How to Prevent Extremism

Foundation Update

How to Prevent Extremism

11 Jan 2016

Confronting extreme ideology is the most important challenge we face today. Empowering teachers and communities to tackle the ideology requires informed and experienced officials. As part of our latest volume How to Prevent: Extremism and Policy Options, Hazel Blears writes that governments must not shy away from taking the necessary action.

Read the full volume here.

How to Prevent Extremism, by Hazel Blears

Over the last 15 years, preventing Islamist extremism has been one of the greatest challenges facing society. It has remained so because its root, an ideological narrative that raises one view above all others and which encapsulates a justification of violence, has gone unchallenged by governments. The result is that Islamist extremism is now on a larger, more aggressive scale than ever before, both in its physical manifestation and in the number of people involved. This is no longer a theoretical conflict but one being fought out on the ground.

This physical manifestation makes prevention all the more difficult. We can hope that the barbarity and horror of the actions we hear about will make most turn away from these perverse ideological interpretations. However, there is the possibility that this manifestation will reinforce the ideology, lending it glamour and excitement through the idea of combat and camaraderie.

It is the power of the ideology underpinning Islamist extremism that must be confronted. The evidence is clear that the ideology is important and policy makers must be brave and be prepared to step forward and tackle it whatever the cost. To truly prevent extremism governments need to work holistically. This requires that policy makers have the understanding and honest and authentic experience to work with communities to challenge the dangerous minority, and that they focus on ensuring education has the capacity to undermine the ideological lure.

The reason why Islamist ideology remains largely unchallenged is that politicians and government officials shy away from tackling the often controversial and tough decisions that abound in this area. Politicians are conflicted and wary about pursuing agendas if they are controversial for their constituency. Yet this is a tough area of policy, different to making a specific decision to nationalise the railways, for example, in that traditional policy methods and party political approaches will not work. Preventing extremism needs coherency across parties and across election cycles because it is a long-term challenge. This is the poisoning of minds for a violent purpose that threatens citizens and a solution will only be viable in the long-term if it is fully understood and supported across the political spectrum.

It is essential to be brave... There is a fine line between not dictating to believers and shirking the duty to protect citizens.

Political timidity has its consequences, however, and it has meant that our pursuit of violent extremists has been separated from challenging the underlying ideology. We cannot allow this to continue. There is now a lack of capacity and knowledge amongst, and support for, government officials to develop policy that truly empowers people in society to confront and undermine extremism. Officials' degree of understanding often varies according to their exposure to, and interaction with, communities. Tackling ideology means tackling ideals, and dealing with what people think, feel and express requires more than the usual policy frameworks and levers that work for poverty reduction or homelessness. This challenge requires complex understanding, skills and experience, but more, it needs an ability to analyse where the line lies between, say, free speech and that which is unacceptable in a liberal democracy.

These arguments rage in political discourse all the time, but officials are not often in that space. This issue takes them there and they need support to develop their capacity and understanding, support which is often lacking. Direct interaction with community members is vital. During my time in the United Kingdom's (UK) Department of Communities and Local Government, my Muslim advisers were indispensable. Their contacts in communities and understanding of what was going on helped me to hear and empower voices other than those of the extreme minority. Too often extreme voices are heard by officials because they are vocal and insistent, and also because officials are too timid about risking being accused of denying people free speech. We have to ensure they have the support and confidence through appropriate training and immersive experience to stand up to extreme voices and, when it is right, to deny extremists a platform.

Working with communities on this is equally difficult and riddled with controversy. Of course it is not right in a democracy for governments to tell people what they should believe. But this violence is committed in the name of a perverted view of Islam; so combatting it must require an understanding of what Islam says, and of its interpretation. Whilst in government I commissioned respected Muslim scholars to work on a modern interpretation of Islam for a 21st century democracy where Muslims are a minority. Not only was it difficult to get people involved, but once the scholars agreed to undertake the work it was difficult to protect them from being pilloried by those who did not want there to be a modern interpretation, and after 12 months the project was ended.

However, I still believe that it is essential to be brave and empower moderate voices in the community to do this work. We are still unable to properly and authoritatively rebut ideological narratives because no one is sufficiently expert, particularly in government. There is now the capacity and willingness outside of government to do this work, which should be supported with funding equal to that which extremist organisations are able to gather. But governments should not step away completely. For it to remain a priority with government it must remain a priority with ministers, and this issue is currently too important for government to completely cede it to external bodies. There is a fine line that has to be trodden between not dictating to believers and shirking the duty to protect citizens.

We have to work long-term, with policy looking across generations to undermine and eradicate extremist ideology.

There is a similarity here with the debates that raged in the UK around the naming of, and legislating on, anti-social behaviour. Previously classified as 'low-level crime', it was largely ignored despite having a huge impact on the lives of the poorest people in the country, just as Islamist extremism disproportionately affects Muslims today. Through the national Respect Programme, More information on the Respect Programme can be found at a culture change challenged those who said we were simply demonising young people and infringing civil liberties with anti-social behaviour and dispersal orders. In the same way that anti-social behaviour laws had to be pushed through to protect victims of anti-social behaviour, against the arguments of observers, fighting on behalf of moderate Muslims, whose beliefs are being perverted and abused in the name of violence, is important. That requires having a clear idea of a moderate interpretation of Islam.

