Defining and tackling ‘extremism’ is proving difficult.
Just what is extremism? And what, if anything, should the government be doing about it? These questions are prompted by two High Court cases, the first decided at the end of last month and the second to be heard early in December.
Shakeel Begg is the chief imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre in London. He sued the BBC for libel, complaining about comments made by Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics programme. These were to the effect that Begg was an extremist Islamic speaker who had recently promoted and encouraged religious violence.
These words were substantially true, the High Court concluded. After reading the Koran in translation during the summer vacation, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave delivered a 96-page judgment analysing six extremist speeches or statements made by Begg over the past decade.
In one, delivered at a mosque and published online, the imam ‘encouraged his audience to rise from their seats and take up arms to wage aggressive jihad against the enemies of Islam, including the Jews in Palestine, and thereby get closer to Allah’. That by itself would have been sufficient to make good the BBC’s defence of justification, Haddon-Cave found.
Islam itself was a religion of peace, the judge acknowledged. But Begg was a ‘Jekyll and Hyde character’, presenting a benign view to the local and interfaith community but an ideologically extreme view to chosen Muslim audiences. His speeches were redolent of jihadi Salafism.
Haddon-Cave’s conclusions were heavily criticised in an article published by Islam 21c – a website that promotes ‘orthodox Islam in a modern context’. It was worrying, the author wrote, that ‘a secular court is trying to pass judgment on what Islam is or is not’. Begg’s views, far from being extremist, ‘would be considered normative Islamic positions from an orthodox view of Islam’.
The website’s chief editor is Dr Salman Butt, the man behind the other case mentioned. Like Begg, he takes exception to what has been said about him.
Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, specified public authorities must ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. These bodies must also ‘have regard’ to guidance issued under the act.
Outlining the ‘prevent’ guidance for colleges and universities last year, the government said that ‘at least 70 events featuring hate speakers’ had been held on campuses during 2014. To his surprise, Butt was identified in a Downing Street press release as one of ‘six speakers that are on record as expressing views contrary to British values’.
Butt firmly rejects the allegation of extremism and is also heading to the libel courts. In addition, he has been granted permission to challenge the prevent guidance at a two-day hearing in the High Court next month. He claims that interference with his rights to free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion – for the ostensible purpose of preventing students being drawn into terrorism – is unlawful, disproportionate and discriminatory.
In an interview for Law in Action on Radio 4, Butt told me that the guidance was not just ineffective: it was counterproductive. Young people were deterred from seeking advice for fear of what would happen to them, leaving them vulnerable to extremists.
Butt is represented by Saimo Chahal QC (hon) of Bindmans and Paul Bowen QC of Brick Court Chambers. In a powerful 65-page written argument, they argue that the prevent guidance is unlawful and should be quashed.
Whether or not prevent is lawful, there are some key figures who believe it has lost its way. Sir David Omand, who devised and developed the government’s counter-terrorism policy when he held senior roles in security and intelligence, thinks it might have been better to have kept the strategy on its original non-statutory basis. ‘The prevent programme, as originally conceived, was about preventing violent extremism,’ he told me. That was a legitimate task for the police. ‘Policing Britishness is not.’ Omand, now a visiting professor at King’s College London, thought the government should be prepared to drop the strategy unless things improved.
David Anderson, nearing the end of his term as the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, shares Omand’s concerns. ‘Government needs to give communities more of a stake in the prevent strategy,’ he tells me. ‘They need to engage a wider range of Muslims. And independent review would be useful as a discipline.’
Anderson was also alarmed by the first draft of the government’s Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill, which seems to have run into drafting difficulties since it was announced in the Queen’s speech nearly six months ago.
Haddon-Cave had no difficulty in identifying extremism when he saw it. But defining and tackling it are much more challenging.