Nick Ryan speaks to Sara Khan, the UK’s counter-extremism lead, who is driving forwards a new strategy for tackling and defining extremism – but is government listening?
COULD THE UK be about to gain its first statutory body responsible for tackling extremism?
That’s part of the vision being driven by Sara Khan, the UK’s first ‘lead commissioner’ of something called the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE), an independent body that works with the Home Office and advises government on new policies (and potential powers) to deal with extremism.
A high-profile human rights and counter-extremism advocate who has headed the Commission since 2018, Khan has just appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee, nearly a year after she and the Commission put out its first report recommending a rewrite and overhaul of the country’s five-year-old counter-extremism strategy.
As Boris Johnson announces further Coronavirus-related clampdowns, the numbers of those imprisoned for far-right terror offences increases to record levels, and conspiracy theories about 5G masts, vaccines and a Satanic “Deep State” threatening children (‘QAnon’) continue to skyrocket on social media, Khan and her colleagues are asking the government to make the Commission the official body with responsibility for classifying, assessing and investigating extremism and to further research on what they deem as “vital” counter-extremism interventions.
Moving beyond a more narrow “counter-terrorism” focus, a much-discussed government-backed Online Harms Bill is also waiting in the wings – with government already saying it is “minded” to appoint the broadcast regulator Ofcom as the new online harms monitor – with Khan keen for the Commission to take on the mantle of tackling online extremism, arguing it has developed an evidence-based approach to counter-extremism interventions (it has called on a large body of experts to advise it), saying “it clearly makes sense for us to do this”.
What is the Commission for Countering Extremism?
In 2017, after the five terrorist attacks, then Prime Minister Theresa May announced the creation of the Commission for Countering Extremism, in order to help society and advise government on what more could be done to challenge extremism.
The Commission works under a Home Office remit to the Home Secretary, but currently remains independent of government.
Khan did not have the easiest of starts in her new role. Former Conservative chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi described her announcement as “a deeply disturbing appointment”, accusing Khan – who had co-founded a female-led human rights and counter-extremism group, Inspire – of being “a creation of and mouthpiece for the Home Office”. Other voices also joined the fray, though many others also spoke out in her support.
Yet Khan, describing herself as “a long-standing human rights activist and counter-extremism activist” (she was originally a hospital pharmacist with a Masters degree in human rights) – she is also a Muslim who was once president of an Islamic youth organisation – refuses what she says has sometimes amounted to “awful abuse” to derail her mission.
In its most recent guise, this mission includes running the Commission for Countering Extremism (which was set up in March 2018) providing independent advice on counter-extremism strategy to the government, as that threat continually morphs and grows. With the threat now emanating from terrorism, as well violent and non-violent extremism, she and many others feel the situation requires new definitions and new methods to tackle effectively.
“I’ve seen extremism throughout my life,” says Khan, speaking from her home as the coronavirus pandemic locks down the country. “From my teens onwards, I remember seeing young Muslims attracted to Hizb ut-Tahrir [the pan-Islamist group which spawned extremists like Anjem Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun network] even before the  London bombings.”
“After those bombings I spoke with countless Muslim mothers worried about their children becoming radicalised into terrorism. One of the reasons I co-founded Inspire in 2008-9 was my frustration with Muslim leadership that were sweeping this issue under the carpet. They pretended it was not there. A leader recognises a problem and rolls up their sleeves and deals with it.”
Ex-anti-terror cop leads review of “hateful extremism” laws
Britain’s former top counter-terrorism police officer, Sir Mark Rowley, has been asked to lead a review to examine whether existing legislation adequately deals with “hateful extremism”.
Rowley was appointed by Sara Khan and said he believed the UK had a strong counter-terrorism system in place, but the country was struggling to address growing threats from hateful extremists who encouraged community tensions.
For example, Rowley and the Commission cited a recent rise in antisemitic posts and conspiracy theories linking coronavirus to the Jewish community as “hateful extremism”.
“I am convinced that the Commission’s clarity of focus on ‘hateful extremism’ can help identify the gaps that exist at the boundaries of current laws, such as hate crime and terrorism, which are being exploited daily by extremists,” he said.
Khan speaks rapidly, passionately, demonstrating a clear and single-minded determination to get her point across.
In her role at Inspire, she famously ran an anti-ISIS campaign #MakingAStand as a “jihad against violence”, designed to empower women to stand up against extremism and say “enough is enough”. With the threat of the Islamic State emerging, it memorably led to The Sun newspaper running a striking front cover featuring a woman wearing a Union Jack hijab.
In her book, The Battle for British Islam, she wrote that the Prevent safeguarding programme – a key part of the Government’s CONTEST anti-terror strategy – was a pivotal piece of legislation that “fills a much needed gap”, and also memorably called out Boris Johnson over his “letterbox” comments in his Daily Telegraph column, about Muslim women who wore the burqa, as “demeaning and dehumanising”.