Local government also has an important role to play, being close to communities, and can help to provide the insight and advice that central government needs. Removing the role of local government and centralising, or completely securitising, the prevention of extremism is a mistake, as we lose the capacity to work further upstream to prevent people becoming sympathetic to, or convinced by, extreme views. We have to work long-term, with policy looking across generations to undermine and eradicate extremist ideology. The police are important, but over-burdening them with the full spectrum of extremism prevention is counter-productive. They are not community workers, and there is a need for broader community resilience and cohesion work alongside security and surveillance.

We have to build resilience amongst women who have huge impact at the heart of communities, and we must empower young people with stronger knowledge of, and links between, identity, belonging and purpose of both religion and community. There must be an increased emphasis on citizenship, participation in democratic structures, and the development of successful role models who are relevant to the lives of young Muslim men and women. All of this work should be done in practical programmes on the ground which are open and accessible to people from all walks of life.

To achieve this, education must be a priority. Again there is controversy. In the same way that sex education and citizenship education were controversial when first introduced in the UK, the teaching of religion is difficult and addressing topics to do with extremism is challenging. There is a link between all three however, and that is the lack of support for, and confidence held by, teachers in addressing these issues. In the past, sex and relationship education was often left to staff who had the spare time, often without the appropriate support. The same occurred with citizenship education that was meant to bring politics and democracy alive. Teachers were not specialists and did not feel confident about teaching something that they felt possibly crossed a line. Teaching religion can be quite threatening unless you are a specialist, especially when you are teaching people about their own religion, let alone covering complex and emotive issues to do with extremism. Teachers must be empowered to own this agenda in schools.

This requires the proper support, training and resources. In the UK, before the retreat of this policy area to the security sphere, we developed lesson plans and support materials with teachers on these topics. Without this area being a cross-government effort, these important aspects have been neglected. Yet how these topics are taught is important. For example, the good thing about citizenship education in the UK when it is done well, is that it is action-based and addresses head on what young people are angry about, getting them involved and demonstrating the democratic process for addressing grievances.

There is no one answer. Prevention work is some of the hardest there is.

With the right materials that provide the right advice and support, teachers have the confidence to be creative. This approach is crucial to ensure that the safe space in the classroom is not shut down. It must be appropriate, proportionate and focus on building resilience. If we build the ability to critique, which should be developed within every education system, then we should not be afraid to introduce extreme ideology, whether it is Stalinist, Fascist or Islamist, and discuss how it should be challenged.

Critical thinking underpins the ability to resist simplistic extremist messages, which on the surface can be seductive. Wanting the revolution is part of growing up and stories of the excitement of being on the front line can be persuasive. It was the stories of the nationalist republican fight in Spain and about Ben-Gurion and the establishment of Israel that were part of my inspiration, for example. But these stories need to be discussed and critiqued, and classrooms with confident teachers in them are the right place to have those conversations.

At the end of the day, with such a complex challenge there is no one answer. Prevention work is some of the hardest there is. But that is why it is important that governments take a holistic, collective view. Government is often bad at working across departmental boundaries, the UK being no exception, and there is a need for a strong centre. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has now expressed a strong personal commitment to this area. If he can translate that into the responsibility of each department to local government, government agencies, the police and institutions such as schools, then there is hope. During Tony Blair's premiership there were regular 'Grip' meetings where ministers were held to account by the Prime Minister on their performance in their policy areas. That form of accountability and ownership is vital to steering a clear and focused course on such essential issues. The whole country has to be mobilised, just as they would in a time of national crisis.

Empowering teachers to be confident in discussing and confronting ideology and providing critical education that builds resilience must be a high priority. Similarly with communities, governments must build strength amongst moderate voices that can challenge the minority and encourage the courageous. These actions, however, require officials who have the knowledge and the understanding to be confident in pursuing the necessary path. Of primary importance for governments is that they ensure their officials have honest, authentic, immersive experience, and that they are part of the discourse, not separate or above it, flying in and out. Preventing extremism is the most important challenge we face today and we must not shy away from defeating it. 



Hazel Blears, Former UK Police and Counter-Terrorism Minister and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hazel Blears trained as a lawyer in private practice and local government. She was a councillor on Salford City Council for eight years and was elected to Parliament in 1997. She served as a Government Minister for Health, Policing and Criminal Justice, Communities and Local Government, and latterly Intelligence and Security. Hazel oversaw the implementation of the UK's PREVENT Agenda to tackle radicalisation and extremism as part of the counter-terrorism strategy. She also dealt with the aftermath of one of the country's largest terrorist outrages in the 7/7 and 21/7 bombs on London Underground. She was responsible for the formulation of new counterterrorism legislation, and built lasting relationships with the Muslim community. Hazel is currently a Non-Executive Member of the Board of the Cooperative Group, a Non- Executive Member of Aspire CIC which is a newly formed mutual social care organisation in Salford providing all adult care across the city, a Trustee of the Alzheimer's Society and Chair of the Institute for Dementia at Salford University. In addition she has established her own consultancy helping companies to move from traditional CSR to using their mainstream business models to make social impact, "Doing Good is Good Business".