The spat between Theresa May and Michael Gove over the notorious ‘Trojan Horse’ plot in Birmingham has exposed a rift that’s been at the heart of the counter-extremism debate for years.
At the heart of the matter is a debate over when is the best time to intervene in the radicalisation process. Some, like May, argue that extremism is only a problem when it becomes violent, and therefore we should only tackle its violent manifestations. Others, such as Gove, believe extremism should always be tackled, violent or not.
Those who hold the former opinion tend to promote working with non-violent extremists in order to deter their more aggressive comrades. This tactic is based on the assumption that non-violent extremists are best-placed to de-radicalise the violent ones. It can certainly work in some settings, but it is nowhere near fool-proof, largely because it confuses de-radicalisation with counter-extremism.
De-radicalisation is a very specific process in which individuals meet one-on-one to discuss and debate ideas. Conversely, counter-extremism is more public, a strand of work in which extremist arguments, ideas and narratives are challenged openly with a view to changing the public mood and opinion.
As far as de-radicalisation is concerned, there’s a wide variety of individuals to be engaged with. With counter-extremism, though, we must pick and choose more carefully. Otherwise, we can end up empowering those who will just undermine efforts to challenge extremist narratives.
Extremism is not simply a problem because it is sometimes violent. Extremism is a problem in and of itself: when people adopt narratives which encourage them to be misogynistic and homophobic, we are in trouble. Such views, when left unchecked, have a negative impact on social and national cohesion and do harm to communities.
At a time when populist movements are on the rise across Europe and extremist groups are exploiting social fissures for their own narrow political agendas, it is especially important that government adopts the right strategy and isn’t seen to be gridlocked with personal scuffles. The machinery of government must not swallow itself. It must needs to move beyond debates that concern only the lives of those in Whitehall.
Extremism is a serious issue in the UK and with hundreds of Britons currently fighting abroad in Syria, as well as others in Somalia and Yemen, the threat is only growing. As a society we must not shy away from engaging in an ideas-based debate: we can’t be afraid to champion our values, nor should we fear taking extremist narratives head on. This kind of society-led counter-extremism work must be backed by a government that is both consistent and united.
Ghaffar Hussain is managing director of the Quilliam Foundation.