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19 July 2017

Four things that would be more helpful than a commission for countering extremism

In our recent ComRes survey, the Alliance polled members of the public to see whether they considered the word 'extreme' to be helpful when discussing political and social opinions. 54 per cent thought that it was not. This does not bode well for the government's attempt to set up an extremism commission to define this unpopular term and create new criminal offences on that basis.

A common reply of policy-makers to criticism is that some policy is better than nothing at all in response to a problem. Something must be done - and this is something.

But what if there were some clear, positive alternatives to funding such a commission? And what if these alternatives had more potential to reduce terrorism and crime than defining 'extremism', which has now been in three consecutive Queen's Speeches without bearing any fruit?  Here are four better ways we could be spending public money.

  1. Promoting religious literacy. Religious literacy is understanding what religious believers think and do, as well as why. Despite some negative reaction to the term, this is not a call to privilege religion, only to understand it. In a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education , Fiona Bruce MP wrote:  "It is my hope that religious literacy will enable communities and individuals to understand each other better, to communicate with one another on a more informed basis and promote community cohesion within a more inclusive and holistic society." Such understanding and empathy are essential to reduce the grievances that drive both Islamist and far-right violence. The APPG report made many recommendations, and the government's forthcoming integration strategy provides an opportunity to test or implement some of them. Such investment in religious literacy would help us engage with our very real neighbours, rather than the abstract and ill-defined concept of 'non-violent extremism'.
  2. Developing safer internet users. The government has made a 'safer internet' one major policy priority. However, our ability to restrict online content is often limited: censoring the internet is like trying to censor the weather. A better defence against dangerous content is surely to educate people about group psychology, the capacity for manipulation, and how these things manifest online. If we cannot remove anyone's platform, we would do better to seek to raise the game of the audience. That seems like a better tool against online radicalisation than a commission identifying nebulous 'examples of extremism', and a 'whack-a-mole' strategy of seeking to remove it from the net. 'Counter-extremism' funding might therefore be better spent in our schools, on citizenship provision.
  3. Fostering good disagreement. Recently MPs debated the rise of horrific abuse in the past election campaign. But this is just the loudest manifestation of a broader problem: we are losing the ability to disagree on important issues. As David Goodhart notes in The Road to Somewhere, we're increasingly divided by our different outlooks and are less able to relate to those of other backgrounds. Again this needs addressing through education - as some are already doing. For example, some humanities courses get pairs of students to write dialogue essays, to assess how they disagree. Others ask students to write from a contrary perspective, testing their empathy. And students learn valuable lessons outside the lecture hall or debating chamber from inter-faith and other dialogue events. So good ideas about disagreement exist but in some cases they are untested or undeveloped. Again, funding to research good ideas in this field seems a better use of money than an extremism commission that may divide us further, as illustrated by our recent polling.
  4. Greater investment in our law enforcement system. Our law enforcement system includes police and intelligence services as well as our legal system and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Even after the terrorist attacks this year there was widespread agreement, including from Home Secretary Amber Rudd, that no new powers are needed. New resources, however, could always be put to use especially as these bodies deal with an increase in online abuse and other new challenges. They are already countering illegal 'extremism', and require proper funding and support.

So rather than a broad, overarching definition of extremism each of these proposals tackles a specific problem and would surely meet with more widespread public support. We will soon be able to tot up the cost of an extremism commission: from commissioner salaries, support staff and publicity to office space in central London. It won't be cheap. As well as sharp questioning about how our shared freedoms are affected by 'counter-extremism' (along the lines of last year's report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights), MPs will be obliged to ask: is their constituents' money is being well spent? Or is the unpopular quest to define 'extremism' not only unhelpful, but poor stewardship of limited resources.