Here’s how we should combat radical right-wing terrorism

Will Baldet Blogs 27/10/2018

November 13, 2018 Update: The FBI has released data showing that hate crimes have surged 17%. The third consecutive year hate crimes have risen.

On 22 May 2017, an Islamist suicide bomber detonated his bomb outside an Ariana Grande pop concert at the Manchester Arena. His chosen target was guaranteed to kill the most innocent in our society, young people, predominantly teenage girls enjoying a night of music and dancing. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, former MP Andy Burnham, responded by launching the Greater Manchester Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Social Cohesion Commission to further understand how a resident of Manchester could commit such a brutal atrocity against children and what can be done to stop it happening again.

Manchester’s groundbreaking commission had four distinct aims: to identify the broader determinants of social exclusion and how people across Greater Manchester could work collectively to address them; to consider how a distinctive community-led Greater Manchester approach to challenging hateful extremism could be developed; to understand if a Greater Manchester Charter could be an effective way to promote social cohesion; and to evaluate how Prevent (the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy) operates in Greater Manchester. This year, the commission published its findings in its report, “A Shared Future”.

There is much to digest in this document, but it is the commission’s second aim – a community-led approach to tackling hateful extremism – that has particular relevance to the radical right. This is especially true when you consider that the Manchester Arena attack prompted a surge in hate crimes, with Greater Manchester Police (GMP) recording a 130% increase across the city-region. As shocking as this rise appears, the figure hides an even more worrying – yet depressingly predictable – increase. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by a staggering 500% in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack, with the city’s resident Muslim population bearing the brunt of people’s anger.

How To Begin Engaging Extremist Communities

In considering how to challenge hateful extremism, the commission found that ‘engagement with communities by the public sector rarely reaches the “general public grassroots” level.’ While this is a fair criticism, it is worth reflecting upon the challenges of what is being asked. Few people can honestly claim to be truly representative of an entire community, and from my experience, faith communities often fall foul of relying upon established (and often self-appointed) “community leaders” who become the conduit for engagement with local statutory partners like Prevent Officers and Community Coordinators. This means that critical messages do not necessarily make it to the wider public, and when they do they can be filtered through the messenger’s own opinions.

Communities that are not united by a shared identity like faith can be even harder to reach. If you consider communities where radical right views might prevail, they are less likely to have grassroots community leaders, while those few individuals who do rise to the challenge are usually only representative of a very small community – and are often reluctant to wear the mantle of “leader.” This dilemma was recently highlighted by the Birmingham-based organization Connect Futures in their blog, “If there is a Muslim community, is there a ‘far right’ community when it comes to preventing extremism?” It argues that the concept of “community” is too vague and should, therefore, have no place in policy. I agree in part, but having spent a decade engaging just such communities I also believe that if you circumnavigate the gatekeepers, you can reach further and have a more meaningful engagement that informs and shapes both policy and practice.

Furthermore, if we fail to recognize something as a problem, we are unlikely to respond to it. In this respect, the overwhelming focus of media reporting relates to Islamist-inspired terrorism, which can lead to a perception that radicalization is a niche problem and not relevant to the whole of society. In fact, emerging research is leaning more toward this being a social phenomenon that can manifest through a prism of extremism, although not exclusively. While we should not shy away from the most pressing issue, that of Islamist extremism, we must be honest as a society and recognize that the threat extends beyond a single political cause. There is an urgent need to redress the balance and to communicate to the wider public that social fractures have made the concept of “radicalization” an issue for us all. Yet precisely how we do this presents its own challenges.

Fighting Misinformation And Convening Meetings

In Leicester, a regular meeting has been established called Community Gold, which brings together representatives of different faith groups (including Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Baha’i, Christian) as well as other representatives such as the Roma Gypsy community. The meeting was established in 2010 when the English Defence League, a UK far-right protest movement, first descended upon the city and since then, there was a recognized need to ensure that community tensions can be represented, understood and acted upon. During the EDL march, this group also became a quick-time response to community rumors and innuendo (a sort of community fact-check) that was able to reduce unnecessary tensions by disseminating the facts of a situation back into community networks via Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other forms of social media.

Community Gold has continued long after the EDL departed, convening bi-monthly to discuss ongoing issues that affect communities while giving the public a way to speak directly with the Local Authority and police on a range of issues. By maintaining it in times of comparative calm, it means the mechanism is still there for those urgent and more catastrophic events, such as murder investigations, significant arson attacks; and of course, subsequent radical right demonstrations.

Without a doubt, these Community Gold meetings in Leicester are a good template for statutory partners to consider. Yet they are only as strong as the attendance they attract, and representation still remains a challenge. For example, the Roma community is small in Leicester and one representative can indeed reflect their views and feedback any relevant information from partners. By contrast, the Muslim community may number as many as 120,000 and even Leicester’s Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO), a long-established and reputable umbrella body in Leicester, which has an impressive 200+ affiliates, simply cannot reach everyone.

There are exceptions to this. The “Punish a Muslim Day” (PAMD) letters that circulated in March 2018 were already widely known about in Muslim communities before mainstream media starting reporting on them. In fact, the dissemination of this threat was so well communicated through social media networks that it sparked an equally imposing deluge of apparent PAMD attacks to circulate widely on community WhatsApp groups.

So ubiquitous were these videos and claims (a stabbing in Sheffield; acid attacks in London, and so on) that even when the facts were established – they were not related to PAMD, which are alleged to have been sent by a loner in Lincolnshire – they were often ignored and the stories continued to gather momentum.

Building Community, Online And Offline

A friend and colleague of mine, who was immersed in The Troubles in Northern Ireland, noted that a good argument will always lose out to a strong emotion. So, in order for messages to reach as far as possible, we must ensure they move beyond facts and establish an emotional connection with their audience. That means not just highlighting the harm that hateful extremism has on communities, but showing how that harm manifests at a personal level; messages of these sorts should be alarming without being alarmist. Unless people recognize the visceral impact extremism has on individuals they are unlikely to shift their own unconscious bias.

We must also utilize the favored platforms of our target audience, be it Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram or whichever network is the flavor of the month. If we can generate content on social media and complement it with face-to-face meetings within communities themselves, then we can go some way to ensuring that “community engagement” is elevated from mere buzz words to a meaningful relationship between statutory partners and the public.

Reaching parents and families remains one of the toughest challenges for tackling extremism, and we must strike that balance of raising awareness without creating needless worry or panic. From radical right agitators to Islamist activists, social media campaigns are sowing divisions in society and driving a wedge between the community and the public servants who work for them. Establishing these mechanisms of communication and engagement to reach the public will not only increase their understanding of local extremism threats but also create a conduit for myth-busting the wealth of misinformation campaigns that continue to divide communities.

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