventing Islamist Extremism in Liberal Democracies

27th November 2018

I attended the Home Affairs conference in Prague last week, where I spoke on a panel on the subject of preventing Islamist extremism in liberal democracies. This is broadly what I had to say.

Here are five points which give you a flavour of the lessons that we have learnt in combating extremism and political polarisation over the past 15 years.

  • Do not treat Islamic Extremism as any different from other forms of extremism. There are certain features which are common to all forms of extremism, and indeed provide a helpful understanding of what ‘extremism’ means. These features equally arise within far Right, far Left, Islamist and other forms of extremism. They are:
    • The rejection of liberal democratic norms – equality between persons, the primacy of parliamentary democracy over street politics and authoritarianism, and the fundamental nature of human rights
    • Extreme political polarisation – the characterisation of your political opponents as not simply misguided, or wrong, but as evil and often Satanic.
    • The proliferation of conspiracy theories as an explanation for world events. Extremists will often peddle the lie that they alone are privy to the ‘truth’ behind the headlines. The stated motives of their opponents are usually treated as concealing their true, self-serving, and pernicious motives.
    • NB: In the UK, the majority of referrals to Prevent relate to far Right extremism.
  • Fight extremism through “narratives” rather than “counter-narratives”. This point really flows from the first.
    • We fight extremism not simply because we are opposed to it per se. Rather, we do so because we believe that democracy, equality and respect for fundamental human rights are values which must be upheld
    • It follows that when we seek to counter recruitment and radicalisation by Islamists, we should do so by promoting these values, and by acting in a manner that is consistent with them. In other words, that primary narrative is our counter-narrative: that liberal democracy is better than theocratic totalitarianism.
    • It also follows from these first two points that Muslims should not be treated as a special category, with a unique problem: but rather as fellow citizens.
  • Attempts to counter extremism will be met by misinformation and lies. It is vital that they are quickly and effectively rebutted:
    • In the United Kingdom, a number of groups with links to Islamist political movements have obstructed anti-extremism programmes by making a familiar series of untrue claims: that the government is trying to outlaw ‘normative Islam’, that children and others have been criminalised for expressing political views, that mothers will have their children taken away from them, that Muslims are being scapegoated, and so on.
    • These claims are often picked up and amplified by sympathetic journalists and academics
    • These lies can, in turn, be further sources of radicalisation
    • Government agencies have, to date, been very bad at debunking misinformation campaigns by well organised and highly motivated campaign groups. They need to get better, and to do so quickly and effectively.
  • Read Islamist political theory and take it seriously.
    • Islamist groups will generally have a thought-through and often sophisticated political theory which constitutes the ideological prism through which they understand the world.
    • There is a tendency among some policy makers to see Islamist theory as unimportant, arcane or irrelevant. Accordingly, they shift the focus to more prosaic issues: poverty, social exclusion, mental health concerns. Alternatively, they re-interpret Islamist concerns as their own: the failures of capitalism, the errors of foreign policies. That is not to say that these factors are irrelevant. But to treat them as central is an error.
    • Understanding that theory is vital to meeting the challenge of Islamism. You can’t argue against what you don’t understand. You can’t predict what Islamist groups will do, unless you appreciate the nature of their political theory. When faced with Red Army Fraction terror in the 1970s, nobody said ‘who cares what they say they believe’. The same approach should apply to Islamist extremism. 
  • Leave theology to the experts.
    • Certainly, in the recent past, there was a tendency for politicians to make speeches in which they sought to argue that Islamist and Jihadist theology was a perversion of the ‘true meaning of Islam’.
    • Politicians are not theologians and their views on the proper content of Islamic theology is of little value. That is not to say that politicians should not say things like this. However, it does not convince those persuaded by Islamists, and it does not pacify the far Right, who are also convinced that Islamism is the only true expression of Islam
    • There are Islamic theologians, of the highest calibre, who are able to argue convincingly that Islamism is a modern phenomenon, not a return to the true roots of Islam. They can make that case better than any politician.