Unravelling “counter-extremism” at the LSE free speech debate

Dr Abdul Wahid shares his thoughts on the London School of Economics’ free speech debate last week, where as a panellist he discussed counter-extremism, freedom of speech and the UK government’s Prevent strategy. 

Last week, the London School of Economics’ Faculty of Law invited me to speak at a panel discussion looking at the question “How Free is Speech?” – which sought to explore issues surrounding balancing rights of free speech against protecting from incitement to racism or violence.

The LSE opened themselves to potential criticism by inviting me, as someone who believes in an Islamic approach to speech – that obliges political criticism and intellectual inquiry, but prohibits base insult and slander. So I am grateful to them for allowing me to share my thoughts, especially since I wanted to look at how “free speech” arguments apply to concepts such as “extremism” – and exposing the UK Government’s counter-extremism strategy Prevent, for an audience that may not be well-acquainted with its most sinister and pernicious aspects.

Over the past few months, I’ve been speaking with the British Muslim community, as well as addressing people around the world on health, education and law, about Prevent, trying to illustrate that it’s not about ‘terrorism’ and violence but about ideas and beliefs.

But for this audience, I also wanted to show that the people who suffer most under these policies are ordinary Muslim men, women and children.

CRBSome looked shocked by the examples I shared. The man who has not been allowed to adopt a child because he had done nothing more than share an article from Hizb ut-Tahrir’s website about the collapse of the prosecution of Moazzam Begg – a prosecution that we argued was politically motivated.

The school boy referred to the Channel program – the panel that interrogates beliefs and views, and then forwards for “reprogramming” if they are deemed “extremist” – only because he had spoke out against Israel and for the people of Gaza.

Another pupil referred to the Channel program because of his personal religious views about participating in music lessons. The father who, when interviewed by social services about a parenting concern, was asked about whether or not he celebrated Christmas as part of their risk assessment.

In some European countries children are removed from their parents because of their conservative Islamic beliefs.

I mentioned that as part of its official guidance to parents, Tower Hamlets council advises that in “some forms of radicalisation parents may feel their child’s behaviour seems to be improving: children may become quieter and more serious about their studies; they may dress more modestly and mix with a group of people that seem to be better behaved than previous friends.”

There was incredulous laughter but then silence as people realised the implications this could have if applied to young Muslims in Tower Hamlets.

None of this will surprise anyone familiar with the approach Ofsted have taken with schools in areas where significant numbers of Muslims live, by downgrading them for accommodating certain faith-based practices.

Redefining and censoring  normative Islam

All these policies built on a false premise – that the more Islamic a person is, the more of a risk they pose. This false theory creates a spectrum from “secular-liberal Muslims” at one end of the spectrum to “ISIS” at the other – grading Muslims from “moderate” to “extreme”. “Deradicalisation”, I explained, is the process of de-Islamisation or “Westernising” (secularising) Muslim communities, fuelling calls for a religious reformation and criminalising some aspects in practical terms.

Whilst there have been acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims within Europe – just as there are acts of violence perpetrated by non-Muslims – the statistics do not begin to justify such policies, which have no evidence to support them.

Europol published evidence earlier this year, which stated that only 2% of terrorist violence in Europe could be attributed to religious motivation – of which so-called “Islamic terrorism” is a subset. But very few people are aware of this.

British Muslims are targeted under the government's anti-terror PREVENT strategy.
British Muslims are targeted under the government’s anti-terror PREVENT strategy.

According to the police chief responsible for Prevent, Sir Peter Fahy, the police have been in danger of becoming “thought police” – and, having not been given any clear definitions of “extremism”, they had implemented their own definitions.

This role is now to be shared with teachers, doctors, dentists, university lecturers, and even nursery workers and childminders.

Consider the impact of this sinister policy.

When the whole country can talk about topics such as jihad, Shari’ah, Islamic State and the conflict in Syria, most imams will not address such issues in any meaningful way for fear of being labelled “extremists” – so leaving a vacuum within the Muslim community, in particular for its youth.

English law is supposed to rely on precise definitions and non-discriminatory application. With Prevent, as with much anti-terrorism law –vague definitions are applied in a politicised and discriminatory manner.

The dawn of British McCarthyism

This is a new form of McCarthyism. “Pre-crime” and “thought crime” are now a norm for Muslims. One audience member quoted Orwell: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength“. I responded with a quotation to illustrate the double standard. Consider the notion, I asked, that “it is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invaders hearth”.

Winston Churchill wrote the above words in his ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples’ – but it is impossible to believe if a Muslim said this in the context of British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq – with individual Afghans and Iraqis supporting the occupying force as interpreters – that he wouldn’t be labelled an “extremist” and quite probably prosecuted under Britain’s anti-terror laws.

Is the UK slowly becoming a police state?
Is the UK slowly becoming a police state?

I concluded with the following thoughts. On one hand there are some policy makers and opinion formers are proving that secular liberalism can be a supremacist as any other political or religious belief.

For them, wars overseas and support for odious regimes are fair game. For them, Prevent is a part of Britain’s Blasphemy laws. Not blasphemy against Christianity, but against the dominant norms of secular liberalism.

“Extremist” is the secular word for “heretic”, with the Channel program as their modern day inquisition: to interrogate then “reprogramme” if necessary. Local councils, banks, Ofsted, the Charity Commission are all to be arms of Britain’s thought police.

On the other hand, there are people like me – protective of their identity; eager to challenge Prevent’s attempts to de-Islamise Muslims. I want to encourage Muslims to hold firm to their principles, values and beliefs and to express their political views with frankness.

But as any student of history or religion will know, in any such conflict between a mighty state and a principled few, it is rarely the state that wins.

Dr Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect

@AbdulWahidHT

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