There is a concern among policymakers and law enforcement in the United Kingdom (UK) that nonviolent activist groups are perpetuating divisive ideas. At a minimum these ideas threaten social cohesion, and at worst they may be contributing, even if unintentionally, to the cause of extremists. Yet understanding how to define or tackle nonviolent extremism—or even simply differentiate it from divisive political rhetoric—remains a grey area in both security and policy discourse. Groups facing accusations of nonviolent extremism, which include far-right and Islamist activists, naturally reject these assertions, arguing the UK government is seeking to undermine their advocacy of legitimate causes and threatening free speech.
Yet previous research by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change suggests that authorities are right to be concerned about some of the ideas spread by some nonviolent activist groups. Our findings have consistently highlighted the role of ideology in fuelling extremism and emphasised the complex but undeniable link between the ideas that underpin nonviolent and violent extremism.[_]
A central point of contention in the debate about nonviolent extremism in the UK concerns accusations and counter-accusations between UK authorities and activist groups that authorities have publicly identified for holding extremist views. This report focuses on five Muslim activist groups that UK authorities have criticised for promoting problematic or extreme views, although they do not advocate violence: CAGE, Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain (HT), the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), and Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). This report assesses whether there is any substance to such accusations by analysing the public messages of these groups and comparing them against a baseline of extremist messaging.
The messaging of the proscribed extremist group al-Muhajiroun forms this benchmark.[_] The use of al-Muhajiroun’s ideology as a point of comparison was not based on any assumptions about whether activist groups would share any narratives with the banned organisation. Rather, that ideology was taken as an objective standard against which to evaluate claims made against these groups by UK authorities. The assessments in this report of the levels of overlap between the messaging of these groups and that of al-Muhajiroun are based on analysis of hundreds of pieces of public content for each group as well as the researchers’ judgements. Therefore, the conclusions presented are based in part on opinion and could be subject to interpretation.
To date, public discussion of this issue—particularly what defines extremism—has been largely anecdotal and part of an increasingly polarised debate. This report provides evidence-based analysis of these groups and their public messaging, away from the often politically charged cycle of accusations and rebuttals. While understanding the messages of others relies to some extent on interpretation, we have gone about this analysis in a systematic way. In doing so, we aim to provide new insight that can help shape policy in this important but currently undefined area. One way in which this research could contribute to this debate is in helping create consensus on a working definition of extremism that identifies the key ideas that underpin extremist narratives. The spectrum of views outlined below aims to be a starting point in working towards such a definition in the Islamist context, recognising that a similar mapping exercise would be necessary to define other forms of extremism or extremist ideologies, including the far right.
Most of the activist groups studied promote a worldview that significantly overlaps with that of a proscribed Islamist extremist organisation. That worldview portrays Muslims as victims who are in a constant struggle against Western oppression and a global anti-Muslim conspiracy. Unlike al-Muhajiroun, the activist groups studied do not call for violence. When we analyse the five activist groups’ positions on the theme of justification of violence, we are referring at most to an apparent willingness to make excuses for violence committed by others in the cause of Islamism. There is no suggestion that the activist groups in the report advocate violence or illegality. They are neither violent nor encourage or incite violence by others nor act unlawfully in promoting terrorism. However, much of their messaging is worrying because it conveys a deep divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK, particularly between Muslims and the government, which most of these groups actively seek to delegitimise.
These groups aim to shape the dominant narrative about the UK’s growing Muslim population and how Muslims perceive their relationship to broader British society, making it crucial to understand the ideas these groups advance and the ideology that underpins them. If left untackled, such narratives are likely to have an alienating effect on the communities in question and perpetuate a siege mentality, contributing to feelings of separation and negatively affecting the future of social cohesion in Britain.
Most of the groups analysed promote a divisive view of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK through their public messaging. HT, MPACUK, IHRC and CAGE use their public content to advance a worldview in which Muslims in the UK and around the world are in an intractable state of tension and conflict with non-Muslims. MEND’s recent public messaging does not share this worldview.
