The threat of institutional anti-extremism

James Harkin writes: Moderation, just like extremism, is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Last month the British and US governments suspended deliveries of “non-lethal aid” – vehicles, communication devices, intelligence assistance – to its preferred group of moderate Syrian rebels, the Free Syrian Army. That was because the FSA was as dead as a dodo and our aid had been confiscated by a newer coalition of rebel groups called the Islamist Front.

This month the same Islamist Front, together with Syria’s home-grown al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – and with the presumed acquiescence or encouragement of Turkey and other Nato countries – helpfully led attacks on the most ruthless al-Qaida group in northern Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis). At least 50 Isis members, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, were summarily executed; some of their families have been kidnapped and brutalised. Meet the new moderates.

Our confused approach to Syria is simply the internationalisation of a familiar problem – our definition of extremism and how to beat it. One result of the London terror attacks in 2005 was a mushrooming of well-meaning, generously endowed initiatives designed to combat extremism. Most went beyond traditional anti-terror techniques to focus on the alleged causes of terrorism, and how to rescue young men on the pathway to radicalisation. More Malcolm Gladwell than Andy McNab; the point was to tip, nudge and channel young men at risk of indoctrination towards more benign alternatives. Then there were all those attempts to “turn” Islamist militants or English Defence League activists. Occasionally came news of a coup – after delicate negotiations a firebrand had jumped ship, leading to a new career in anti-extremism and a round of media congratulation. Like a former drug addict playing the awareness circuit, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), with the help of his new friends at the “deradicalisation” thinktank the Quilliam Foundation, is now said to be carving out a new role teaching tolerance to children.

This is nice work if you can get it. But just how helpful is it to label the average EDL supporter or conservative Muslim as a dangerous extremist? To put it another way: do we have a problem with specific acts of violence or intimidation, or with radicalisation per se? If our problem is radicalisation itself, we’re in serious trouble. No liberal, democratic state should be in the business of steering people away from radical or fundamentalist beliefs – as long as their plans don’t congeal into plans to perpetrate terrorism.

Then there’s the question of strategy. Attempts to counter Islamist extremism often take the form of puffing up the importance of allegedly moderate counterweights whose leaders may be corrupt or not representative of anyone but themselves. The UK government’s much-criticised preventing violent extremism strategy spent large sums of public money footing the bill for tours by peaceable-sounding Islamic scholars. This was grossly patronising to believers: it is not up to us to tell Muslims how to be Muslim. Neither was it clear what the money was supposed to achieve. A friend of mine who teaches in an inner-city London school scored £5,000 from the Prevent programme because it was there for the taking: with no idea how to spend it she made a comic documentary about jihad and took the whole class to see the Chris Morris satire Four Lions.

If this kind of woolly subsidy existed anywhere else in the public sector it would have been hammered with endless demands for evidence-based assessment of its output – because there is little or no evidence it works. No matter: institutional anti-extremism is better dug in than ever, an enormous intellectual gravy train of research centres and thinktanks for the feeble minded. [Continue reading…]

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