Countering extremism through integration?

Countering extremism through integration?

Therese O’Toole

Addressing ‘a vacuum on integration policy’, the government’s recent Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper constitutes the first significant attempt by government to articulate a national strategy for integration in over a decade. The Green Paper identifies extremism as an obstacle to the achievement of integration and enfolds the goals of Counter Extremism into the concerns of integration. The evolving Counter Terrorism and Counter Extremism agendas have long been concerned with the problem of integration, but what role should either of those agendas play in the formulation of integration policy?

The government’s 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy set out four strands to dealing with the ideologies and attitudes that foster terrorism and ‘murderous hate crimes’: 1) countering extremist ideology; 2) building partnerships with those opposed to extremism; 3) disrupting extremists; and 4) building cohesive communities. In relation to the latter, the Counter Extremism Strategy expressed concern that lack of integration creates divided and ‘isolated communities’ who ‘will be less resilient to the threat posed by extremism’ (page 37). It suggested work on the 4th strand would be the subject of the 2016 Casey Review on integration, and that review has informed the present Green Paper. Like the 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy and Casey Review, the Green Paper cites lack of integration as a key risk factor in the spread of extremism, suggesting segregated and ‘isolated’ communities ‘may lead to higher levels of mistrust between people of different backgrounds’ (page 12), and warning a ‘lack of meaningful social mixing’ can lead to a scenario where ‘Negative cultural norms can take hold, including prejudice, anti-social behaviour and oppression of women, [which] can be exploited by extremists.’ (page 12).

Nonetheless, the Green Paper expresses a celebratory view of Britain’s ethnic and cultural diversity, declaring it has become ‘one of the most successful multi-faith, and multi-ethnic, societies in the world’ (page 10). The Green Paper notes several challenges to this proud track record, however, such as the persistence of inequalities – as detailed in the government’s Race Disparity Audit. It cites the launch of the Commission for Countering Extremism as one of the measures that government has introduced ‘to tackle the most persistent and gravest inequalities’ (page 13). Not only is Counter Extremism posited in the Green Paper as a strategy for tackling inequalities, it is also presented as key to the promotion of rights and freedoms that are foundational to the government’s integration strategy (it is worth noting that the section on extremism appears in ‘Chapter 7: Rights and Freedoms’ of the Green Paper).

For those who worry that the Counter Extremism agenda is harmful to the integration and equality of (especially Muslim) minorities, or to civil liberties, the Green Paper asserts it instead as integral to their achievement. This entails re-framing Counter Extremism as a means of: guaranteeing those rights and freedoms that are threatened by extremists; addressing inequalities experienced by women in minority communities at the hands of conservative men or harmful cultural practices; and promoting shared ‘fundamental British values’ that are essential to cohesive communities. This re-framing is moreover dependent upon the disassociation of Counter Extremism from Prevent (the counter-radicalisation strand of the government’s counter-terrorism – CONTEST – agenda). There are, however, several tensions involved in moves to re-frame Counter Extremism in these ways.

Prevent and Counter Extremism
It is perhaps unsurprising that the government seeks to distance Counter Extremism from Prevent. Controversial from the start, Prevent continues to attract criticisms from various quarters, notwithstanding the reforms it has undergone since 2010. In 2017, the former independent reviewer of the government’s counter-terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, argued that ‘Prevent is controversial, to the point where reputable community organisations refuse to engage with it’ and that it needs significant reform. A former senior metropolitan police officer, Dal Babu, has described Prevent as a ‘toxic’ brand, that is widely mistrusted.

Government seeks to differentiate Counter Extremism from Prevent by claiming the former aims ‘to counter the wider social harms caused by extremism’, whilst Prevent aims to ‘stop individuals becoming radicalised or supporting terrorism’. Despite such assertions, much of what is set out in the Counter Extremism agenda is contained in the 2011 Prevent strategy, including the aims to tackle extremism (‘preventing terrorism will mean challenging extremist (and non-violent) ideas’) and pursue integration as a means of tackling radicalisation:

“There is evidence to indicate that support for terrorism is associated with rejection of a cohesive, integrated, multi-faith society and of parliamentary democracy. Work to deal with radicalisation will depend on developing a sense of belonging to this country and support for our core values.” (page 5)

The 2011 Prevent strategy asserted, though, that – learning from past mistakes – ‘Government will not securitise its integration strategy’, whilst ‘Policy and programmes to deal with extremism and with extremist organisations more widely are not part of Prevent and will be coordinated from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)’ (page 6). In fact, the Home Office does manage both Counter Extremism and Prevent (and in a much more centralised way since 2011), with Counter Extremism and Prevent personnel and programmes, locally and nationally, coordinated by the Home Office. It is difficult to see, then, how either conceptually, strategically or operationally these agendas do not overlap.

