One year after the horrific murder of Jo Cox, the ugly shadow of the extreme far-right has once again emerged in the UK, casting a pall over our Muslim communities and reigniting the debate on how we tackle and prevent this hatred.
In a cowardly attack, Muslims in Finsbury Park were targeted by a man driving his van into unsuspecting worshippers. Tragically, Makram Ali died at the scene and eleven others have been injured, three critically. The alleged attacker, Darren Osborne, has been charged with terrorism-related murder and the incident has refocused the national debate on right-wing extremism.
The UK Prevent strategy tackles all forms of extremism, including the extreme right wing. But how do we define it, how do we recognise it and how do we tackle it?
I believe Baroness Sayeeda Warsi was right to declare that hostility towards Muslims has “passed the dinner-table test”. I recall a conversation I had several years ago with an obnoxious, racist mechanic who proudly admitted he would happily repair the car of a black man, but never a Muslim. The venom with which he delivered this proclamation has always stayed with me. Such anti-Muslim bigotry has no place in our society and we must not tolerate it, but we must not conflate racism with terrorism. There is no ‘conveyor belt’ to terrorism, but we should acknowledge that a broader, negative discourse on Islam has created the mood music within which extremism has flourished and throughout history we have seen examples of dehumanisation leading to violence.
The extreme right-wing feed off this harmful environment and this can be seen in the infamous narrative of the ‘Fourteen Words’, a neo-Nazi mantra coined by an American white supremacist called David Lane that reads: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”.
For those who deny ideology plays a part in radicalisation, this demonstrates the ideology of the extreme right-wing and what separates a racist from a white supremacist.
We tackle the extreme right-wing in the same way we tackle Islamist extremism, by unscrambling the underlying factors that make the ideology so attractive in the first place. It is wrong to suggest that the Prevent strategy is only interested in extremist ideology because the most important work is done at a fundamentally human level, resolving the social factors and psychological fractures that have led to a reliance on the divisive dogma of extremists.
Issues of isolation, identity and belonging are commonplace, as is the need to make sense of an unjust world and to find solutions for this injustice. There is often a profound sense that no one is listening to their concerns about the world, combined with total disengagement from political processes. Experience has repeatedly shown me that if we could remove the ideology from both a far-right and Islamist extremist, the person underneath will be almost identical. The role of Prevent – and indeed society more broadly – is to resolve the frustrations, anger and grievances that manifest in both before they are exploited and directed by those intent on doing harm.
One recent young person we supported had disclosed in school that he “hates all Muslims because they are all ISIS” and that he was part of an extreme right-wing Facebook group. He had been invited to join by friends and his involvement in the group felt “cool”. Like the group’s other members, he held a fascination for football violence and gang culture; he felt he belonged.
Through the work of the Prevent team, partners embarked on a strategy of support and safeguarding. The problems ran far deeper than his initial comments had inferred and it required the combined efforts of Prevent, the school, other statutory partners and his family to bring him to a safe place and to draw him away from the influences of the extreme right-wing. The positive impact Prevent had in his life moved his Mum to write in gratitude: “Without the interventions from the Prevent team my son wouldn’t be on the path he is now on. They see past behaviour issues and concentrate on the individual and what they can do to move forward. The opportunities that have been given to support my son’s future are overwhelming”.
The problem of radicalisation is a human one, but the issue of ideology is inextricably linked. Like an airborne virus waiting to strike when our immune system is weak, extremism permeates through society attaching itself to the vulnerable and cruelly imitating what they crave; identity, belonging and purpose.
It is not liberal hand-wringing to seek sociological reasoning and answers to the problem of extremism. We can beef up our laws, expand our Police forces and increase prison sentences for violent criminals. But it makes far more sense to prevent radicalisation in the first place.