A little over a year ago, England was rocked by a succession of terror attacks – first in Westminster, then Manchester, London Bridge, and Finsbury Park. The attacks claimed dozens of lives, with many more injured.
The tragic loss of life demanded a serious re-evaluation of the extent of extremism in our communities and prompted Prime Minister Theresa May to create the Commission for Countering Extremism. Its remit is to better understand and combat the ideology that has such a profound impact on communities, causing division, undermining human rights and fostering hatred.
Heading the commission is Sara Khan, a British Muslim human rights activist and former Chief Executive Officer of Inspire, an independent counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation. She has made local government a key organisation to seek input from since her appointment at the start of the year.
Ms Khan has set out three clear objectives for the commission’s first year: engagement with communities and relevant organisations; production of a comprehensive study into extremism; and building a robust commission that produces recommendations for the Home Secretary.
Discussing the importance of engagement, Ms Khan stressed that she had already met more than 200 activists, experts, academics and councils, including an early meeting with Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board.
She said: “Councils play a fundamental role, being on the frontline, not only challenging extremism but they are often the first to see the harm that extremism is having in their community. I am a firm believer that councils have an incredibly important role to play, which is why I am so keen to engage with them.”
Her engagement work with local government has already taken her to meetings with Luton Council, to discuss its injunction against Britain First, and Manchester, which is launching its own extremism commission, as well as to Birmingham, Portsmouth, east London, Bradford and Leeds.
Ms Khan said she was keen to “collect evidence” from councils who she said were “often the first to have to respond” to extremism in their communities, towns and cities.
“Local responses are often the most effective and I have never believed that there is a one-size-fits-all approach… I am really keen to learn about how councils deal with their local problem of extremism.” She added:
“Extremism isn’t an easy issue to talk about, it makes people uncomfortable, but that is a conversation that we have to have, and if we don’t, we won’t be able to identify best solutions.”
Ms Khan was appointed in January by the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd, with the commission formally launched in March.
Her appointment was initially met with criticism from some quarters, with 100 Muslim groups petitioning for her to be removed from the role as lead commissioner. Ms Khan, however, is clear that she will work with anyone who is committed to tackling extremism.
“I’ve spent a long lifetime challenging extremism and championing human rights. I am very proud of all the work that I delivered in the past, whether it is promoting gender equality, standing up for gay rights or speaking out against anti-Semitism.
“I have made it clear from day one of my appointment that I will engage widely and that is exactly what I have been doing. I am keen to engage with anyone who, like me, recognises the threat extremism poses and wants to do something about it.”
Ms Khan has a clear vision of what she hopes to achieve in the role. She said: “The mission, quite simply, is really to help everybody do more to tackle extremism. I also feel quite strongly that it is to help build our understanding of extremism, the threat it poses and the best responses that we should be having to counter it.
“My key concern is that it appears that extremism is certainly on the rise in this country. The Government has made quite clear the threat from the Islamist extremists and extreme right wing…but, in my view, there is also a wider harm that this form of extremism is having in our country.
“I am very much of the view that the threat of extremism presents itself in two ways; first in ‘acute’ form, where we see radicalisation leading on to terrorism. But we are also seeing a sort of ‘chronic’ threat of extremism…resulting in division within communities, polarisation, the breeding of hatred towards minority groups and others, and the undermining of democratic values and our fundamental human rights.”
Ms Khan was also keen to stress the importance of the comprehensive study into extremism, an area that she believes has previously been lacking from the debate.
“The comprehensive study looking at the scale of extremism… is going to be a really key focus of our work. It is going to be groundbreaking, and part of that study is going to be very much looking at gathering existing evidence and identifying where the gaps are in our knowledge.”
When discussing the issue of counterterrorism and Prevent, which is not part of the commission’s remit, Ms Khan believes it will still play an important role. “I think one thing that the commission will do is provide a kind of bird’s-eye view looking at this issue,” she said.
De-radicalisation programmes are also not part of the commission’s remit, but when asked about a study by the Behavioural Insight Team, commissioned by the Home Office, which found that more than 95 per cent of de-radicalisation programmes are ineffective and some are counterproductive, Ms Khan said she was “very keen to understand what are the most effective counter-extremism projects that are around today”.
Ms Khan stressed why the work of the commission is so important, and something councils and the LGA should be involved with at every stage.
“Britain is such a great country, we have such a diverse, plural country that is multicultural, multifaith. Having worked in this space for a long time, what I have seen is how extremism threatens our values as a country, it threatens everything that makes us great. That is why it is so important that we do challenge extremism.”