Protecting rights and freedoms
A difficulty for Prevent and Counter Extremism have been charges they undermine civil liberties and human rights. By contrast, the Green Paper seeks to re-frame Counter Extremism as part of the government’s strategy to protect rights and freedoms – specifically the rights of women and LGBT groups that are jeopardised by extremists:

“The harm caused by extremists – justifying violence, promoting hatred and division, encouraging isolation and separation, denying rights to women and girls and LGBT people – presents a threat to our society and must be addressed.” (page 57)

This construction has been deployed before – notably in the justification of the attacks on Afghanistan or more generalised ‘war on terror’. This construction ignores, however, the impact of the Counter Extremism agenda itself on rights and freedoms – not least due to the more conceptually expansive nature of Prevent and its concern since 2011 with tackling non-violent extremism, alongside its operational expansion since 2015 as a statutory duty across public sector institutions including schools, universities, the health sector, charities and prisons and probation services. This has raised concerns about the discriminatory effects of monitoring for very broadly defined signs of radicalisations on Muslim pupils, students, patients and public-sector workers, and the implications for freedom of expression and right to democratic dissent.

Government has nonetheless indicated that it will further legislate against extremism. One challenge, however, has been the difficulties in arriving at a legally defensible definition. In 2016 the House of Commons Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, concluded the government’s definitions of extremism’ are couched in such general terms that they would be likely to prove unworkable as a legislative definition’ and argued attempts to do so would interfere with freedoms of religion and expression, have a disproportionate impact on religiously conservative communities and involve public sector institutions in managing conflicting obligations to uphold rights and freedoms. Consequently, it recommended: ‘The Government should not legislate, least of all in areas which impinge on human rights, unless there is a clear gap in the existing legal framework’ (pages 3-5).

Shared/Fundamental British Values
The Green Paper warns that ‘Extremists promote actions that undermine our shared values’ (page 57), and states that promoting ‘shared values and community cohesion’ will be the role of the Countering Extremism Commission (page 59), and achieved through teaching ‘fundamental British values’ in schools (page 14) – the definition of which is contained in the 2011 Prevent strategy (page 107), then incorporated by the DfE into teaching standards in 2012, and made a statutory requirement on teachers with the 2015 Counter Terrorism and Security Act.

The advancing ‘fundamental British values’ agenda – from its origins in Prevent to becoming a requirement in education and potentially a key aspect of integration policy – has taken place in the absence of any real debate on what shared or ‘fundamental British values’ are, or ought to be, or why they should be folded into the Counter Extremism agenda. A report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement cautions against linking these agendas:

The promotion of Shared British Values should be separated from counter-extremism policy. […] the primary objective of promoting Shared Values of British Citizenship is to encourage positive citizenship rather than solely aiming to counter extremism. (paragraph 70).

Civic engagement and integration
The Green Paper concludes by inviting responses from individuals and organisations to its proposals, although to questions that reinforce its re-framing of extremism as integral to rights, freedoms and integration – asking whether we agree with measures to ‘encourage integration and resist divisive views or actions’ or ‘address practices which can impact on the rights of women’? (page 62) The questions we might ask are whether extremism or shared values or integration should be conceptualised in the way they have been in the Green Paper?


Therese O’Toole is Reader in Sociology at the University of Bristol, where she researches the impact of the government’s evolving counter-terrorism agenda on state-Muslim engagement and Muslim civil society. Recent publications include: John Holmwood & Therese O’Toole (2017) Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Bristol: Policy Press), and Therese O’Toole, Nasar Meer, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Stephen Jones and Tariq Modood (2016) ‘Governing Through Prevent? Regulation and contested practice in state-Muslim engagement’ in Sociology, 50 (1).