Skip to main content

The Commission for Countering Extremism is a spectacular PR failure

The commission was dead before it lived with Sara Khan's appointment an attempt to make the rot seem more palatable and human

It's funny how certain thoughts come to you at seemingly inopportune times. It was while I was taking out the rubbish yesterday that I thought of the newly formed Commission for Countering Extremism. I was considering how the appointment of Sara Khan as lead commissioner was a spectacular PR failure.

Khan's false bubbles

It had really exposed the commission for what it really is: just more of the same old rubbish.

This is surprising given that Sara's sister is deputy chief of the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), the Home Office's strategic communications unit responsible since 2011 for disseminating counter-extremism narratives as part of the government's Prevent strategy.

Having become an 'expert' in making distorted, government-spun statements it seems Sara Khan is now living inside her very own illusionary bubble

On the plus side, at least now Khan will have fresh material and new targets to smear in her next ghostwritten report or book.

But the truth remains that even a well-orchestrated conference containing 100 Muslim women, rallied by Prevent coordinators themselves, will not be enough to convince anybody of Khan's credibility within the community.

There are some exceptions to this rule however. Showing signs of the Dunning-Kruger effect, Khan believes she is actually credible in the community, and why wouldn't she? Having become an "expert" in making distorted, government-spun statements, it seems Khan is now living inside her very own illusionary bubble.

Don't hate the player, change the game

The decision by us at Cage to focus our criticism on the commission as opposed to the lead commissioner boils down to the simple fact that Khan is just a pawn in a bigger game. Six months ago, after three attacks in as many months, Theresa May unveiled her four-point plan to tackle "extremism".

Perhaps that was the moment to convince the nation of her much-parodied "strong and stable" leadership. But much like her weak and wobbly 12-point plan for Brexit, the four-point plan was proposed simply to be seen to be doing something.

It was designed with the electorate in mind and it was a clear attempt to consolidate state power.

If there was ever any goodwill towards the CCE, it was quickly erased by an act of solidarity from the Henry Jackson Society, Majid Nawaz and David Anderson

She announced the new package of draconian powers while she wore a chained necklace bearing an uncanny resemblance to shackles. It was simply more of the same: more thought policing, more state surveillance, more counter-terror legislation.

This, despite the fact that on average a new piece of counter-terrorism legislation has come out every year for the past 12 years with little effect in countering the threat, but with huge implications for civil society and our freedoms.

Muslim women attend the launch of the Inspire-led #MakingAStand campaign in September 2014 (YouTube)

But what was most striking was how the government subtly but deftly shifted the responsibility for dealing with political violence from its own shoulders to the shoulders of others. Cue the creation of an extremism commission.

Like May's speech, the Commission for Countering Extremism only serves to institutionalise the previous ideas surrounding the issue of "extremism" that have existed for over a decade. Like all dead ideas that somehow manage to shamble around despite being discredited, these zombies have thrived because the ideas benefit those in power.

The CCE was dead before it lived and Khan serves as the head of this particular corpse, an attempt to make the rot seem more palatable and human.

The control centre behind this waking nightmare is the government, which has groomed Khan with the well-known tactics of flattery - with claims by Theresa May and Amber Rudd that she is expertly qualified - and status: the lead commissioner position will give Khan a seat at the table.

A failed PR stunt

If there was ever any goodwill towards the CCE, it was quickly erased by an act of solidarity from the Henry Jackson Society, self-appointed counter-extremism expert Majid Nawaz and the former reviewer of terrorism legislation David Anderson. All three jumped up and vehemently applauded Khan's appointment. This only served to reaffirm the association of Sara Khan with those most loathed by the Muslim community.

If ever there was a failed PR stunt by the government, this was it. From that point on, there has no longer been any excuse for not understanding precisely where along the neocon continuum the CCE lies, as well as how it regards the Muslim community.

As Muslims, we are frequently lectured about free speech, while at the same time we must accept the demonisation of our beliefs as 'extreme'

However, PR faux pas aside, there are two major fallacies that have arisen in discussions since the appointment of Khan. Now that we know the real agenda of the CCE, these need to be cleared up. These fallacies serve as distractions from the core issue, which is that the CCE has to go. Failing that, it must be boycotted.

Distraction 1: Sara Khan is not the right person for the job. 