Speaking now, she says of the Inspire days: “These years were some of the best of my life, but it came with incredible levels of abuse. Even to my children… it showed first-hand how extremist groups will denigrate and smear you. People who’ve never met me before have read all sorts of misinformation about me. Even politicians will regurgitate that stuff.”
Indeed, one of the startling stats from the Commission’s report last year into “hateful extremism” (see below) stated that over three-quarters (78%) of those countering extremism had faced abuse, intimidation or harassment because of their work or “for receiving government funding for countering extremism work”. It is not an edifying picture.
Today Khan speaks proudly of how her Commission has engaged extensively across the UK – including with many Muslims and local communities including critics, plus carrying out opinion polling, publishing papers, producing a new report into extremists (and “hateful extremist” narratives) exploiting the coronavirus outbreak, announcing its recent legal review and undertaking numerous roundtables – and in October last year producing its first ever report, Challenging Hateful Extremism. Britain has not had a new official counter-extremism strategy since 2015 and the Commission’s report suggested (among other things) creating a new category of “hateful extremism” which would sit outside the existing definitions of terrorism and violent extremism.
“The ecosystem and modern day face of hateful extremism has changed beyond recognition even in the last decade and it is changing rapidly today. Extremists have professionalised, they are co-ordinating locally, nationally and transnationally. The reliance on conspiracy theories and disinformation is proving to b a real game changer in bringing extremist narratives from the fringes into the mainstream. Just look at the impact of QAnon and the Great Replacement theory – for many people these theories act as a gateway to far more violent extremist material.”
Hateful extremism is defined as behaviours:
- that can incite and amplify hate, or engage in persistent hatred, or equivocate about and make the moral case for violence
- that draw on hateful, hostile or supremacist beliefs directed at an out-group who are perceived as a threat to the wellbeing, survival or success of an in-group
- that cause, or are likely to cause, harm to individuals, communities or wider society
Khan says the Commission spent 18 months gathering extensive evidence before reaching its conclusions in Challenging Hateful Extremism. “I went round and visited more than 20 different towns and cities across England & Wales; I’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of people, understanding more their experiences of extremism.”
“We also commissioned the first public consultation on extremism, where we had over 3,000 people submit their responses. And we commissioned a significant number of academics to write 19 papers on a whole range of different aspects of extremism, from the far right, to Islamist and Sikh… looking at and critiquing current counter-extremism responses, looking at online extremism.”
She adds: “And we have had dozens of roundtables with academics, practitioners, people who are also critical of current counter-extremism approaches. We then also looked at a lot of government data as well from over 10 different Government departments, some of it classified, some of it from regulators like Ofsted and the Charity Commission. The first 18 months or so was very intensive evidence gathering to help us understand what extremism looks like and [to] help identify the gaps.”
The rise of hateful extremism
While the press picked up on specific elements of the report – such as the far right’s attempts to position itself as a “protector” of women and children (in order to demonise Muslims) – a more key element of the report’s findings was the proposal to create this new category of hateful extremism, suggesting that the government’s response to extremist threats – outside of dealing with terrorism – had been “slow and unfocused”. It also said that extremists were becoming adept at exploiting local tensions, claiming to act for local people’s “rights” in order to spread their toxic ideology.
“If we are to be successful in reducing the extremist threat in our country, we must focus on challenging hateful extremism,” Khan said at the report’s launch. “My report shows the destructive effect it is having on the lives of individuals, our communities and wider society.”
She has called for an urgent overhaul of the Government’s “insufficient” strategy, urging it to use the Commission’s new definition of hateful extremism to give the public and relevant authorities the confidence to challenge that extremism.
According to Khan, “hateful extremism” has been allowing some to make the “moral case for violence” while stopping short of the threshold for criminal prosecution. “From inspiring terrorist attacks, to hateful extremist groups engaging in persistent hostility, we are grappling with what is a global challenge.”
“There’s a problem with hateful extremism which is often distinct to terrorism thresholds,” she says now. “A review is now well overdue.”
One of the problems around extremism has always been definitions. For some, it’s terrorism. For others – like Khan, the Commission and its supporters – it’s a broader umbrella.
“We did some polling when I started, very early on, and we found that when people think of extremism they think of terrorism. When we did the public consultation [for the report] we found it was actually a lot more nuanced than that. Extremism isn’t just about terrorism, there are other types of extremist behaviours, which is not necessarily all about violence or terrorism either. So yes, it is a subjective term but our data also showed that 95% of public respondents to our consultation believe it is possible to get an objective definition. Consensus is possible.”
She goes on to talk about Brexit. “The Brexit debate last year was a good example. Politicians were increasingly using the term ‘extremist’ not only to use it against other MPs in the debate, but using it as a term as an attempt almost to close down debate and discussion. It’s like if I don’t like your particular views on something, I’m going to call you an extremist. That is really unhelpful.”
