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Why I am unable to engage with the Commission for Countering Extremism

The Commission for Countering Extremism has recently published the terms of reference for their Study into Extremism. Coming months after the Commission was launched, this is a welcome development that I have been pushing for over the summer.

While it had been suggested to me that the terms of reference would offer me and other academics and community activists the assurances that were needed for us to engage with the Commission, they have in fact further dissuaded me from engaging.

The questions above are taken from the terms of reference and raise more concerns than they address. Most of the questions are framed around the idea that ‘extremism’ is a harm that is to be understood. They ask about the harms that ‘extremism’ might cause and how it might be better tackled. This means that the questions that the Commission will ask do not address concerns for those who are harmed by counter-extremism, including the concern that the government’s agenda to counter ‘extremism’ might make us all less safe. The expressing of ‘extreme’ views may be a mechanism by which they are moderated and, in doing so, reduce the risk of violence. The Commission’s uncritical support for countering ‘extremism’ is, thus, supporting a government agenda that may be making us less safe.

In the forward from the Lead Commissioner we are told that, ‘the first step is addressing the absence of consensus’. This seems a strange intention from the perspective of many political theorists. Arendt, Derrida and Przeworski, among others, would suggest that the absence of consent is what our democracy thrives on. The Commissioner goes on to say that the Commission will do this by, ‘building the evidence on extremism’. In saying this, the Commissioner is demonstrating a complete disregard for the scientific principles that should underpin this ‘evidence drive’ and which would demand that this ‘evidence on extremism’ be tested.

The scope of the Commission, we are told is to ‘learn the lessons from previous and existing counter terrorism policies, including those under Prevent’ (p12). However, there is also a clearly stated intention not to review the controversial Prevent Strategy, ‘As outlined in our Charter, we will not be reviewing the Government’s Prevent Strategy or the proposed Integration Strategy’ (p6). In the context of Parliament’s Joint Committee for Human Rights (JCHR) recent criticism of PREVENT and the Government's approach to counter-extremism, it is hard to see the Commission as anything other than a cynical exercise to gather alternative evidence in the face of criticism from Parliament.

The Commission tells us that ‘It will help everyone do more to challenge extremism by building public understanding of its harms and impact’ (p7). When combined with their dismissal of the need scientific rigour for their study, this leaves the distinct impression that the commission is engaged in the promotion of ‘extremism’ as a threat, rather than in an audit of government policy.

Page 8 of the terms of reference list 6 different definitions for ‘extremism’ and this indicates that many of the aforementioned questions also need further definition. This is necessary before questions like, ‘What are the harms caused by extremist incidents?’ (p4) can be addressed. Yet the Commission does not show any commitment to seek the necessary clarity on what they mean by ‘extremism’.

The final question that the Commission aims to address, ‘What could a positive, inclusive vision for our country look like?’ might have been a good starting point. Such a study would show the importance of promoting dialogue and of helping everyone have access to public services. It would have found that the government’s promotion of Countering Extremism, Countering Violent Extremism and associated strategies like Prevent are silencing debate and reducing access to education and healthcare. They would have found that there is a risk that these approaches are marginalising the very people who they purport to support and, in doing so, may be promoting the violent threat that they say they are preventing.

Given the Commission’s failure to engage with these issues, their failure to adopt a stance that is a fundamental requirement of scientific knowledge and their commitment to the promotion of a counter extremism agenda that undermines our democracy and might promote violence, I have not been offered the assurance that I would need to engage in their ‘evidence drive’.

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