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The trainers encouraged participants to be able to ask any questions and not to feel afraid to ask anything that might be controversial.

Participant, Government Office for the East Midlands

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The UK’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism (Contest 2)
Sunday, 01 March 2009 00:00

You have to pity local government and local delivery agencies. Just when everyone was beginning to get their heads around the last strategy for tackling violent extremism unveiled in 2007, along comes a revised version of Contest, the UK Strategy for Countering International Terrorism (or Contest 2).

Contest has four pillars to tackle terrorism: pursue, prevent, protect and prepare. The new strategy places greater emphasis on preventing terrorism and violent extremism and also quite crucially emphasises ‘shared values’. There seems to be stronger emphasis on community cohesion, community empowerment and race equality. So far, so good.

The major shift, as expected, seems to be a blurring of the differentiation between violent extremism and extremism more generally.

“As Government, we will also continue to challenge views which fall short of supporting violence and are within the law, but which reject and undermine our shared values and jeopardise community cohesion…” (p. 87)

The report goes on to mention what these shared values are:
“The duty on all of us – Government, citizens and communities – is to challenge those who, for whatever reason or cause, reject the rights to which we are committed, scorn the institutions and values of our parliamentary democracy, dismiss the rule of law and promote intolerance and discrimination on the basis of race, faith, ethnicity, gender or sexuality.” (p. 87)

It seems reasonable and very normal to ask that citizens subscribe to a basic set of values as generally stated above, but the risk is that these values will be specified much further in time to come, narrowed down and then potentially used as a yardstick to measure loyalty or legitimacy. The devil could be in the detail.

There is of course always legitimate room for debate and discussion around values but, in the liberal society that we cherish, is it the role of government to tell citizens what to think and how to think, in such potentially minute detail? It doesn’t sit well with our pragmatic and common sense approach to Britishness.

We will also have to see if the discourse of shared values is used across the board, for all citizens and communities, or to single out some Muslim communities. The government’s own research from the Citizenship Survey (April - June 2007) shows that feelings of belonging to the UK (answering ‘very strongly’ and ‘fairly strongly’) are high across ethnic minorities:

  • Bangladeshi (91%)
  • Indian (89%)
  • Pakistani (87%)
  • Black Caribbean (85%)
  • Black African (84%)
  • White (84%)
  • Chinese / other (72%)

If this is anything to go by, discussions around Britishness, belonging and also notions of shared values need to be national debates and not just aimed at Muslim communities.

In no way should government endorse extreme views. But the fear is that engagement with communities could be limited by non-compliance on the shared values checklist, potentially alienating the very people that need to be brought into conversation. As Sadiq Khan (now a Minister at CLG) wrote in his Fabian Society pamphlet Fairness not Favours (2008): “Engagement should not be confused with Endorsement”. If we only talk to those that agree with us then not only do we risk having a futile, even if agreeable, conversation – we could also risk national security because we have left ourselves unable to challenge the evil of terrorism properly. Front line agencies such as the police know this only too well. As do local authorities, which understand the complex dynamics of their own patch, and realise how difficult it is to negotiate it.

Government cannot afford to get bogged down in the petty politics of any community and seen to be taking sides. Simply endorsing a narrow section of Muslim voices and expecting them to de-radicalise a completely different part of the theological spectrum is akin to asking Protestants in Northern Ireland to de-radicalise Catholic extremists – its more likely to increase sectarian tension than have the desired effect.

Instead, government needs to work with a wider range of groups – yes, looking for a clear rejection of violent extremism – but also for qualities such as track record, expertise, transparency, good governance, and crucially, how rooted these potential partners are in the communities they have to work with. There are many British Muslim organisations that have been talking about shared values, the importance of interfaith dialogue and community cohesion, and for a long time now.