The best way to combat extremist ideology is a more powerful counter-ideology.

One of the dominant issues of the new parliamentary session is likely to be government proposals for a Counter-Extremism Bill. Lawyers and their representative bodies will have a major role to play in scrutinising legislation which is still to be published but has already antagonised the government’s own Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. And it is not only urbane QCs like David Anderson who do not like the proposals. Op-ed writers in such journals as the Daily Telegraph have joined in, with the paper summarising his article as saying ‘laws to ban free speech if it doesn’t chime with British values are dangerous to everyone, not just the hateful few’.

 The difficulty with the thinking which apparently lies behind the proposed bill is a confusion between the political and the legal. At present, government policy on anti-terrorism is set out in a programme known as ‘Prevent’. It seeks to encourage an appropriate response to extremism and terrorism. It defines ‘extremism’ as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs… [and] calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas’.

This definition might be just about acceptable as a goal of policy. As Anderson points out, however, it is already ‘controversial among Muslims in the UK’ because of an explicit acknowledgement in the strategy that ‘preventing terrorism will mean challenging extremist (and non-violent) ideas that are also part of a terrorist ideology’. This really comes down to an issue about what ‘challenging’ might mean. It is surely fine as a goal of policy to be achieved by argument but misguided as an intimation of law.

In a speech on the proposals in July, David Cameron vigorously asserted the need to implement measures against ‘ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation’. The difficulties of legal action against ideas are as implicit in Cameron’s speech as the ambiguities about taking action in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (how do you ‘take up arms against a sea of troubles’?). The prime minister says that ‘we must be clear. The root cause of the threat we face is the extremist ideology itself’. If that is true, and I for one believe it, then the root response will be a more powerful counter-ideology.

As policy, a lot of what the prime minister says is absolutely right: ‘We must de-glamourise the extremist cause, especially ISIL’. But will banning the expression of views actually help or simply allow the growth of a grievance? The UK has notably failed to criminalise holocaust denial, but comes down heavily on any direct incitement to violence. That has surely worked rather well. It has fostered a view, which is surely sufficiently widely held to be part of British culture, that holocaust deniers are bonkers. The prime minister actually gives protests against David Irving as examples of acceptable free speech. Why add to the glamour of the expression of any extremism that does not incite violence by  imposing a veneer of the forbidden? Let us adopt the words of the terrorism reviewer: ‘The response of a vigorous democracy to bad ideas is to take them on, outsell them and eventually consign them to history.’

Anderson identifies no fewer than 15 issues ‘of particular sensitivity’ manifest in proposals for the bill. These include the difficulties that might arise from seeking to extend any legislation to Northern Ireland (a nightmare if ever there was one). And he is also concerned that the means of enforcement may be civil orders similar to asbos, ‘removing the protections inherent in jury trial from those accused of extremist activity’. He warns that ‘if the wrong decisions are taken, the new law risks provoking a backlash in affected communities, hardening perceptions of an illiberal or Islamophobic approach, alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile and playing into the hands of those who, by peddling a grievance agenda, seek to drive people further towards extremism and terrorism’.

An interesting perspective on these issues comes from one of the best analyses of ISIL and Al-Qaeda: The New Threat from Islamic Militancy by journalist Jason Burke. This provides a chilling account of the latest developments in the two organisations, their methods and their goals. In recent examples of Islamist terrorism – from the Boston bombers to the killers of Lee Rigby – Burke points to the importance of the internet, something well outside the reach of UK legislation in any event. He also highlights Al-Qaeda’s explicit desire to narrow ‘the grey zone’ in which Muslims can no longer avoid the choice between ‘the crusade or… Islam’. The counter to that is not legislation but culture. That must be as evident to government ministers as anyone else: let’s hope that their proposals are still malleable.

Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice