Thursday 24 December 2015

Unintended consequences of counter-terrorism legislation

Thanks to Robin Richardson for forwarding the following extract which I think contributes to our discussion on this blog about the Prevent Strategy and its impact in Brent.

Unintended consequences of counter-terrorism legislation
Extract from Living with Difference: diversity, community and the common good, the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, published on 7 December 2015.

8.22      Counter-terrorism legislation and strategies are a proper responsibility for all governments and have rightly been a priority in Britain and other western countries since the outrages in New York (2001), Madrid (2004) and London (2005). More recently, major atrocities have included murders in Woolwich (2013), Paris (2015) and Tunisia (2015). Governments have a clear responsibility to prevent such outrages. Also, as with the whole spectrum of crime and disorder, they have leadership tasks in relation to fear of terrorism, and to fostering security not only as objective fact but also as subjective feeling. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2011 and 2015 the percentage saying they are very concerned about Islam-related extremism in their country increased by 38 percentage points in France, 29 points in Spain, 21 points in the United Kingdom, 20 points in Germany and 17 points in the United States.[1] Within the overall pattern of public opinion in Britain it has been found that fear of Islam-related terrorism is higher amongst older people and people living outside London, and in particular parts of the electorate.[2]
8.23     The ways in which anti-terrorism policies operate in practice can have, however, unintended consequences. In particular, significant numbers of citizens may come to feel they are viewed as Other, namely as people who do not truly belong and cannot be trusted, 'them' rather than 'us', suspects or potential suspects, not ordinary citizens with the same values as everyone else. Counter-terrorism policies and measures may then not only fail to achieve their objectives but actually may make matters worse, such that both terrorism and the fear of terrorism increase, and both security and sense of security are diminished.[3] At the present time it is Muslim communities in Britain that are most directly and obviously affected. All people, however, are of course affected by increases in fear and feelings of insecurity, as also all people in a society are affected by the ways in which majorities and minorities see and approach each other.
8.24     To decrease the danger of unintended harmful consequences in counter-terrorism measures against Islam-related terrorism, the following five points need to be carefully considered:
a)      The government needs to engage with a wide range of academic theory, research and scholarship about the nature and causes of terrorism. Amongst other things, this means it should encourage and promote, not seek to limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should not loosely use words and concepts which scholarship shows to be controversial and unclear. Such words and concepts include 'ideology', 'radicalisation', 'extremism' and 'Islamism'.[4] 

b)      The government needs to meet and engage with a wide range of Muslim groups and organisations, and to show that it understands, even if it does not agree with, the views about the nature and causes of terrorism that they hold. It cannot otherwise gain the trust and confidence of significant opinion leaders, and therefore cannot otherwise rely on their support and assistance. Their support and assistance are essential, however, if counter-terrorism strategies are to be successful. In its selection of organisations with which to engage the government must guard against the perception that it is operating with a simplistic good Muslims/bad Muslims distinction, or between ‘mainstream moderates’ and ‘violent or non-violent extremists’.

c)       There is no causal or inevitable link between conservative or orthodox theological and moral views on the one hand and propensity to violent and criminal behaviour on the other. Nor, more fundamentally, is there a simple, one-way causal link between a worldview, ideology or narrative on the one hand and specific actions and behaviours on the other.[5]

d)      There is no simplistic us/them distinction or clash between western or Enlightenment values on the one hand and the values of other cultures, countries and civilisations on the other, nor between Christian values and those of other religions.

e)      Political leaders should seek not only to promote debate and deliberation about the causes of terrorism but also to challenge misunderstandings and negative stereotypes in the population at large and in mass-circulation newspapers – they have a duty to lead public opinion, and not only to reduce fear and insecurity in the majority population but also to give principled reassurance and moral support to groups and communities which feel vulnerable to violence or discrimination.

8.25     These concerns were well summarised in the September 2015 report of Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. The report listed 15 issues raised by the government’s new measures on countering extremism and commented that the issues matter because ‘they concern the scope of UK discrimination, hate speech and public order laws, the limits that the state may place on some of our most basic freedoms, the proper limits of surveillance, and the acceptability of imposing suppressive measures without the protections of the criminal law’. The report then issued the very important warning that ‘if the wrong decisions are taken, the new law risks provoking a backlash in affected communities, hardening perceptions of an illiberal or Islamophobic approach, alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile and playing into the hands of those who, by peddling a grievance agenda, seek to drive people further towards extremism and terrorism’.[6] There is a severe danger, to put the same point in different words, that the vision of a society at ease with itself, sketched at the start of chapter 3 of this report, and frequently referred to throughout the following chapters, will be harmed not helped by government action. It could be harder not easier, as a consequence of government action, for the citizens of the UK to live with their differences. It is essential that forthcoming proposals on countering extremism should be scrutinised with the maximum possible care and amended accordingly if appropriate, and that subsequent operations when they are enacted should be monitored with a very high degree of diligence.
Anderson, David (2015) The Terrorism Acts in 2014: report of the Independent Reviewer on the operation of the Terrorism Act 2000 and Part 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006. London: Williams Lea Group.

Choudhury, Tufyal and Helen Fenwick (2011) The impact of counter-terrorism measures on Muslim communities. EHRC Research Report no. 72. Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Christmann, Kris (2012) Preventing Religious Radicalisation and Violent Extremism: a systematic review of the research evidence. London: Youth Justice Board for England and Wales.

Francis, Matthew (2012) ‘What causes radicalisation? Main lines of consensus in recent research’, Radicalisation Research, 24 January.

Hickman, Mary J, Lyn Thomas, Henri C. Nickels and Sara Silvestri (2012) 'Social cohesion and the notion of suspect communities: a study of the experiences and impacts of being suspect for Irish communities and Muslim communities in Britain', Critical Studies on Terrorism, 5/ 1, 89-106.

Home Office (2015) Counter-Extremism Strategy. London: Home Office.

King, Michael and Donald M. Taylor (2011) ‘The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 23/4, 602-622.

Poushter, Jacob (2015) Extremism Concerns Growing in West and Predominantly Muslim Countries: Worries Especially Widespread in Western Europe and the U.S. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Notes and references  

[1] Poushter (2015), p. 2.

[2] A 2014 survey of 2,083 British adults found that 79 per cent of respondents deemed Islamic terrorism to pose an important threat to the country (rising to over 90 per cent of Conservative and UKIP supporters and those over age 60). 46 per cent of respondents thought the threat posed was critical. YouGov (2014).

[3] See, for example, Mohammed (2015); Hamid (2015).

[4] See Harris, Bisset and Weller (2015).

[5] For reviews of various proposed models of radicalisation which highlight the multiplicity of factors that can be involved, see, for example, Francis (2012); Christmann (2012); King and Taylor (2011). The Radicalisation Research website produces and collates research on these issues,

[6] Anderson (2015), p. 65.


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