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March 14, 2024   5 mins

Back in 2015, word came down from on high that every British school was now bound by law to promote “fundamental British values”, lest they fall foul of Ofsted, or worse. Cast your mind back to the start of the year: it had kicked off with the murder of Parisian cartoonists, swiftly followed by grainy CCTV images of three Bethnal Green schoolgirls on their way to join Isis splashed across every front page. The year before, a plot to de-secularise a handful of Birmingham schools and instil an “intolerant Islamic ethos” was uncovered in the Trojan Horse scandal — which, despite subsequent revisionism, really did take place.

Britain had been caught completely off-guard by Islamist extremism, and reasserting fundamental British values appeared to be the answer. In fact, extremism was even defined by the Government 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”. The only problem: the reassertion of fundamental British values against this threat never really came. Many schools were confused and just did their best to keep Ofsted inspectors at bay. I saw “fundamental British values” hall displays made up of portraits of semi-obscure Royals and pictures of fish and chips. Elsewhere, the use of the word “British” before “values” made the mainly Left-leaning public and education sectors expected to promote them squirm. And so, in the absence of any revitalisation of British democratic values, Islamists largely just carried on going about their business.

Almost a decade later, Britain has once again been caught off-guard by Islamism, with the Government expected to unveil a new practical definition of extremism today. But this will always prove a very difficult task: “extremism” is a fundamentally subjective notion, and is open to an inherent risk of politicisation and abuse, particularly at a time when there seems to be less and less agreement on what our shared values actually are.

It is by now a cliche in academic circles to point to Britain’s lack of written constitution, a problem not shared by our European neighbours. France, for instance, has dissolved both Islamist and far-Right groups for being contrary to Republican principles, while Germany has a Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors and produces public reports on far-Right, far-Left and Islamist subversion. The UK, however, has no such luxury, and, as a result, the Government’s efforts to define “extremism” have left two of the most significant Islamist movements largely untouched: the Muslim Brotherhood and their South Asian equivalent, Jamaat-e-Islami. This has allowed individuals connected to these movements and their front groups to continue growing in power, through official appointments and even through the receipt of taxpayer money. Indeed, the logic behind renewing the definition seems to be exactly this — to provide clear rules for government departments for how to engage with organisations that are not merely opposed to the current government, but agitate against liberal democracy altogether.

When it comes to this brand of “non-violent” Islamism, British authorities have been incredibly lax. But even if they had been vigilant, tackling their influence would have been far from straightforward. To start with, Muslim Brotherhood networks in Britain are obsessively secretive (indeed, one formerly prominent member left because of this), which makes debating and defeating their ideas in the public square almost impossible. The resulting obscuration of their political programme means that these groups are unlikely to fall foul of the British values definition of extremism. On democracy, for instance, their representatives talk a great game: they are happy to work within existing democratic frameworks and even make pragmatic alliances in unlikely quarters, such as with Jewish and LGBT groups to advance their agenda. The ends (an eventual Islamic state) justify the means. Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder, Abul A’la Maududi, for instance, detailed how their agenda to reshape society should be so gradual as to be imperceptible to the host country, making it impossible to identify, much less confront.

To counter this, attempts have been made to position extremism in close proximity to “hate”. But “hate” doesn’t best describe the public face of these Islamist groups, whose members are mainly professional, educated and expert communicators — a far cry from the stereotype of a snarling hate-filled thug. And even for jihadists, this framing is not clear-cut: in 2015, before he murdered them, Amedy Coulibaly chatted calmly with his Jewish hostages in the Hypercacher supermarket, telling them he had “nothing against Jews”. His massacre, he explained, was ideologically — divinely — ordained.

“‘Hate” doesn’t best describe the public face of these Islamist groups.”

According to reports, the new proposed definition will — like the definition before it — still be values-based. The Times suggests that it will take in those who promote or advance “an ideology based on intolerance, hatred or violence that aims to undermine the rights or freedoms of others”, with a second rung of the definition targeted at those who seek to undermine or overturn Britain’s parliamentary democracy. On the face of it, this proposal seems better equipped to tackle the complex challenges posed by the aforementioned Islamist movements, while bringing Britain closer to how European states perceive their own constitutional threats. Within the Conservative Party behind it, however, there are fears that the definition will be used against social conservatives or gender-critical feminists. It’s not hard to see why there is concern, especially at a time when various political tribes are busy accusing one another of supposed extremism. Revelations that training materials and briefings under Prevent and other counter-terrorism efforts have expanded so far as to include the likes of Brexit voters, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Douglas Murray and Joe Rogan show that this alarm is far from unfounded.

A convincing alternative approach is offered by philosophy professor Quassim Cassam, who argues that any definition of extremism should be focused on behaviours, rather than beliefs. Cassam does not deny the central role of ideology, but warns of the dangers of a definitional focus: “It’s not that a person’s ideology is irrelevant or that extremism doesn’t have an ideological dimension. Rather, the main focus should be on what extremists do. What they think matters to the extent that it influences their actions.” He continues: “An extremist, then, is someone who engages in politically or religiously motivated intimidation, threats, or violence for political or religious ends.”

As sympathetic as I am to this argument, it nonetheless begs the question: how do two of the most significant Islamist organisations fit into this configuration? And not only that, but two Islamist organisations that are central reasons for the renewed Government concern.

Cassam is right to point out the unfairness of penalising a group or individual simply because their beliefs fall outside of the Overton window, but neither the Brotherhood nor Jamaat operate within these constraints. They are not open about their actual political agenda and so neither supporters nor opponents of their front groups in Britain can test or debate their actual ideas. To make matters worse, criticising the activities or policies of these fronts is often met with socially and professionally ruinous Islamophobia allegations, or financially ruinous legal threats. In other words, they are not playing by the rules of the game.

It’s for these reasons that the UK Government is also reportedly establishing a “centre of excellence” to tackle extremism. The lack of information relating to non-terroristic Islamism has made it tricky for officials and institutions to make informed decisions about engagement and funding, leading to repeated blunders. It remains to be seen how such a centre would be protected from the Islamist scene’s aggressive litigiousness — or, perhaps even more so, how it can be protected in the long term from meandering towards figures such as Andrew Tate instead of the various movements genuinely wielding the freedoms afforded under British democracy against itself.

It is in this context that a new definition of extremism will emerge. Striking the balance between protecting people’s essential liberties and marginalising the unique and subversive challenge posed by domestic Islamism — or at least ensuring that we are not paying for and legitimising that subversion — will be the key to whether we are here again in a decade, clamouring around for yet a new definition. In this eventuality I propose a simple test. Would I trust my political opponents with this definition? If the answer is no, then it’s back to the drawing board.

Liam Duffy is a researcher, speaker and trainer in counter-terrorism based in London.