One of the more interesting – and controversial – topics that came up at the Wilton Park conference on religion and radicalisation last month was the news that the UK is revisiting its counter terrorism strategy to include rules on how to deal with extremism that is not necessarily violent. We have been inured to the phrase violent extremism over the past few years but seem to have forgotten that people can hold extreme views, even disgusting ones, but not seek to act on these ideas in a violent manner. Is extremism ok, as long as it is not violent?
Th UK plan will run into trouble very soon. There are, of course, extremist ideas that are beyond the pale, but most of them are tied to violence. I do not think that anyone has much difficulty with acting to eliminate the distribution of beheading or torture videos, for instance. It gets a little more difficult to decide when it comes to possession of a copy of an extremist magazine like Dabiq (I have them all and so do many academics). What then do we do about individuals who espouse views that are not consistent with “Western values”? Do you see the problem?
There has been a lot of criticism of governments that try to defend “national ideas” and rightly so. What are these exactly? Is there a list that has blanket approval? After all, the Canada of 2016 is not that of 1916 (or 1966 for that matter) and it is fair to posit that values shift as societies change (the meteoric rise in acceptance of gay rights in this country is a prime example). Nevertheless, are there not some concepts that stand the test of time?
We would probably all agree that, in Canada at least, the rule of law, the concept of a liberal secular democracy and the tolerance of difference (here we go beyond tolerance to embrace diversity in this country) are all sacrosanct. These principles are the bedrock of Canada and the rejection of any one of them would lead to something that is not Canada.
What to do then with individuals or groups that vocally call for the demise of any of these? Should the concept of freedom of conscience/speech overrule the fundamental truths listed above? Or are there things we cannot allow to be challenged? This might prove to be one of the hardest dilemmas facing any democracy – letting those in its midst criticise its very existence.
One group that very plainly hates everything we stand for is Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), an extremist organisation founded in the 1950s. It calls for the re-establishment of a Caliphate and is very active in Central Asia (but much less so here). Their agenda has caught the attention of Danish authorities, however, who are seeking to prohibit the group from using state-owned facilities to spread their anti-democratic ideas. It should be stressed that HuT has NOT been listed as a terrorist organisation in the EU, although Germany has banned the group (the UK has considered following suit on two occasions but has not done so due to a lack of solid evidence).
To my mind, HuT espouses unacceptable views and does share much with groups that are violent in nature (AQ, IS, etc.). But, and this needs to be stressed, it does not advocate violence to achieve its goals. Does it constitute, then, a threat and should it be proscribed? Some have argued that HuT is a “gateway group” that inevitably leads its members to move on to violent action. On that front there is unfortunately little agreement on what it takes to progress from extremism to violent extremism.
On the other hand, is there no better way to defeat groups like HuT than to debate them and destroy their arguments in the public sphere? HuT’s ideas are impoverished and unworkable. Furthermore, the group has garnered very little support outside of a few Central Asian nations as noted and certainly not in the West. Why give them more credibility by banning them?
Organisations that share HuT’s version of the world are roundly rejected by the vast, vast majority of Muslims. Their claim to represent Muslims and embody true Islam is a sham. Would a better solution not be to allow these people to speak and then watch as “regular” Muslims eviscerate their views and show them as the charlatans they are? Not only would Western Muslims triumph, they would demonstrate, yet again, that they are part of our societies and do not support the extremist garbage out there.
If HuT were shown to be recruiting for violence, and some of its members act violently, then of course they must be dealt with in the harshest possible way. Until that time, we should allow them to fruitlessly advance their cause and enjoy the show when they slink away defeated from the stage of public opinion.