Comment: Gagging extremism will only drive it underground

By Isabella Sankey

Our prime minister is right. There are those in our midst determined to undermine the best of our democracy. They seek to eliminate the rights and freedoms of ordinary people in the name of misguided ideology. They wear away at our justice system and the rule of law. And they use rhetoric to spread myths and divide communities.

Unfortunately, occasionally all-too-prominent among these people is our prime minister himself. It's hard to take his latest vow to safeguard our precious democracy and values too seriously, given that he's presided over devastating attacks to our justice system, the rule of law and our human rights protections.

Undoubtedly, there are horribly warped world-views hiding on the fringes of society that give serious cause for concern. The horrific murders of Drummer Lee Rigby – a young soldier killed in Woolwich – and Mohammed Saleem – a grandfather stabbed in the back on his way home from prayers – highlight the urgency and importance of confronting ugly ideologies across the spectrum.

But this week's report on tackling extremism in the UK won't confront these views; it would force them underground and ultimately act as another recruiting tool.  And by banning the expression of these views we lose the opportunity to challenge them and undermine the very freedoms that set us apart from these anti-democratic ideologies in the first place.

Of particular concern is the proposal for 'terror Asbos' – new civil powers to target the behaviours extremists use to radicalise others – and a proposal to ban groups that undermine democracy and say hateful things. As well as undermining our values, these measures are unnecessary and won't work.

Our criminal statute book already contains generous provisions for dealing with terrorism and the acts that lead to it. If someone is inciting violence, conspiring to murder or engaged in another terror-related act, they can and should be arrested and dealt with in our criminal courts.

Our criminal justice system – unlike our civil courts – exists to deal with crime; the clue is in the name. After all, terrorist activities are some of the most serious forms of crime we can be faced with. Scapegoating Muslim communities with broad-brush civil restrictions on their behaviour is no way to address these dangers.

Talk of expanding programmes like 'Prevent', the network of observers asked to monitor and report back on 'extremist' activity on university campuses, rings alarm bells. It's proved to be an intrusive, discriminatory and often counterproductive approach to tackling extremism, turning spaces based on trust and learning into ones marred by suspicion. And it speaks of a wider worry in all this: things that read like soft community collaboration strategies may well damage community relations and alienate young people.

Engaging with local communities and challenging undemocratic views is clearly key to preventing radicalisation. And while the report contains welcome recommendations about just this, talk of proper funding for these basics is notable only in its absence. 

It took the government decades before they began to recognise that sweeping anti-terror stop-and-search powers were doing more harm than good. This week's vague package of plans suggests that they haven't carried the lessons across; that illiberal, stigmatising strategies are the antithesis of effective, long-term terrorism prevention.

You can't protect our democracy by shutting down the very freedoms that sustain it.

Isabella Sankey is the director of policy at Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties), which she joined in November 2007.

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