Six key themes form this divisive worldview. These are victimisation, opposition between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, opposition between Islam and the West, a delegitimisation of the government, the centrality of Islam in politics and justification of violence. There is a range of views on these six themes, with differing degrees of severity from mainstream to extreme (see table 1.1).
Table 1.1: A Range of Positions on Six Key Narrative Themes
The groups studied all focus on these six themes to a certain extent in their public messaging, and with varying degrees of severity (see table 1.2). For four of the five groups (all except MEND), at least 50 per cent of their tweets and at least 80 per cent of their press releases drew on one or more of the six themes.
Table 1.2: Positions of Five Activist Groups and al-Muhajiroun on Six Key Themes
There is significant overlap in the narratives of most of the groups studied and those of al-Muhajiroun. Each of the five groups shows some degree of overlap in its narratives with the proscribed UK extremist group al-Muhajiroun, although this varies significantly across the groups (see table 1.3). This overlap indicates a connective thread that links the messaging and narratives of these activist groups, which UK authorities have at some point accused of extremism, to those of an outlawed extremist organisation. These narratives can build on one another to promote some version of a shared divisive worldview that pits Muslims and non-Muslims against one another.
Table 1.3: Degrees of Narrative Overlap Between Five Activist Groups and al-Muhajiroun
Degree of Overlap
Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND)
Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK)
Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain (HT)
MEND’s messaging has the least overlap with the worldview promoted by al-Muhajiroun and is markedly different in tone from the content of the other groups. MEND’s messaging avoids the conspiratorial and inflammatory language used by the other groups studied. The tone of its current content also differs from some of its historical statements, which could be a result of organisational changes or a concerted effort to change the tone of its public messages.
CAGE’s, MPACUK’s and IHRC’s public messaging has significant overlap with four of the six key themes in al-Muhajiroun’s statements and materials. However, the most significant divergence between these groups’ views and al-Muhajiroun’s is on the pivotal topics of the central role of Islam in politics and the justification of violence. These are two particularly significant factors that separate extremist groups from activist ones.
Of the five groups studied, only Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain is close to al-Muhajiroun in its approach to the issue of violence. UK authorities have over the years voiced serious concerns about HT, and along with other organisations that cause concern, it is kept under continuous review by the UK Home Office.[_] The near alignment of HT’s messaging with that of al-Muhajiroun highlights why successive British governments have attempted to proscribe HT. They have been unsuccessful because they could not establish to a sufficient legal standard that HT intended to incite or glorify violence.
Some activist groups in the UK perpetuate broadly shared narratives that promote a divisive view of how Muslims should see their place in Britain, and how they should relate to government and society. These narratives overlap significantly with some of the key ideas of Islamist extremists, albeit with varying degrees of severity. These divisive messages present a significant challenge for UK policymakers, particularly given the lack of established definitions and frameworks to understand the grey space between radical activism and extremism.
To address this, political leaders need to focus on measures that:
actively challenge narratives that seek to divide communities along identity lines;
increase educational resources that will enhance people’s resilience to divisive messages and influences from a young age; and
build broad-based engagement with communities that goes beyond self-appointed gatekeepers.
Most of these ideas could be broadly applied to address factors that contribute to other forms of extremism, including on the far right.
Challenging Divisive Narratives
Push back against divisive narratives more robustly and directly. Political leaders must do more to directly challenge the ‘us vs. them’ narratives of problematic activist groups. At present, too few people are willing to robustly take on these corrosive narratives or the groups that advance them, in part because of the backlash and abuse that can occur when public figures take a strong stance on sensitive topics. These groups often capitalise on people’s real anxieties and fears, and a lack of engagement from both political and community leaders on sometimes difficult issues allows divisive messages to gain traction. This silence means that more radical voices are given the space to dominate the debate and shape how some communities perceive their place in society. Leaders from across the political spectrum must step up their efforts to take on these troubling narratives by directly addressing the warped arguments and often conspiratorial claims that drive them.
