Amjad Khan*, counter-extremism practitioner
In late May, the British Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, remarked that a recent rise in antisemitism, in the wake of the Gaza conflict between Hamas and Israel, points to a revival in Islamist extremism across the United Kingdom. In particular, he was referring to a number of incidents in the capital, notably a Rabbi being attacked and hospitalised in East London, and threats to “kill Jews and rape their daughters” being shouted from a convoy of cars in North London. According to one Rabbi, the UK is undergoing its worst bout of antisemitism in thirty years. Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has even written to schools asking them to be alert to antisemitic incidents that could result from pupil-led pro-Palestine protests.
Whilst a violent escalation in the ever-simmering Israel-Palestine conflict often produces a spike in antisemitism in the UK, this time something feels different. Islamist groups are seizing upon the conflict like never before and encouraging the usual victimhood, hatred, and vengeance. By framing the conflict in exclusively religious tones, it is portrayed as being rooted in eschatology, millennialism, and a cosmic struggle between good and evil. In doing so they are seeking to whip up mass hysteria and revive their fading fortunes. For example, a group like Hizb-ut-Tahrir that was previously in deep and terminal decline is now holding what look like staged rallies across the UK calling for jihad.
A combination of lockdown, the precedents set by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, and the fact that Islamist groups have not had a grievance to rally around in recent years, have all contributed to this round of the conflict being seized upon by extremist factions in the manner we are now witnessing. This development also suggests extremism did not really go away; it was merely dormant for a while. More worryingly, there seems to be absolutely nothing we can do about it. Distracted by petty and parochial culture wars, civil society is not prepared to offer an open challenge to the ideology of extremist Islamism, whilst the ever-disconnected state seems to have exhausted its limited box of tools.
So why are we in this mess and where do we go from here?
In spite of having some of toughest counter-terrorism laws in the world and a well-established prevention programme that the current government fully supports, extremism continues to thrive in the UK. From my perspective there are three key reasons for this. Firstly, in a globalised and inter-connected world there is, ironically, a lot less interaction between people of different points of view due to the widespread availability of online echo chambers. Secondly, a highly diverse society cannot be held together without an over-arching narrative that offers common values and unity. Thirdly, in the current political climate where everyone is forced to be hyper-sensitive, out of fear of causing offence, it is virtually impossible to openly challenge Islamist ideology without significant reputational damage to oneself.
Metaphorically speaking the town square traditionally played a moderating role on the opinions and proclivities of others. Being required to interact with those around you, in the absence of alternative forms of socialisation, meant a degree of localised cultural assimilation was inevitable. One would learn to appreciate the perspectives of those around them and encounter critical feedback on one’s own thoughts through daily interaction. Today, an individual can completely ignore the local community they are living in, develop an online community of like-minded people from around the world, and create a social media environment in which only views they agree with are heard and endorsed. This digital atomisation means individuals can become completely immune from the values of their physical community, exposure to which may have forced a degree of modulation to more extreme perspectives in the past.
In the UK we are proud of our diversity and of being a tolerant nation in which a hybrid form of liberal conservativism means we let people be who they want to be whilst we attempt to cling to some core values. High levels of immigration from the European Union and the Commonwealth in recent decades has meant that most British cities now have a multitude of cultures represented and languages spoken. Around 32% of primary school children in the UK are now ethnic minorities and that number rises to over 80% in inner London.
But without a shared history, religion, or culture, what unites us? British values? The Queen? Democracy? I don’t think that is an easy question to answer. Is the state concerned with merely creating a stable domestic consumer base and a reliable labour force for the benefit of large corporations to the detriment of social cohesion? Whatever the answer, this fragmented landscape is, visibly, at the local level at which I work, certainly fertile ground for extremists, who can offer what many people seem to be missing in their lives and mainstream society does not seem to offer, namely a sense of belonging, purpose, and adventure.
In today’s political climate, what is racist? What is sexist? What is offensive? I have been a political animal all of my adult life and I can no longer answer these questions. It seems the definition of what is acceptable in public discourse is changing so fast and there is no consideration given to the fact that people need time to adjust. Almost any argument that critiques a perspective held by a community that happens to be a minority in the UK—or even criticism of groups that emerge from within minority communities, yet clearly do not represent it, like Hizb-ut-Tahrir—can, and often are, deemed bigoted and lacking in cultural appreciation. I have lost count of the amount of the times I, as a counter-terrorism practitioner of minority background, have had to bite my tongue during conversations about terrorism and extremism out of fear of coming across as self-hating. We seem to have elevated sensitivity above reason, compassion above understanding.
Making sensible discussion even more difficult, it feels as if certain terms are being weaponized to stifle dissenting viewpoints. For example, we all knew exactly what the word “violence” meant a few years ago. Now, however, “violence” is being used to describe language that can be deemed offensive or rude. This cultural turn can only have one possible outcome: a total and comprehensive stifling of discussion and debate about anything remotely controversial via what are, in effect, secular blasphemy laws. Islamists and their ideology are real problems in the West; making it impossible for the mainstream of societies to discuss them leaves the issue in the hands of the fringes. The effect is to strengthen extremists through a policy adopted in the name of tolerance.
In conclusion, Robert Jenrick is right to be worried; we should all be. But we should also be mindful of our role in fostering a climate and a culture in which extremist ideologies thrive. More importantly, the trendlines described in this piece are getting worse, not better. Which means the potential for radicalization and extremism is becoming greater. Given the fact that the current political class in Britain is the worst I have ever seen and we barely have an opposition, I do not know where change is going to come from. What I do know is you cannot continue to nurture an atomised and disconnected society and expect nothing to go wrong.
* This is a pseudonym to allow the author to discuss sensitive issues frankly
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