Counter-Extremism Is Not Just the Responsibility of Muslims

Cameron extremism
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron listens during a discussion with members of the local community on a visit to Luton, north of London, on October 19, to announce a new government strategy for tackling extremism. Ben Stansall/Pool/Reuters

While the government's new counter-extremism strategy has been criticized for forgoing freedom to speak in favor of freedom from discrimination, it is clear from this new approach that Prime Minister David Cameron wants to pursue progressive solutions to counter extremism, rather than repressive measures to counter terrorism.

The whole point of living in a society is that there are not just rights but responsibilities. While we cannot force people to counter extremism, Cameron is correct to identify that it is a positive thing if more people fulfill their responsibility to tackle this particular social ill.

According to Emile Durkheim, society is held together by a collective consciousness, a common goal that allows societies to maintain their integrity and cohesion in a modern era, when shared things such as religion and ethnic background no longer tie people together. A society is not merely a group of individuals living in one particular location, but rather an ensemble of ideas, beliefs and sentiments.

In this case, part of society's collective conscious should be to responsibly tackle extremism. The use of the term extremism and not terrorism by Cameron is fundamental, because it reflects a deeper understanding of the complex issue at hand and draws upon society as part of the solution.

Appropriate tools for tackling violent extremism or terrorism might well be law enforcement, surveillance or military intervention. But when the first duty of the government is to protect its citizens, addressing the root causes of the ideas that motivate these individuals and the vulnerability that some have to radicalisation is entirely sensible, and this requires a new strategy.

In fact, this should be welcomed by the left who are traditionally against a "law or war" approach to terrorism. The Liberal Democrats should welcome alternatives to surveillance; Labour should support rehabilitation in prisons and more education. But both parties, and many in the Conservative Party, should push back against more repressive proposals likely to come up in the counter-extremism bill, which would ironically make it harder to effectively implement the recently published strategy.

If nonviolent extremism is not illegal but rather a social ill, then it falls outside the remit of the criminal justice system. The argument follows that society, as a whole, and not the legal system, should recognize it, address it and remove it. The social collective should eradicate the social harm for the greater good. The community engagement forum and the increased training for front-line workers provides the mechanism to ensure that the government has as little role as possible in this domain.

In practice, it means front-line workers are equipped with the skills, mindset and knowledge to tackle extremism. Teachers, social workers, youth workers, prison staff should all receive training in being able to recognize the early signs, ranging from disengagement, vulnerability, change in appearance and so on. Training from experts in the area is crucial, and the focus should be on collective prevention, not collective surveillance nor collective punishment.

As more debate and sharing of ideas takes place in this area, the more experienced front line workers will become in recognizing those vulnerable to extremism of any form. Crucially, building the confidence of these front-liners to distinguish Islam from Islamist extremism can prevent overzealous responses that could do more harm than good.

One of the reasons for using Durkheim's societal model of a collective consciousness is to make the point that Muslim communities cannot do this alone. The immediate reaction of community leader caricatures, who fall back on lazy, grievance-based and often conspiratorial arguments to spell out their opposition to any attempt to counter extremism, demonstrates this.

Even within Muslim communities, the responsibility does not fall solely on the shoulders of religious leaders. Let's engage harder-to-reach people in these communities—women and young people, for example.

We must start to see integration entry points away from religion, through other facets of identity, because just using religion reinforces the Islamist notion that Muslims belong first and foremost to a religious group and other identities are secondary. Social, race, gender, economics and political views are all stratifying factors to take into account.

This strategy will not come into effect overnight, but it is a definite step in the right direction, and one that requires a collective recognition. Falling back on the old, lazy arguments about foreign policy, anti-Muslim hate, or the failure of the security services gives a narrow lens to the issue of extremism.

Somewhere, the societal cogwheels have jammed and the polarizing attraction of extremism is growing. The engagement of society as a whole to identify and then challenge extremism will be essential to building community cohesion, because it might be too late or too difficult by the time the security services are involved.

Jonathan Russell is the political liaison officer at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter extremism think tank based in the U.K.