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Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy just got worse

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OPINION by Rachel Shabi – It’s not really clear how the British government manages to do this, but it seems that every time it brings out a new counterterror strategy, it is even more wrong-headed than the last.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of February this year, the latest in a series of counterterrorism legislations in the UK, was bad enough – giving rise to concerns that the then-coalition government (comprising the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats) didn’t have much of a clue on how to tackle the problem of violent extremism.

That bill was intended as a measure to counter the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, as well as other terrorist plotters. But, back then, human rights activists pointed out that the policies contained in this legislation would erode basic freedoms while, at the same time, entrenching a view that British Muslims were by default guilty until proven otherwise.


Now, operating without their former coalition partners, the unencumbered Conservatives have seemingly taken things even further down that path.

Hard though it is to pinpoint the stupidest part of the government’s new policy proposals announced earlier this month, let’s start with the idea of revoking the citizenship of people who “reject our values”. Since one of our core values as a nation-state is in fact citizenship, maybe we can start by taking citizenship away from the government officials proposing this distinctly undemocratic idea.

Next up is the framing of this new policy itself, with Prime Minister David Cameron calling on Muslim communities to “own” the problem of Islamist extremism. Way to alienate and demonise the very community whose help and trust you are trying to gain, Cameron. Violent Islamist extremism is a collective problem, one we need to collectively “own” if we are to stand a chance of combating it.

A core and deeply worrying component of these new proposals (building on suggestions in that February counterterror Act) is that universities, schools, the health service and other public bodies start to monitor for extremism. Leaving aside the obvious point that doctors and nurses really shouldn’t be recruited as intelligence officers, what exactly is it that they are supposed to be looking for?

The government hasn’t adequately defined “extremism”, so what is it that public officials are supposed to use as cues? Is it being critical of the government’s Middle East policy – since that sort of stance, while being Muslim, will already get you on a watchlist?

Is it that someone might be an advocate for Islamic law, even if that person has no intention of using violence to make that belief a practical reality? Really, it’s anybody’s guess – and guessing is the last thing we should be doing here.

But it’s even worse than that when it comes to education: Never mind the massive encroachment on free speech, although that is bad enough. So bad, in fact, that not just free speech advocates, but also security officials have voiced concern.

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, just days ago said the government’s proposals could turn the force into “thought police”. He went on to say, “There is a concern that efforts to control extremist narratives will limit free speech and backfire if we don’t get the balance right. The efforts to control extremism and limit protest … may undermine the very rights and British values you seek to protect.”

And so, even according to a police chief, we’ve properly tipped over the edge, using security as a pretext to come down on free speech.


The thing that counter-extremism advocates and community workers consistently urge is that we try to stop conversations from going underground and into the dark corners of the internet. Radicalisation is most effective when the people being targeted are cut off and isolated.

So what does the British government go and do? Propose measures that will make students worry that what they say is being monitored and could be reported to the authorities. In other words: Take extremist talk out of public forums – where it can be exposed, challenged, confronted – and put it in the dark, where it can fester and mutate. Exactly the thing we’re supposed to be trying to avoid.

There is a contradiction here, and the trouble is that no government will own up to it. Scores of experts, from counterterror analysts to ex-security officials, have all pointed to a link between British foreign policy in the Middle East and violent extremism.

Of course, it isn’t the only link: Clearly not every critic of UK foreign policy is about to join ISIL. But it seems to be one factor in a complicated and variable mix of elements – and that is being repeatedly ignored by the successive government that can’t agree with such a statement because to do so would be to undermine and negate British foreign policy.

This is one more reason to have critical conversations out loud: Have people talk about Abu Ghraib, mention complicity with Israel’s bombing of Gaza – whatever it is – out loud and in the open. That’s the way to avoid the possibility that such sentiments get turned into a clarion call for violent extremists.
But needless to say, this government doesn’t go along with that. Indeed, it seems as though the government only consults with people that are already in agreement with its counterproductive policies.

It doesn’t take long to find scores of individuals and organisations that are dedicated to countering extremism and that seem to have some better ideas for dealing with this terrifying issue. But they don’t seem to be consulted. No matter how many times the government gets this wrong, it still stubbornly believes that it knows best. Al Jazeera

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of “Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands”.

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