Develop new resources to support practitioners to create a robust working definition of extremism. The UK government can support the effort to push back against divisive narratives by developing new resources that can assist political leaders, law enforcement, local authorities and other practitioners in understanding the complex dynamics of extremism and extremist narratives in the UK. Working with community organisations, subject-matter experts and other stakeholders, the government should develop a resource to help establish a working definition of extremism, including identifying key ideas that underpin extremist narratives for both Islamist and far-right extremism. The framework this report has developed to demonstrate the varying degrees of divisive ideas that build up towards an extreme ideology could help serve as a model for this resource. The Commission for Countering Extremism has identified some similar objectives as part of its work plan, which would provide an important contribution to the development of this resource.[_]
Enhancing Young People’s Resilience
Promote educational initiatives that teach young people how to engage in dialogue on difficult issues. People need the tools to be able to critically engage with the increasingly polarising messages that permeate public discourse and dominate social media. This effort should begin at a young age, and the classroom provides an ideal setting to help young people develop these skills. The UK Department for Education should train teachers to facilitate discussions in schools on difficult issues, including religion and identity. Having safe, supportive environments in which to raise these and other issues can help young people navigate difficult questions and articulate anxieties in a constructive way. Our Institute has developed a robust toolkit for educators to lead these kinds of dialogues in the classroom based on nearly ten years of organising classroom conversations for tens of thousands of students in over 30 countries through our Generation Global programme.[_] Independent assessments of the programme have shown that promoting dialogue on difficult issues has increased open-mindedness in participants.[_]
Develop a curriculum to promote digital literacy and critical thinking about sources of information for all secondary-school students. Research by the Commission on Fake News and Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools, run by the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy and the National Literacy Trust, found that only 2 per cent of students in the UK had the critical literacy skills to determine whether information is real or fake. In addition, two-thirds of teachers believed fake news “is harming children’s well-being by increasing levels of anxiety, damaging their self-esteem and skewing their world view”[_]This points to the need for a robust curriculum on digital literacy and critical thinking to empower young people to recognise and evaluate fake news and other forms of inflammatory content they encounter online. The UK government could consult major media companies and social-media firms to support the development of this curriculum.
Building Broad Engagement
Ensure that community engagement is meaningful and far reaching. The UK government and other political figures should seek to broaden their engagement with different communities, with special attention on encouraging diverse voices from within communities to speak out on a variety of issues. A 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Committee of the UK House of Commons highlighted that Muslim communities often feel they are engaged by the government only through a lens of countering extremism, and more meaningful engagement on a range of issues would help counter such perceptions.[_]Policymakers should pay special attention to looking past self-appointed gatekeepers in communities who often dominate external engagement, to ensure that a diversity of opinions and minority voices has the chance to be heard. Public figures need to ensure they understand the messaging and motivations of groups with which they engage. It is important to avoid providing platforms or legitimacy to groups or individuals who promote deeply divisive views, which can often happen inadvertently.
Increase funding and support, when feasible, for organisations doing positive work to combat divisive influences on communities. The UK government can play a role in empowering a broad range of voices and positive influences in communities around the country by increasing funding for community-based organisations that undertake positive work. Such groups can be a powerful bulwark against negative influences on communities and young people, but they have suffered in recent years due to sharp contractions in government spending. By some estimates, government funding available to community initiatives has declined by nearly 60 per cent since 2003 from £6 billion ($7.9 billion) to £2.2 billion ($2.9 billion), and this fall is likely to continue as local councils—one of the biggest sources of funds for community groups and charities—face continuing budget cuts.[_]In a welcome move, Minister for Countering Extremism Baroness Williams announced in October 2018 the government would be awarding £5.3 million ($6.8 million) to organisations whose work combats extremism through the Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT) programme. To date, the level of funds allotted for such initiatives has been very small and this increase signals a move in a positive direction, although longer-term engagement and funding are necessary to ensure sustainability of such initiatives.[_]The risks of an increasingly divided society and alienation of some communities merit a significant rethink of funding for important community work.
