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Lead Commissioner speaks at the CoJiT conference

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Lead Commissioner, Sara Khan, spoke today (September 12th) to a conference hosted by Combating Jihadist Terrorism in the United Kingdom (CoJiT-UK)

She explained that our mission is to help everyone to do more to challenge extremism and gave an update on plans for a wide ranging study into all forms of extremism.

Here is a transcript as delivered:

"Thank you to Professor Clarke for those kind words and for inviting me.

I would like to congratulate you on the launch of CoJiT.

And I wish you every success in this important and much needed area of work.

It is an honour to be here today, among so many prominent academics and policymakers.

The publication of these 28 academic papers are certainly going to be of value to the Commission.

Topics such as religious ideology, conspiracy theories, the role of women and social media are all hugely relevant to the work we’re doing, and will no doubt contribute to our thinking.

I’m also pleased to hear about CoJiT’s national conversation and the intention of taking these discussions out into wider society.

I wholeheartedly share the sentiment that these issues should not be confined to the world of academia but should in fact influence wider mainstream debate in an informative and positive manner, based on evidence and fact.

Today, we are here to examine Jihadist terrorism. The motivations, methods and responses.

Like some of you in this room, my interest in Islamist extremism came as a result of my own first-hand experiences, as a teenager, a young adult and as a counter extremism activist.

Growing up as a young Muslim in Bradford in the late 80s and 90s, I found it was impossible not to be exposed to the activism of Islamist and Salafist groups.

In 2008 I helped set up a counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation.

The opportunity to work at a grassroots level for all those years, allowed met to understand the true scale of the problem that exists in our country.

But it also left me with the realisation that in order to counter Islamist extremism, whether violent or non-violent - or indeed any form of extremism - a holistic understanding of the ideas, narratives and conducive factors that underpin and sustain the ideology are needed.

I believe therefore we need to examine extremism through a much wider lens.

And I am pleased to say that is exactly what the Commission will seek to do.

Extremism is diverse and exists as a spectrum. While not conflating integration, extremism and terrorism, understanding better the relationship between them is needed.

We recognise there exist grey areas of overlap between integration and extremism, and at the other side of the spectrum, the grey area between extremism and terrorism.

By examining those grey areas more closely, we will improve our understanding but also our response.

Which is why the Commission is, very purposely, taking a holistic approach to extremism.

Today violent extremism continues to thrive.

Jihadism, came to global attention following the horrendous act of terrorism carried out by Al-Qaida on September 11th.

17 years later, almost to the day the threat has not dissipated.

From the London bombings, to the growth of ISIS and the series of horrific attacks in both European and Muslim countries in recent years, the threat of extremism and terrorism continues to impact the lives of countless people, not least by Muslims and in Muslim countries.

But it is not just Islamist extremism that remains a challenge.

Across Europe and the US, the rise of the populist right and the far right in particular is impossible to ignore.

The white nationalist and neo-Nazi rallies attended by thousands of people, most recently in Germany last week has shocked many of us.

We are also seeing diverse manifestations of religious extremism, gaining prominence and a foothold in the social, cultural and even political life of some countries.

Yet despite the growing challenge that extremism presents to us, there is a lack of public consensus and understanding of extremism.

It is in this climate that the Commission for Countering Extremism was established. Formally launched in March 2018, our charter outlines our remit and crucially our independence from Government.

Our mission is to help everyone do more to counter extremism.

We believe extremism is a whole society problem and therefore requires a whole society response.

We are having our own ‘national conversation’ because I want to engage the wider public in this important debate.

Since my appointment as Lead Commissioner in January, I have visited a dozen towns and cities.

I have met with more than 300 experts, academics, council leads and activists, including those who are highly sceptical of the counter-extremism agenda as well as victims of extremism, a group of people whose experiences we don’t acknowledge enough.

The message I have heard is loud and clear: people are concerned about extremism, the negative impact it is having in our country and that more needs to be done to counter it.

Yet alongside this we have found that there exist wide gaps in our knowledge about extremism.

Which is why one of the Commission’s top priorities is to carry out a wide-ranging study.

We will shortly be publishing a Terms of Reference for the study.

