“Hate threatens us all – we must challenge it”: An interview with Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism Sara Khan

Extremism is on the rise – both here in Britain and across the globe. Here in the UK for example, a recent YouGov poll found that 73% of respondents were concerned about “rising levels of extremism in the UK” with 78% believing that more action is needed to tackle this issue. Within a climate of growing divisions and hate crime, it’s more important than ever to come together as a society and address these concerns.

Given the rise of Islamist, far-left and far-right extremism (to name a few examples), I spoke to Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism here in England and Wales, to find out the reality of extremism in Britain today and to hear more about how Voice of Salam readers can help influence the government’s counter-extremism policy through the Commission’s call for evidence on extremism. Here’s what I discovered.

VoS: In the current climate, it’s really important to be talking about issues such a hate crime and extremism. You’ve been in your role as the Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism for a year now. When you first accepted the role, there was some quite outspoken criticism against your appointment. Some of this criticism in particular came from within the Muslim community. Why do you believe that there was this reaction? How do you believe that such divisions continue to permeate the Muslim community today?

SK: A leading councillor said to me the other day that he judges how good a job he’s doing by the amount of criticism he gets. I must have had a productive day on the day of my appointment!

On the other hand, I also received hundreds and hundreds of messages of support from different people – not only within Muslim communities, but from outside as well. I had Imams, theologians, women’s groups, NGOs and thinktanks letting me know how much they supported my appointment. I think, when you’re in public life, you will have people who hate you and people who love you and I don’t know anyone in public life who doesn’t have that kind of perception. So yes, I wasn’t surprised by it. Obviously during my time with Inspire, I had a lot of people who were opposed to my work including an anti-Isis campaign we ran, for example, and they criticised me. So, that’s the kind of climate I’ve found myself working in. It was the same with some of the work I did around addressing gender inequality within Muslim communities.

So, therefore I wasn’t surprised that that reaction would come to some degree but what I would say is that since my appointment, I have been engaging widely – I did say on one on the first day that I would engage widely, not only within Muslim communities, but outside as well and that’s what I have done. I said from day one as Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism that I want to hear a wide range of views – supportive and critical. I’ve been across the country visiting 14 different towns and cities and speaking to more than 400 people. I’ve spoken to Imams, from Portsmouth to Liverpool and women’s groups, Muslim and non-Muslim academics, theologians, civil society groups, community groups and many individuals who work in hate crime, for example. This includes also the diversity that exists within Muslim communities. I’ve spoken to many Muslim communities, from Ahmadiyya, to Shia Muslims. I’ve spoken across that diversity. I’ve engaged widely with many different faith communities – and those of no faith. That’s something I will be doing this year as well – the Commission wants to work with anybody and everybody with whom we can have a constructive dialogue about extremism.

VoS: The negative often does tend to get greater exposure in the media and like you said, there’s always people in favour and against. Regarding some of these tensions and divisions regarding your appointment – how would you say this is currently working or present in the Muslim community?

SK: Well, I can only go by the engagement that I’ve had over the last year and I have to say it’s been really, really, positive. People have been willing to engage with me because they – like me – recognise that if you stop having a dialogue, it creates a bigger problem. I’ve had so many people, including so many Muslims, who’ve been wanting to have a dialogue with me. Whether they share the same views, whether they have views that they think are similar to mine or whether they have completely opposite views – I’m really keen to hear from them.

So, I go by the really positive engagement I’ve had with people who are maybe critical of counter-extremism work and also those who are supportive. I’ve gone out of my way to try and engage as many critics as possible as well because that’s where I think the real work needs to happen. That’s been really, really fruitful.

Right now, we have a call for evidence open. I want to give as many people as possible the chance to share their views, their experience and their evidence on extremism. There’s two weeks to go – and I’ll be spreading the message far and wide.

VoS: So, what would have been some of that criticism for example that you’ve been able to address and discuss?

SK: I think some of it concerns perceptions about me. So, I tell them about my own background

And that human rights drive all the work that I do. I explain, for example, that there have been concerns about counter extremism policy but the Commission is independent and my view is to look at all forms of extremism. We need to make it clear that our forthcoming study is on all forms of extremism, not just the Far Right or Islamist extremism. We are looking at Sikh extremism, hard left extremism – all forms. I think there have also been misconceptions about who we want to engage with. We want to engage with anyone with whom we can have a constructive dialogue about extremism – critics and supporters.

Some of the things I’ve read about me and I’ve just thought: “My God this is crazy!” because some of it’s just so blatantly false and not true but I guess in an era of social media, fake news spreads pretty quickly.