Of course she is the right person for this job. Here are three reasons why:

1) She is a brown Muslim – remember the line "I can't be racist because my friend is black?" Well, the CCE cannot possibly be discriminatory against Muslims because the lead commissioner is a brown Muslim.

This is part and parcel of the Home Office's broader aim which is the marketing of a state-sanctioned and state-driven Islam.

2) She is a woman. Notice how the discourse on extremism is increasingly being conflated with the discourse on gender equality? Well, Sara Khan has hijacked women's rights in an attempt to make the whole business - and it is a booming business - of counter-extremism more palatable to those afraid of being called unreasonable for opposing it.

But don't be fooled; the state has hijacked the hard work that has gone into woman’s rights for its own agenda. 

Sara Khan giving a speech at the Since 9/11 National Education conference, January, 2017 (Sara Khan website)

3) She is pro-Prevent. One of the first comments she made was to disassociate the CCE from the toxic and failed Prevent policy of which she has long been an advocate. 

Unfortunately, a glance at the aims of the CCE shows that the basis of the commission is the Counter Extremism Strategy, an extension of Prevent. Nobody is buying that one.

Appointing someone like Khan, who has been preaching Prevent as gospel, ensures that the commission stays on message and does not go rogue and drift away from government narratives and agenda.

Definition of extremism

Distraction 2: There is no legal definition of extremism and this is the main problem

Of course, there is no legal definition of extremism. Why would there be one? In fact, if you look at the job description for the extremism commissioner, there is no mention of deciding on a precise definition of "extremism", which would be part of the role if this was, in fact, the intention of the government.

There will never be a legal definition of extremism. Even if there is one, it will be loose and fluid enough to allow for manipulation.

Why? Because the truth is the lack of definition is very advantageous for the executioners like Khan who are in charge of labelling people "extreme". It means that the goal posts can be moved as and when.

The creation of an extremism commission as part of a so-called 'plan to root out extremism' is frankly an insult to human intelligence

There is no more startling evidence of this than the fact that in Britain, one day the DUP-wheeling and dealing prime minister can refer to the need for more people like the Suffragettes, who are described as "Edwardian radicals", while on another day an extremism-linked lesson plan, as part of Prevent, likens the Suffragettes to Nazis.

Khan is known for vociferously engaging in the language of catastrophe by throwing words like "extremist" and "Islamist" at anyone who disagrees with her. And let's face it, her revenge list must be very long.

The recent general election is a brilliant example of how the use of the term "extremism" is simply a tool in the handbook on how to smear people you disagree with as the media did with Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In fact, every dissenter knows that if they go against the status quo the label "extremist" will be applied to them.

A call for change

A more important point emerging from all of this is that the state itself has no business categorising and condemning views in the first place.

Despite this, soon we at Cage expect the term "extremist" to become a badge of honour amongst those ready and willing to speak truth to power and hold those who abuse people in the name of the self-perpetuating "War on Terror" to account through civil action.

The creation of an extremism commission as part of a so-called "plan to root out extremism" is frankly an insult to human intelligence. As Muslims, we are frequently lectured about free speech, while at the same time we must accept the demonisation of our beliefs as "extreme".

Sara Khan is not the issue, it is how the state treats radicalisation
Tahir Abbas
Read More »

What has fantastically accentuated this reality is Sara Khan's appointment. Like a spotlight, it has served as a brilliant eye-opener for even those who were in the depths of denial about the true aims of the counter-terrorism sector and its lackeys.

This is promising. It means we are closer to being ready to achieve change. Now is the time to move to the next phase. We must enact what our research director, Asim Qureshi, calls in his new book, A Virtue of Disobedience, to move beyond shaking the chains, to breaking them, by calling others towards truth at a time of repression.

I reiterate what we have said as an organisation, that there is a need for collective disengagement from the commission. This act of resistance, this disobedience, will provide the catalyst to consign these zombie ideas to the dustbin.

- Dr Layla Hadj is managing director of the advocacy group CAGE. She holds a BSc in Biochemistry and a PhD in Genetics and Toxicology. Having moved from a post-doctorate in Environmental Toxicology to highlighting the toxicity of Prevent she now manages the small CAGE team who work to uphold the values of due process, rule of law and justice.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Muslim girls walk in the park after finishing a GCSE exam near their school in Hackney, east London on 6 June 2013 (Reuters)