But I can confirm that it will be built around five key themes.

o The public’s understanding of extremism
o The Scale of extremism
o Extremist objectives and tactics
o Harms caused by extremism
o The current response to extremism

Alongside these five themes are two broader issues that we will keep in mind throughout – the role of social media and the drivers of extremism.

I want to say a little about why I believe each of these five themes is critical, and how we will address them.

Firstly, public understanding of extremism.

People know extremism when they see it – and they want it to stop.

They have described clearly to us - extremist activities, attitudes and behaviours and talk about the harms they believe these are causing in their community.

But those on the frontline – in local authorities, in schools, and civil society – have told us about the practical daily challenges of working to counter extremism while trying to understand exactly what is and isn’t extremism. Especially when there exist a plethora of different definitions.

The Government has a definition of extremism. Social media companies have their own definitions of inappropriate behaviour. The Manchester Extremism Commission, offered a definition. And academics have developed multiple definitions.

As part of our study we will be asking the public what they understand by extremism. We want to better understand what is and what is not considered to be extremist ideas and behaviour, identify consistent themes as well as those areas where contention exists.

Our second and third themes are the scale of extremism and objectives and tactics of extremists.

What is the scale of extremism in our country today?

When victims, academics, local councils, civil society groups and government describe extremism-driven events they tend to cover similar themes…

Repeated, and often violent far right marches.

Islamist hate preachers and groups promoting discrimination while threatening and ostracising those that don’t conform.

Concerns that schools, universities and charities are being exploited by extremists.

How mediums such as the internet or satellite channels are making it easier for extremist views to spread.

The current academic literature we’ve reviewed doesn’t provide detailed evidence on the scale of extremism, but does suggest some possible methodologies.

Some suggest looking at the membership of extremist groups, their funding and influence on social media.

Some link criminal offending such as hate crime to extremism.

But there is a lack of understanding about the relationship between these proxy indicators and extremism. And, we are also at the earliest stages of understanding the relationship between online and offline extremist behaviour.

The Commission will be asking public bodies, the Government and others to share information with us. We will see if these indicators can tell us more about the scale.

We also want to shine a light on the objectives of extremists and their evolving tactics.

While people use terms like “Islamist” or “Far Right” experts agree that more can be done to demonstrate the ideas and ideologies that sit behind these terms, and the world that the individuals and groups who support them are striving for.

Understanding better the central ideological worldviews of extremists, will help us clearly recognise the tactics they employ.

Take the Far Right.

Campaigners like Hope Not Hate argue the Far Right has “repackaged traditional racism.”

This is a sentiment I share. We are seeing increasing professionalism, international networks and funding, and the reliance and exploitation of social media.

Perhaps most concerning is the use and abuse of the language of human rights. Free speech for example has become weaponised by Far Right supporters to actively peddle and mainstream their hatred.

Islamist groups also employ the language of human rights. Groups such as Hizb Ut Tahrir and their supporters who traditionally rallied in opposition to what they perceived to be “Western human rights” increasingly and cynically use human rights to promote Islamist extreme ideology.

And taking our commitment to examine all forms of extremism seriously, we have engaged with academics and activists about their worries and concerns about extremism from the Hard Left, and within Sikh, Hindu, Jewish communities and other groups.

I will be commissioning new research into some of these key areas.

The fourth and fifth themes are the harms caused by extremism, and our counter-extremism response.

Whether it is the harm to individuals, to our society or to our wider democracy – I don’t believe we have analysed the harms of extremism in a truly holistic way.

The starting point here is justification to violence – this is where our conversations most clearly overlap.

People are inspired by extremist propaganda to commit violence in many forms, such as the murder of Ahmadi Muslim Asad Shah and Darren Osbourne’s attack on Muslims at Finsbury Park.

But to only see extremism as harmful when it is the inspiration for a violent attack, is to not see the whole picture.

Violence is not the only tactic employed by extremists: hostility, intimidation, bullying, threats, active and vocal hatred and discrimination are also harms experienced by those targeted by extremists.

Experts and activists told us about extremists seeking to impose their views on others and restricting people’s freedom to live their lives the way they want.