We see far right and Islamist extremists seeking to divide communities with a false narrative that being Muslim is incompatible with British values and our way of life, despite all the evidence to the contrary.[_]
This excerpt from the UK government’s “Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper”, published in March 2018, succinctly distils the central argument that divisive groups use to promote tensions between communities in the UK. As the paper notes, the notion that Muslims do not belong in Britain has become a central focal point around which both far-right and Islamist actors have mobilised, albeit with different justifications. With Britain’s disproportionately young and rapidly growing Muslim population caught in the middle of this increasingly toxic debate, it is essential for policymakers and community leaders to understand the forces behind this argument.
Voices on the farther reaches of the right claim Muslims reject British society and its values because their culture and religion are fundamentally inconsistent with values of UK society. Meanwhile, groups that can be broadly referred to as Islamist argue that it is British society and institutions that have comprehensively rejected and demonised Muslims and Islam. Both sides point to anecdotal examples to support their theories and distort facts in line with their intolerant worldviews.
This phenomenon of reciprocal extremism, in which the ideas of Islamist and far-right actors play off and reinforce one another, has become increasingly prominent in research findings on extremism, as highlighted in works such as Julia Ebner’s 2017 book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism.[_] Ebner observes how extreme groups on both ends of the spectrum increasingly focus on the overarching narrative of the West vs. Islam.
Successive UK governments appear to have increasingly recognised the need to combat such narratives as central to a range of challenges from promoting integration across communities to combating extremism and radicalisation. From former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s high-profile speech on extremism in Birmingham in 2015 to the updated CONTEST strategy and the integration green paper (both released in early 2018), there has been a growing emphasis on using public policy and government leadership to confront ideas that promote a stark mentality of us vs. them.[_]While integration and extremism are rightly considered distinct areas of policy, divisive ideas that seek to pit different communities against each other represent a key factor in both domains.
Yet the concept of divisive ideas, specifically those centred on the role of Muslims in the West, defies simple classifications. There are increasing flirtations with these ideas in mainstream politics, while their most severe manifestations are advanced by recognised extremist groups. This raises the question of where policymakers should draw the line between narratives that are divisive and those that are extreme. And what is the best way to respond to groups whose messaging consistently falls somewhere just below that line?
UK policymakers must seek to understand the actors and ideas that fall into this grey area. There are a significant number of groups in the UK that do not directly advocate violence and may not even explicitly reject core values of British society but that nevertheless perpetuate troubling narratives about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. These groups, which include both right-wing actors and those that could loosely be defined as Islamist, exist in a murky space between legitimate political activism and clear-cut extremism. In large part, there is no basic vocabulary to discuss these actors and their ideas, let alone a cogent policy framework for addressing their malign influence.
Some preliminary work has emerged to explore this extremist-adjacent space on the right. In its 2018 “State of Hate” report, the anti-extremism organisation Hope Not Hate profiled how the growing spectrum of right-wing, anti-Muslim activism in the UK spans from tech-savvy alt-right media figures who perpetuate misleading narratives about Islam in the West to dangerous extremist groups that implicitly or explicitly promote violence.[_]While not equating conspiracy theorists and agitators with far-right terrorist groups such as National Action, Hope Not Hate highlights how the messages of the alt-right overlap with those of extremist groups and create fertile ground for their development.
This report examines the other side of this increasingly polarised debate by focusing on several prominent Muslim activist groups that UK authorities have accused of perpetuating divisive or extreme ideas. This analysis is important because these groups seek in varying ways to influence the broader narrative about how Muslims should approach their relationship with British society and institutions. We have undertaken a comprehensive analysis of these groups’ public messaging through social media, press releases and other public statements to understand their core narratives. In doing so, we explored one key element of the increasingly divisive debate on the place of Muslims in the UK.
It is essential to note that anti-Muslim discrimination and hatred are very real concerns in the UK today. Organisations such as Tell MAMA, which monitors anti-Muslim incidents, and official sources including Scotland Yard have confirmed that anti-Muslim incidents and hate crimes have risen in recent years.[_]This report in no way seeks to refute that unfortunate reality, and the authors acknowledge that some of the grievances expressed by the groups studied stem in part from this context. In coding the public messaging of the groups, we did not attribute a divisive or extreme character to statements that merely sought to raise awareness of anti-Muslim behaviour.