2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy
Drawn up under then-Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Home Secretary Theresa May, the 2015 counter-extremism strategy relied on ‘four pillars’ and defined extremism as: “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.
It added: “We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.”
Sara Khan and the Commission for Countering Extremism say this is too broad and needs to be rewritten, as does the entire strategy. The lack of a legally robust definition of extremism was one of the reasons that an extremism bill touted in the run-up to the 2015 general election, complete with civil orders to ban extremist groups, never transpired.
Some are acting with impunity
But what is hateful extremism, exactly?
“For a long time we’ve recognised that there are hateful extremist groups in our country who don’t meet the threshold for terrorism, but share the same ideological world view and incite hatred or amplify hatred towards certain ‘out-groups’ – whether that’s based on race, or religion, or other protected characteristics. Because they don’t meet the terrorism threshold, we don’t appear to know what to do with them.”
“My view is that because they’ve never met this threshold for terrorism and because we don’t have a clear strategy to deal with hateful extremism, we don’t really have a response for these active groups or key influencers. And so these folk are in effect acting with impunity in our country. And that can’t be right,” she says incredulously. “That cannot be right.”
“So looking at this through a hateful extremism lens is really, really important, I think, to help us identify whether our current counter-extremism response is able to meet the picture and threat around hateful extremism. But also looking at it from the legal perspective as well, which are all things we’re looking at it.”
She mentions some groups they spoke to which felt there was a kind of “inward extremism” based on a restriction of rights or freedom. “You can find that in religious fundamentalist groups, for example. Whether you can call that extremism or not is up for debate. And for the behaviours identified as hateful extremism, I think we need to provide clarity which would be really, really helpful.”
She is at pains to point out that terrorism and violent extremism are not the same as hateful extremism.
“Hateful extremism can create a climate that is conducive to terrorism. But the types of behaviours we’ve identified in hateful extremism, they don’t meet the threshold for terrorism and actually the way we respond to the problem of terrorism and the way we respond to the problem of hateful extremism, they are not the same responses. You can’t deal with hateful extremism through a security and counter-terrorism lens. That’s not going to work.”
“We need to be very clear about what the problem is and the solutions are also different, which is why we need to have a different policy response. You have to have a different legal response. You have to have a different strategy to deal with the two sets of problems. You also have to have a different approach in a strategy to dealing with active and persistent extremists and those who are vulnerable or at an earlier phase of their journey. This is really, really critical and in effect what our report is trying to show to the Government and rest of society is how we should look at extremism.”
Do we need more powers? She told The Guardian last year: “There’s a question of whether existing powers are being used appropriately. I don’t think they are. What we’re going to do as part of our future work programme is to review all existing powers.”
Interestingly, she says a new strategy should underline the importance of victims, acknowledge the impact they have suffered – recognising they are often repeatedly targeted. She calls this a “rights-based approach”, taking into account victims’ views when pursuing a (counter-)hateful extremism strategy. “Even the notion of victims of extremism hasn’t really existed before in Government policy.”
Hateful extremism in reality: Birmingham
The Commission believes that “the threat of Islamist agitation was constant and had intensified” once some parents complained and staged protests outside two local schools in Birmingham in 2019.
Both Parkfield Community School and Anderton Park Primary school were targeted by protesters, unhappy about children being taught about same-sex relationships as part of an education programme about protected characteristics under the Equality Act.
“Many parents sought to raise legitimate concerns about what they thought their children were being taught and did not engage in any hateful behaviour. Protesting and advocacy for a cause are integral to democracy. Protest, even if it enables the airing of offensive messages are legitimate in a democracy,” the Commission said.
However, the Commission also noted that adults who had no children at the schools were present at the protests, which were triggered by a group called StopSRE spreading information about forthcoming statutory changes to relationships and sex education in 2020.
The judge at a hearing which banned certain protesters from appearing near the schools said that baseless allegations of paedophilia had been spread, abuse was directed at the female head of one school, and there was aggressive shouting and body language used outside the schools.
The Commission added that while some religious leaders and senior Muslims had condemned the protests and called for dialogue, one Islamist news site had quoted an Islamic scholar who said: “Any Muslim who promotes such haraam [something forbidden] as being permissible cannot call themselves a Muslim as they take themselves outside of the religion.”
It also said the controversial group Hizb ut-Tahrir had prepared a PowerPoint presentation to help protesters counter “arguments that legitimise LGBT”.
It’s not just about terrorism
Khan makes clear she isn’t critical of all government action here. For example, she praises the UK’s counter-terrorism “machinery”, which is based on 50 years’ worth of experience dealing with domestic terrorism.
