Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a new ‘Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill’ as part of his ‘legacy programme’ of legislation. But, says Hilary Pilkington, if it can’t distinguish between legitimate grievance and dangerous extremism, we risk adding some very serious fuel to the fire.
Fresh from victory in the General Election, on May 13 2015, the Prime Minister’s office issued a press release setting out the ‘intention to prioritise new legislation to make it harder for people to promote dangerous extremist views’. It heralded a range of ‘banning orders’ against extremist organisations, ‘extremism disruption orders’ against individuals identified as radicalising young people and new powers to close down physical and virtual spaces in which extremists spread their message.
A year on, a counter-extremism strategy has emerged, but no bill has yet seen the light of day. The problem, it appears, is that before you legislate against it, you need first to know what ‘extremism’ is. So how confident can we be that, second time around, the Government is clearer about what it wants to outlaw?
What is extremism?
Understandably challenges to the proposed legislation have been concerned primarily with the lack of robustness of the Government’s definition of ‘extremism’. Its broad brush approach – understanding extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ – makes it vulnerable to legal challenge, as well as likely to alienate further communities which, ostensibly, the government seeks to ‘safeguard’ from radicalising agents.
However, this legislative Groundhog Day demonstrates something else profoundly disturbing about the Government’s understanding of what is happening in society. Announcing the proposed legislation in 2015, the Prime Minister argued that the UK’s ‘passively tolerant society’ had ‘helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance’. That ‘extremism’ and ‘grievance’ are seen as equivalent reveals not only a government deaf to the fears and concerns of Muslim communities who feel targeted and stigmatised by counter-extremism discourse, but a profound lack of understanding of expression as central to the political process and an unwillingness to redress legitimate grievance. This failure to differentiate between two profoundly different political concepts is more than rhetorical imprecision. It risks shutting down the space for political discussion and in this way is exacerbating existing grievance and contributing to cumulative extremism.
The danger of the Government’s failure to understand the importance of listening to grievance might be demonstrated, paradoxically, from the other side of the barricades. My three year ethnographic study of grassroots activists in the English Defence League (EDL) showed grievance to be the movement’s binding force.
While there is significant disagreement and diversity within the EDL regarding who constitutes ‘other’ (Islam or ‘Islamism’; Islam or Muslims; Muslims or extremist/radical Muslims), there is a consistent and emotionally charged narrative of ‘self’. So ‘we’, for activists, are ‘second-class citizens’.
This narrative is rooted in a sense of profound injustice based on the perception that the needs of others are privileged over their own. In the case of the EDL, the perceived beneficiary of that injustice might be racialised as ‘immigrants’, ‘Muslims’ or ethnic minorities who, it is claimed, are afforded preferential treatment in terms of access to benefits, housing, and jobs. The agent responsible for this injustice, according to the EDL, is a weak-willed or frightened government that panders to the demands of a minority, for fear of being labelled racist. This injustice is understood to be institutionalised through a ‘two-tier’ justice system which privileges minorities whilst discriminating against ‘us’.
There has been much criticism of ‘white working class’ grievance narratives, not least because they naturalise assumptions of racially-based inequality; that ‘we’ not ‘they’ should be prioritised is the natural order. Their persistence, however, tells us something more than that anti-racism has failed to eradicate all vestiges of racism and allowed new objects – ‘migrants’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘Muslims’ – of racism to emerge. The narrative of second-class citizenship – whether or not it can be empirically substantiated – reveals why sections of the white working class fail to recognise themselves as the privileged majority or accept their ‘othering’ as a form of racism.
Re-ordering of privilege and prejudice
My extended engagement with activists in the EDL revealed that their activism is experienced as a means of resisting second-class citizen status. This is accomplished through a rhetorical re-ordering of privilege and prejudice and a collective understanding of the EDL as a movement of ‘the common people’ prepared to ‘stand up’ and ‘fight back’ against the government, and wider circles of power controlled by liberal elite ‘do-gooders’, who, in the words of one respondent, ‘don’t know what it’s like to live at this end of the spectrum’.
Few have any belief that their activism will change anything. This explains why ostensibly intimidating EDL street demonstrations marked by racist chanting and nationalistic flag waving are understood by activists themselves as standing ‘loud and proud’; the only way of ‘being heard’ in a political system perceived to be set up not for dialogue with people but for their compliant listening.
Legitimate grievance or dangerous extremism?
Few expect the EDL to survive long, still less grow into a potent political force, but understanding the meanings attached to activism in movements like the EDL is pertinent to the debate about counter-extremism legislation for two reasons.
First, such movements would be equally subject to the banning orders proposed and its messages would contravene, in some instances, the requirement to demonstrate the ‘mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. While there is little evidence to suggest that the movement has the capacity or will to develop into a terrorist organisation, an escalation of prosecutions under counter-extremism legislation would exacerbate and entrench the sense of victimisation and fuel existing grievance.
Secondly, there is a danger of a process of ‘cumulative extremism’ emerging from the dynamic between extreme ‘Islamist’ groups and anti-Muslim/extreme right-wing movements; action or inaction on the part of influential individuals, the media and the state play an important role in this process.
In my opinion there is a distinct danger that the lack of government clarity on what it seeks to outlaw will mean that, second time around too, it fails to distinguish between the articulation of grievance (be it against UK foreign policy abroad or allocation of social housing at home) as an important part of the political process and extremism.
If this is the case David Cameron’s legacy will not be the curbing of extremism by ‘safeguarding’ vulnerable people and protecting communities from radicalisation but promoting the intolerance of ‘grievance’ that exacerbates social division and fuels rather than tackles extremism.
- Hilary Pilkington’s study of the English Defence League was one of 44 ethnographic case studies of youth activism undertaken as part of the MYPLACE project. The book Pilkington, H. (2016) Loud and Proud: Passion and Politics in the English Defence League, is available free via open access from Manchester: Manchester University Press here
- More information about the EU funded MYPLACE (Memory, Youth, Political Legacy & Civic Engagement) project