While the government is rightly focused on containing Covid-19 and resuscitating the economy, the UK continues to face extremist threats on multiple fronts.
The anxiety and uncertainty caused by the global health crisis is only exacerbating this, strengthening the hand of those seeking to undermine and divide societies. In the months leading up to the pandemic, the terror attacks at Fishmongers’ Hall and in Streatham showed how Islamist extremism continues to inspire violence on the streets of Britain, while the live threat of far-right terrorism continues to evolve against a backdrop of growing anti-establishmentarianism in the wake of Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests and perceived attacks on British culture and identity.
Further to this, the UK government finds itself at a critical juncture in its approach to countering terrorism. Whether it’s the handling of the Shamima Begum case, delays to the Independent Review of Prevent, or terrorist attacks carried out by former prisoners such as those cited above, these recent high-profile incidents have done nothing to inspire public confidence in the government’s ability to keep people safe. In some instances, the government’s response suggests it may even lack confidence in its own counter-terrorism strategy.
Terrorist attacks, however, are simply a symptom of a wider set of societal challenges. Therefore, we must look beyond acts of violence to grasp the extent to which these pernicious, divisive and hateful ideologies underpinning extremism are resonating with young people in the UK.
Our new report, Resonating Narratives, offers this picture. Working with Savanta ComRes, we conducted a survey of 1,000 British Muslims and 1,000 white non-Muslims aged 18 to 30 and held a series of online communities throughout 2019, to answer this important question: To what extent do extremist ideologies resonate in Muslim and white non-Muslim communities in Britain?
The first unsurprising finding of our study was that the overwhelming majority of those groups do not agree with extremist views. Encouragingly, most hold positive views about the future and their own agency, even if they are more acutely suffering from discrimination, such as young Muslim women.
However, there is a significant minority who are being drawn to extreme opinions, with around one-fifth of both samples agreeing with statements such as “there is an unresolvable conflict between Islam and the West”, “British culture is under threat of invasion” or “democracy is broken and we should replace it”. Most worryingly, around one in ten sympathised with statements advocating violence. Crucially, extreme attitudes are not the problem of a single community; our study found similar rates of extreme views held among young British Muslims and white non-Muslims alike.
Mobilising the political will to tackle this issue has proved difficult and often resulted in a stalemate, with Prevent – the government’s counter-terror programme aimed at preventing radicalisation leading to violence – marred by accusations of unfairness and singling out certain communities. Through this study we also sought to better understand public perceptions of Prevent and counter-extremism policy more widely, with a view to understanding how to rebuild public confidence.
From our polling and focus groups we observed that Prevent is not simply poorly understood, but that very few respondents had even heard of the government’s flagship programme to prevent radicalisation. Of those who had, the majority held neutral or positive opinions on the programme, but a minority of participants from both samples claimed that Prevent is discriminatory towards Muslims or white people. While these views may only be held by a minority, it only takes a minority to erode community trust and impede progress, ultimately undermining the delivery of policies and programmes.
These are valuable insights that can help policymakers, particularly as the Independent Review of Prevent gets underway. Inevitably, the pandemic has meant the review has failed to meet the statutory deadline of August 2020. However, further delays run counter to the goal of increasing transparency and restoring confidence in the system, which our analysis has identified as a priority.
We cannot afford to ignore the scale of the problem. Our Institute is urging policymakers to take maximum advantage of the first Independent Review of Prevent and recognise it as an opportunity to redress perceived grievances, reconcile policies around security and community, and regain public confidence in the government’s ability to combat terrorism and extremism, rather than treating it as a burden or a box-ticking exercise.
Our survey identified that agreement with extremist statements is often interlinked with feelings of discrimination, a lack of agency and a lack of opportunities to meet with members of other communities. More effective engagement and greater equity will help to address these feelings of estrangement and exclusion being felt by parts of the population, especially during these challenging times.
The government can regain the public’s trust in its ability to counter terrorism, combat extremism and protect communities, but it requires a concerted effort and a commitment to resolve long-held misconceptions. The focus must be on society, not just security, and communication, not just communities. The challenges are significant but not insurmountable. Improved public communications, greater transparency and avoiding any further delay to the Independent Review are all critical to paving the way to a more effective policy and towards restoring trust.