“You have the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. You have the security services. Police are doing their part. We have a counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, with its four pillars including Prevent. It is a joined up and operational machinery – we’ve got a very strong counter-terrorism infrastructure: it’s one of the best in the world.”
“What we found, though, was when you looked at hateful extremism, we do not have a counter-hateful extremism infrastructure. We do not have a sophisticated counter-hateful extremism machinery. People are unclear as to what they should be doing. It clearly requires a whole society response.”
Interestingly, she adds that there is increasing understanding of the ‘mainstreaming’ of far-right narratives but less so about “Islamist narratives” also being promoted.
She then talks passionately of a role to come for local authorities, for tech companies, for faith leaders, government, police and other law enforcement agencies in this response. But using counter-terror strategies won’t work, she emphasises, in dealing with the broader extremism landscape.
“You can’t just automatically use terrorism legislation to deal with these [hateful extremism] groups,” she says. “Even the police have realised that.”
To illustrate her point, she refers to the country’s top anti-terror police officer, Neil Basu, who was asked by a journalist what we should do about a far-right group like Generation Identity.
“They spread the idea of a Great Replacement theory [used by the Christchurch terrorist as his motivation] and spread really bad hateful extremism propaganda,” says Khan. “They don’t cross over into the threshold of violence, but if you look at a lot of violent white supremacists, if you look at a lot of violent extreme right-wing groups, how many manifestos have we read that reference the Great Replacement theory as a motivational factor?”
“But Neil Basu rightly told this journalist, ‘look, I don’t have any power to deal with Generation Identity.’ Again it shows you the problem, because a lot of these groups don’t meet the threshold of terrorism.”
“It’s about recognising that there is also extremist activity outside of terrorism, hateful extremist activity,” she adds a moment later.
Has there been much positive response to the Commission’s report, I wonder?
“The report was rushed out just before purdah [the period running up to an election],” Khan answers, “but we’ve had a very positive response.” Even organisations such as the Defend Free Speech Alliance, which was hostile to the Government’s proposed 2015 Counter-Extremism Bill, reacted positively she says.
What about the Government?
But has the Government listened? Ministers now include hardliners like Home Secretary Priti Patel, and a new regime under Boris Johnson.
When Challenging Hateful Extremism came out, the Minister for Countering Extremism, Baroness Williams, said:
“Our new Counter-Extremism Strategy, due to be published next year , will reflect the changing nature we face from extremism whilst building on the positive work already delivered.
“I thank the Commission for their work. We will consider their findings and recommendations closely and respond in due course.”
To date, that formal response has been somewhat lacking.
“We’ve obviously had a General Election, a new government in place, the Government hasn’t responded formally to our recommendations – we’re waiting for the Government to do that, obviously – it’s been hard, because of Brexit, you’ve got a new government, and now Covid-19,” Khan admits.
“My view is the Government do care,” she says. “They are looking at the policy agenda around both counter-extremism and counter-terrorism. And we want to help the Government build on that strategy.”
She then adds: “I’ve been in discussions with the Government about devising a classification model for assessing extremist material and behaviours which could also be used in deciphering online extremism as part of the Online Harms Bill. The next step for the Commission is to be given powers to be able to carry out this assessment – hence my call to the Government to put us on a statutory footing.”
What if the Government does nothing, though?
“It will get worse. It’s not decreasing, it’s increasing, because of emerging new technologies. They’re using social media and even encrypted platforms now. But also Covid-19 and resultant socio-economic factors are going to heighten the problem of extremism in the long term. The problem will only get worse.”
“We have to deal head-on with this problem. The harms we have seen range from inspiring terrorism, to public disorder, harassment and violence, to breeding social division and intolerance while undermining community cohesion and ultimately undermining the values of our liberal democracy.”
Whatever happens with central government, Khan and the Commission are hoping to pilot a taskforce to allow a swifter, more co-ordinated response to hateful extremism incidents in local communities.
“When you don’t respond to those incidences, the situation gets increasingly worse. The harm that it causes in local areas is often pretty devastating – extremist propaganda narratives can spread quickly resulting in long term consequences for that town or city. The ability to respond much more effectively, much more quickly, is needed.”
In the end, she remains hopeful, though, adding with an optimistic note: “Having met thousands of people across the country, I’ve seen how many Brits are standing up to extremism. British society is pushing back against extremism.”
You can hear a conversation between HOPE not hate CEO Nick Lowles and Sara Khan on the HOPE not hate podcast: hopenothate.org.uk/podcast
The Commission for Countering Extremism can be found online at: extremismcommission.blog.gov.uk
Author of a critically-acclaimed journey inside white supremacist groups worldwide (HOMELAND: Into a World of Hate), Nick is an award-winning journalist and producer, and nominee for the Paul Foot Award for campaigning journalism. He is a communications strategist and HOPE not hate's former communications director, and as a strategic consultant today heads up our special projects work, including editing the HOPE not hate magazine.Twitter