Religious extremists, in advocating for only their interpretation of religion, often denounce other believers and secularists as heretics or apostates; and engage in open hostility towards them which can include death threats and calls for violence.

Mixed-faith couples whose wedding days were disrupted by religious hardliners; gay people who were forced to choose between being themselves and their faith.

Hate crime, its impact and the fear of extremist inspired hate crime can itself limit people’s ability to live their life as they choose.

Muslim women shared with us for example how they and their children expressed fear of leaving their homes because of the Punish a Muslim day letters that advocated acts of extreme violence targeted at Muslims.

Former extremists passionately shared with me how being drawn into extremism has a devastating impact on a young person’s life, scarring them emotionally and mentally, something which they carry with them into adult life.

We also heard from local councils about how extremists’ demonstrations lead to economic harm both to small businesses and when potential investors associate a town with extremism.

Looking at harms of extremism more broadly including through an integration lens allows us to analyse how extremism may result in reduced integration and civic engagement which has the knock on effect of impacting wider social capital and economic prosperity.

It also allows us to examine other consequences and harms, as identified by academic literature: the breakdown of community cohesion including reduced trust in institutions such as police and councils, social exclusion and isolation.

And we must understand what harm extremists can cause to our democracy, as they feed and benefit from rising distrust in democracy and its institutions.

Cleary an effective, proportionate and whole society response is vital.

I want to understand better our current response to extremism, how effective is it and what are the gaps.

This response is currently driven at a national level by the Government’s Counter Extremism Strategy.

Up and down the country brave counter extremists – often civil society working with local councils or central government – are challenging the hateful ideas and actions and are building resilience in communities.

I’ve been inspired by the work of individuals, youth workers, faith groups and women’s organisations

But they receive far more abuse than support.

And I want to examine how we can better support those countering extremism.

We do not often appreciate the hostile and abusive climate they operate in and the unrecognised personal cost of doing this work, particularly those working in minority communities.

One issue I have heard repeatedly from activists, experts and local leaders is when attempting to challenge or push back against prominent Islamist groups, they find themselves being promptly labelled Islamophobic in a bid to silence them and to shut down debate.

Most worryingly, I heard from brave Muslim campaigners, parents and imams who in trying to stand up for diversity, equality and religious freedom are labelled traitors to their own faith. This hostile and chilling climate, continues to deter some Muslims from speaking openly or freely and serves to not only reduce much needed counter-extremism work but also freedom of expression.

Our response must also be proportionate. I recognise the concerns raised by religious groups and free speech campaigners who fear the consequences counter-extremism work may have on freedom of religion& belief and freedom of expression.

My approach to this Study and the Commission will be the same approach I have taken throughout my career: a robust defence of pluralism and human rights, gender equality and our freedoms.

Rather than clamping down on freedom of expression, I would like to see more speech, much more speech in countering the ideas and narratives of extremists. I also believe, as I hope I have highlighted today, that very often it is extremists who are undermining religious freedom and freedom of expression.

We will shortly be issuing a public consultation as we are keen to provide the public an opportunity to share their own experiences with us.

We are keen for the government, academics, civil society groups, counter extremism activists and public bodies to have the opportunity to provide their analysis and insight. As well as share examples of good practice in highlighting effective solutions.

I’m sure everyone in this room has something to contribute, and I encourage you all to stay in touch with the Commission, and look out for the Terms of Reference coming shortly.

Our study is the first stop on an important journey to build understanding of extremism in our country, and how best to counter it.

Countering extremism is one of the challenges of our time – and only by working together and supporting each other will we be able to do more to reduce its appeal and its harms. Although difficult, challenging extremism also provides an opportunity. The opportunity to promote what a positive and inclusive vision for our society looks like. It is an opportunity we must take.

So, let us build a powerful coalition against extremism.

Let us bring together academics from different disciplines; campaigners from different causes; the public and private sector. In fact everyone who recognises the harm extremism is causing to our country and the threat it poses to our diversity, fundamental freedoms and democracy.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I know there is a lot we can learn from how CoJiT are undertaking their work, and I look forward to carrying on the discussion."

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