Nevertheless, we identified a troubling pattern of messaging among the groups, which portrayed anti-Muslim attitudes as part of a systematic, society-wide effort to oppress and disenfranchise Muslims in the UK. This outlook was emphasised through a concerted effort to delegitimise the government and any government policies related to Muslims, including public condemnation of any Muslims who chose to constructively engage with the government. The cumulative effect of this alarmist, often conspiratorial rhetoric is the cause for concern, not the acknowledgement that anti-Muslim sentiments are a pressing issue.
The approach to this report builds on our Institute’s existing research on the complex relationship between nonviolent and violent ideologies, which has consistently emphasised the links between the underlying ideas that fuel a wide range of extremist actors. Our previous findings have highlighted, for example, that nonviolent Islamist organisations use strikingly similar terminology in their written materials to Salafi-jihadi groups.[_]
Selection and Analysis of Groups
This report analyses assertions by UK authorities that have pointed to certain prominent Muslim activist groups holding or promoting extreme views of an Islamist nature. We studied a broad range of public remarks, statements to the media and debates in the UK parliament to identify groups that are currently active in the UK and that authorities have accused of holding or fostering extreme views in the context of Islamist extremism.
We narrowed down this list with a number of filters. This included eliminating any group that did not appear to have at least a modest public following (at least 10,000 followers on any one social-media platform) and any group that was not currently active in regularly sharing content on at least one social-media platform, as this was a key medium through which we analysed their public messaging. We also eliminated charities that focus primarily on fundraising, umbrella organisations that represent a variety of member groups and proscribed organisations.
This process led us to identify five groups for further study:
Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain (HT);
the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC);
the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK); and
Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND).
These groups have diverse histories, modes of operation, sizes and levels of influence, but each has solicited significant concern from one or more UK authorities for promoting or holding extremist views.
To examine these accusations, we compared the messaging of these five groups with that of a proscribed UK Islamist group, al-Muhajiroun. This method enabled us to establish a benchmark, defined by the most extreme end of Islamist activism in recent UK history, against which to measure the messaging of currently active groups, which have caused concern among UK authorities for spreading problematic views.
Al-Muhajiroun, which rose to prominence in the 1990s and dominated the UK Islamist scene until its proscription in 2006 (and, to some extent, after that through offshoots and prominent individuals), provides a relevant point of comparison for several reasons.[_]It is arguably the most high-profile Islamist extremist organisation to have emerged in the UK and therefore would have been responding to similar cultural and political factors to the UK-based groups that form the focus of this research. Al-Muhajiroun spent years operating in the open and facing sustained criticism for its views from UK authorities. Al-Muhajiroun characterised itself as a legitimate activist organisation representing the interests of British Muslims. There is no implication that any of the studied groups would follow al-Muhajiroun’s trajectory; rather, al-Muhajiroun provides a benchmark against which to assess these groups’ messaging.
From Activism to Extremism
To assess the extent to which the messaging of the five groups studied can be characterised as extreme, we undertook a systematic comparison of their public messaging. The aim was to gauge whether and how they engaged with prominent themes in al-Muhajiroun’s messaging and whether there were any overlaps between the key narratives of the activist groups and those of the proscribed organisation. Our methodology included:
preliminary research to assess whether the groups had engaged with these themes historically;
analysing and coding a three-month sample of the groups’ Twitter activity from January to March 2018; and
analysing and coding a sample of the groups’ press releases from the same three-month period.
This three-pronged approach was designed with the limitations of each individual method in mind: the background research provided a useful overview of the groups’ past activities but may not have reflected more recent developments in their positions; the Twitter activity provided a large, recent sample with a bulk of data to analyse but was limited in length of content because tweets are restricted to 280 characters; and the press releases had more substantive content from the groups but were fewer in number. A longer period of analysis was beyond the scope of this study but could be useful in future analyses.
Comparing the groups’ content with the six key themes in al-Muhajiroun’s messaging enabled us to measure each group’s content and classify its views from mainstream to extreme. It should be noted that the conclusions drawn from this analysis reflect the judgements of the researchers and could be open to interpretation.