Counter-extremism is heavily politicised. For years, leading politicians have failed to engage constructively, shying away from tackling divisive groups head on. But the rise in identity politics should not stop us from making greater efforts to bridge divides and identify and root out those seeking to damage the social fabric of our communities.
In 2020, governments across the world have had to deal with the unprecedented health and economic challenges posed by the spread of Covid-19. While the priority of every government at the moment should be to protect lives and the economy by building in the necessary infrastructure to live with the virus as we wait for a vaccine, let us not forget that the problems that existed before Covid-19 will continue to exist afterwards. If anything, Covid-19 will only exacerbate the problems that were there before.
This year marks 15 years since the 7/7 terrorist attacks, which led to a shift in the way we looked at security in Britain. Avoiding a similar event was the core aim of my government’s renewed and updated focus on counter-extremism. Yet extremism, both violent and not, is an ever-evolving challenge. As new extreme movements gain momentum, political leaders must be equipped to tackle this threat effectively. Even during the spread of Covid-19, extremist groups have found a reason to mobilise and promote their hateful rhetoric.
Yet it is imperative that we continue to tackle the threat of extremism from across the ideological spectrum. The rise of the far right and the increased threat of Shia extremism, for example, demand that we take an objective look at all forms of extremism. All political movements are struggling with extremism, both within and on the fringes of their own parties. This makes it harder to accuse any one community of suffering from this problem. We therefore have an opportunity to unite behind a new focus, not just on violent extremism but on the dangerous ideologies behind extremism in the UK.
This report, the third and last in a series that seeks to push UK counter-extremism policy in a more practical and cohesive direction, highlights the pressing need for a renewed political focus. The narratives my Institute have identified are clearly resonating with a sizeable minority, one we cannot ignore out of convenience. Dangerous views about immigrants and minorities “invading” Britain, the state of democracy and even the use of violence are being spread among our young people.
Any and all government counter-extremism policies are bound to be criticised: Extremist groups have a vested interest in maligning policies as a gateway to their more damaging worldview. By framing counter-extremism as a targeted, police state–style apparatus, extremist groups prey on young people’s feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty in an otherwise febrile political atmosphere. That these programmes have a reputation for opacity does not help.
We must be clear: Much of the blame lies at the feet of these extremist groups. They cannot continue to operate with the impunity that the political system currently allows them. Yet the drivers this report identifies also point to a more complex picture, one in which the information ecosystem of young people pushes extreme narratives to the fore.
However, this research shows there are also reasons to be optimistic. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed hold positive views of the future and their own agency. Many of those suffering from discrimination, like young Muslim women, still prove hopeful and resilient. These are the feelings we must foster, to build this same resilience in those who are less sanguine. Positivity, diversity and critical thinking are a bulwark against dangerous ideas.
As we continue to reflect on the impact of Covid-19 on our lives, including skyrocketing unemployment figures, fears of recession and entrenching of political division, we should be mindful of how they can provide the material conditions in which extremism emerges. To avoid exacerbating existing tensions, the government must refocus its agenda on extremism in the UK. This agenda must be one that crosses the narrow political divides and identities that hold progress back. One that relocates counter-extremism as a cross-government endeavour, bringing diffuse and disconnected policies together. And one that is unapologetic to those guilty of hate. The resources my Institute has produced show clear examples of divisive extremism. Only by calling these out can we stop them from further damaging the social fabric that is vital for the well-being of our societies.
This report, the final in the Narratives series, seeks to understand the extent to which Islamist and far-right ideas are resonating with young people in the UK. It tests the narratives explored in our previous reports in this series, Narratives of Division: The Spectrum of Islamist Worldviews in the UK and Narratives of Hate: The Spectrum of Far-Right Worldviews in the UK, which found three key narratives embedded in both groups:
the idea that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the West and Islam,
in-group victimisation, and
anti-establishment views seeking to delegitimise the government.
We partnered with Savanta ComRes to carry out a poll of 1,011 Muslims and 1,011 white non-Muslims (WNM) aged 18 to 30 in May 2019. We also convened two online communities, one for each group, with 57 total participants from both samples in October 2019.
There is a significant minority of young people who agree with nonviolent extremist statements. One-fifth of both groups surveyed consistently agree with extreme positions across themes depicting Islam and the West in conflict, promoting feelings of victimisation and anti-establishment sentiment. For example, 17 per cent of Muslims and 16 per cent of WNMs think democracy is broken and we should replace it, while another 17 per cent and 23 per cent respectively think there is little value in engaging with politics.
A smaller but not negligible minority sympathise with violence. Around 13 per cent of those surveyed believe violent action is sometimes necessary and justified to achieve change. Fifteen per cent of Muslims surveyed agree that people should go out to fight to defend their religion or culture with force (9 per cent for WNMs). However, most respondents – half of both Muslims and WNMs – agree that there is never a justification for terrorism or political violence.
Out of the statements about extremism, victimisation is the most prominent theme for British Muslims. More than one-third of Muslim respondents (34 per cent) think they are systematically targeted in the UK and globally, while almost 17 per cent of WNMs think that British culture is under threat from invasion.
Out of the statements about extremism, the most prominent theme for British white non-Muslims is the West versus Islam. Thirty-one per cent of WNMs surveyed hold very negative views about Islam, including that it promotes violence and that there are no-go areas where sharia law dominates. WNMs are more likely than Muslims to agree there are tensions between British and Muslim identities (36 and 30 per cent respectively).
Respondents’ agreement with extremist positions likely reflects how they receive and process information. A regression analysis of the data shows that agreement with extremist messages can be linked to: negative feelings about their future or a lack of agency; limited diversity within social networks; and experience of discrimination.Other factors included affinity with divisive groups and disagreement with domestic and foreign policies of the government.
There are demographic and behavioural indicators for those more likely to agree with extremist messages. They tend to: say they have been discriminated against; have homogenous social networks in terms of race and religious belief; lack social integration and inter-group contact; have a negative outlook or feel powerless when it comes to the future; and be male.