For years, building a consensus around what constitutes extremism has been a vital part of our efforts to counter it. Labelling Extinction Rebellion (XR) as extremist undermines that consensus.
Ideological extremism isn’t exclusively about violence many non-violent narratives from hate speech and division to delegitimising government also pose risks. And while non-violent extremism has been notoriously hard to define in law, there are principles that enjoy broad support among those working to fight it.
The UK’s Counter Extremism Strategy 2015 refers to opposition to democracy and the rule of law, and intolerance. The Commission for Countering Extremism, launched in part to help bring consensus to counter extremism policy, characterises hateful extremism as supporting behaviours that incite or amplify hatred, equivocating about violence or drawing on supremacist beliefs. It’s hard to see how XR meets any of these categories.
The idea that XR is extremist seems almost exclusively drawn from a recent paper by the Policy Exchange thinktank, written by Richard Walton, a former head of counter-terrorism policing who focuses on their civil resistance strategy. XR does pose a problem to police. But it is a protest movement, and its intention is to disrupt. Breaking the law is not equivalent to abandoning the rule of law.
Beyond XR’s street-based protests, the Policy Exchange paper refers to opposition to capitalist economics and the actions of individuals as justification for labelling them as ‘extremist’. This could pit a whole generation, or political view, against counter-extremism efforts. Many young people, for example, will see this as an attempt to stymie opposition to government policies rather than root out genuine threats.
Counter-extremism efforts are already viewed suspiciously by some after successive scandals related youth outreach, whether that’s the Home Office writing content for teenage Muslim girls, or running community websites with no community involvement. This decision also comes at a tricky time for Prevent, with the first attempt an independent review mired in legal challenge, when we need to be having an objective conversation about these programmes.
The risk is that when extremist designations become politicised, the resulting narrowing of support makes counter-extremism efforts less effective.
It also raises questions about the consistency of policing for counter-extremism. The advice on XR was issued by Counter Terrorism Policing South East (CTPSE). If their view isn’t shared by national counter-terror police, this sends mixed messages which further undermines trust.
The risk is that when extremist designations become politicised, the resulting narrowing of support makes counter-extremism efforts less effective. At the Tony Blair Institute, we’ve used extremists’ words against them, developing an objective resource that identifies and counters extremism. We analysed tweets from Islamist-inspired and far-right groups, comparing their content to violent extremists like Anders Breivik. In both cases, we see a worrying ideological overlap between non-violent groups and convicted terrorists. Environmental extremism does exist, particularly on animal rights, but there’s no assessable evidence that XR fit this categorisation.
If we can reduce politicisation by agreeing on these real-world examples, we can try and tackle the suspicion with which decisions, like the one on XR, are made. Shared toolkits are also important for Prevent practitioners – we can’t have a programme where warning signs in one region are applauded in the next. Thankfully, some Prevent practitioners have said they will ignore CTPSE’s advice but, again, this doesn’t bode well for consistency.
As a counter-extremism community we’ve worked hard to separate efforts from the UK’s counter-terror framework. While CONTEST, the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, is world-leading, the best tools to counter ideological extremism don’t lie in the security apparatus. Instead community relations and education for young people, alongside measures which reduce the space for extremist groups to operate, should be paramount. If everyone is to have a role rooting out extremism, everyone must trust the approach.
We must still take firm action against those groups which do cross the line. Tightening existing laws on hate crimes or introducing new categories for hate groups, for example, would send strong messages about our opposition to those seeking to divide us.
Instead of risking further political division, the Home Secretary should use the forthcoming counter-extremism strategy to draw a line under politicisation of the issue. Providing greater transparency and objectivity behind the criteria for identifying extremist groups would be far more effective in restoring trust, and combatting division.