The day after Emad al-Swealmeen blew himself up with an improvised bomb in a Liverpool taxi, the Government apologised in court to a Muslim academic it had accused of hate speech. Dr Salman Butt, who runs a website called Islam21c, was branded an extremist in a Home Office press release issued in 2015 to accompany the creation of a new task force aimed at combating the spread of Islamist, anti-Western ideas in universities and colleges.
Aidan Eardley, legal counsel for the Home Secretary, told the court: “The Government accepts that it was wholly false to allege that Dr Butt is an extremist hate preacher who legitimises terrorism and therefore someone from whose influence students should be protected. It is sorry for the harm caused to him.”
However, what the Government does not accept, and neither can the rest of us, is that there is no such thing as extremist speech. After receiving his apology, Dr Butt said: “One of the clearest lessons of this case in particular is just how baseless the notion of ‘extremism’ – and therefore ‘counter-extremism’ – actually is. I believe the discourse of extremism is dead. More and more people are realising that it is a nebulous term used by the powerful to silence any thoughts, ideas or speech they do not like or cannot challenge without coercion. It is the ‘heresy’ of today.”
Dr Butt clearly feels aggrieved at being falsely linked to those who foment a violent response from their adherents, but is he right to maintain that the very concept of extremism is “baseless”? In this interpretation he was supported by the campaign group Cage, whose spokesman said the case should sound the death knell for the Prevent programme, one of the main lines of defence against the threat from radicalised individuals. Although it covers all forms of extremism, Muslim organisations have long complained that it is aimed principally at them.
The effectiveness of the Prevent programme has been reviewed by a team led by William Shawcross, the former head of the Charity Commission, whose report is due soon. It might already have been published were it not for the death of Sir David Amess last month. The MP’s killing and the Liverpool explosion have led the Government to increase the terror threat level to severe amid concern that the lockdowns have spawned a new wave of radicalised and potentially violent individuals unknown to the authorities.
By definition it will be impossible to divert such people to Prevent if no-one knows who they are. It is reported that Shawcross will recommend that MI5 and the police get a greater say on who to refer to the council-run programmes while limiting the influence of teachers, NHS workers and religious leaders who might be less inclined to recognise the signs of radicalisation. Yet they are more aware of what’s going on than the police if the latter have never come into contact with the individuals concerned.
We rely on those in the local community worried about someone’s behaviour to report it and yet they face a constant push-back from groups who not only oppose Prevent but question the principles on which it is based, namely the existence of extremist thought and language. If that is not accepted, or is dismissed as politicised, then the very notion of counter-extremism is undermined.
For anyone who believes in free speech, these are problematic issues. Where does criticism of Western values and culture morph into extremism likely to trigger a violent response among vulnerable acolytes? When I was a student in the 1970s, the extremist ideology that was being spread then was Marxism. I had tutors who were avowedly far Left and promoted anti-Western beliefs. Who knows whether someone listening to their pernicious doctrine was moved to violence. At the time, urban terror groups like the Angry Brigade were conducting a bombing campaign in the UK. Overseas: the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof organisation in Germany bombed, killed, kidnapped and maimed throughout the 1970s and beyond.
Were lecturers whose opinions dominated discourse in university campuses complicit in this urban terrorism? They were not advocating direct action. But by hawking an anti-Western, anti-democratic creed they were fomenting juvenile grievances that would potentially turn their students against the country that nurtured them. Should their courses have been closed down as extremist?
Today’s equivalents are people like Anjem Choudary, the al-Muhajiroun preacher who spent years spreading radical ideas within the law until he was finally convicted for inviting young Muslims to fight for Isis. The Government’s Commission for Countering Extremism alleged that Choudary helped to motivate at least 70 to 100 people to turn to terrorism, yet the authorities did not have the legal means to stop him until he overstepped the mark. He is out of jail and once again orchestrating online campaigns in support of hate preachers and extremists.
The Online Harms Bill currently before Parliament is being touted as a way of removing such material from the internet but free speech campaigners fear it will be used to shut down anything deemed offensive, not just extremist posts. Where to draw the line in a free society is the great conundrum.
Emad al-Swealmeen turns out to have been a convert to Christianity so we do not yet know what influences he was subjected to that turned him to violence. He was angry at delays in considering his asylum application and had previously been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The motive is unclear. But in general, the problem facing the UK and other Western governments is one they have wrestled with since the 9/11 attacks on the US: how to stop their young citizens being radicalised without being seen to censor legitimate criticism.
In the end, the counterweight to Islamism can only be provided by an everyday repudiation of its injurious tenets from within the society where the allure of the ideology is strongest. That task is not assisted by dismissing counter-extremist programmes as a political attack on Muslims.