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Protests in Copenhagen (2018) following the imprisonment of far-right figure
Tommy Robinson (Image credit: Krisoffer Trolle, CC)

VoS: Meeting people directly is definitely crucial – communicating directly and engaging directly. So, you mentioned about Sikh extremism for example. On a broad scale, what are some of the issues you’re addressing on a day-to-day basis? Could you tell us a bit more about the scale of the different factors you’re looking at?

SK: So far I’ve visited 14 towns and cities, held a number of workshops, conducted polling and carried out a review of academic literature.

Throughout our work, we’ve heard about individuals being intimidated and threatened because they refuse to conform to a hard-line view or because they dare to speak out. We’ve also been told of communities being divided because groups exploit local tensions to spread anti-minority hatred. I think democracy itself is under threat as politicians and campaigners are shouted down by thugs. I am worried that hate crime appears to be on the rise, including Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism.

But what we have found out is likely to be the tip of the iceberg – we need more evidence. We are now bringing together this evidence in a study we will be publishing this spring and which we will present to the Home Secretary. The evidence given to us in the call for evidence will form part of that. Our study will set out the scale of extremism, the impact it is having on society, the tactics extremists are using and how government’s response to extremism can be strengthened. And as you know, we’ve launched the first ever public consultation on extremism and we’re getting a very positive response to that. I would encourage Voice of Salam readers to submit evidence and to share their views with us.

VoS: Great. Here in the UK, I know you said you obviously don’t just focus on Islamic extremism for example, but there has generally been a steady rise in far-right extremism, Islamic extremism and also hate crime affecting Jewish and Muslim communities for example. What do you think are some of the push and pull factors behind these trends?

SK: I think one of the things you realise [working] in this area is that extremism is really complex. When someone tries to say it’s because of this one singular issue, I think automatically I would just say, look: it’s far more complex than you’re actually acknowledging. From our work so far, it’s clear that there’s not a simple answer. We have to be alive to many different factors from deprivation and poverty, to a sense of injustice or a longing for identity and status, to the role ideology and narratives, and how they spread like a virus on social media.

For instance, we’ve heard a lot about the wider climate of division and polarisation. I want to know if that context is pushing more people towards extremism, or if the actions of extremist groups are driving this climate.

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Is the popularity and wide reach of social media platforms helping to spread extremist
ideology?

VoS: Definitely. So, you’ve got the call for evidence that expires the end of this month and then you’ve got the report study with the subsequent recommendations. We’re now in the period before the report comes out. How do you see things heading in terms of changes in trends in extremist circles? How do you see things at the moment? You mentioned yesterday at the Yad Vashem exhibition in Redbridge that extremism is on the rise. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

SK: I don’t think our country’s immune to extremism. If you look across the world, extremism is clearly growing in many places, in many different forms as well. You can look at Western Europe and parts of America and see that there’s clearly a rise far-right extremism. If you look at India, there’s the rise of Hindu nationalism and then there’s the case in many Middle Eastern North African countries who are concerned about Islamist extremism.

This is a global problem. In terms of in our own country, the initial kind of work that we’ve done so far has shown to us that there is concern about rising extremism. We’re seeing rise in the levels of hate crime for example. We’re seeing an increase in referrals to the Channel programme and with far-right extremism as well. Let’s not forget that there’s been, in particular, a rise of referrals of far-right extremism, particularly amongst those under the age of twenty. In every town or city I‘ve visited, the issue of far-right extremism has been raised and people have shared very personal, but also local examples of what that looks like and how it’s rising in different parts of the country as well. Obviously In other parts of the country I’ve been to, people have raised with me concerns about Islamist extremism or growing intolerance towards Muslims more broadly from other faith minority backgrounds. So, these are the kind of early indicators that we’re seeing.

Some of the current academic literature is suggesting that there’s a rise in extremism as well and so this is something that we’re trying to understand better. One of the things we are definitely seeing across the board is rising division and polarisation. There’s probably a number of different reasons for that, but just rising intolerance, rising division and then seeing a more general level of intolerance in our society I think is quite concerning.

In terms of the work of the Commission over the coming months. As you’ve said, we have our call for evidence on all forms of extremism – and I’d love to hear the views of as many Voice of Salam readers as possible on this. The call for evidence closes on January 31st. We’ll soon be releasing a call for academics to submit papers on the Far Right, on Islamist extremism and on other aspects of extremism. We’re working with Government to bring together data on indicators of extremism and we’re going to undertake a nationally representative survey. We will also be kicking of a series of visits, workshops and interviews to hear people’s first-hand experience of the impact of extremism.

VoS: Intolerance from there can of course lead to “othering” and then as you said from there to violence. It does seem it’s quite a broad picture that’s quite universal. As community members – Muslim, Jewish or whatever our background – how can we try and tackle some of these disabling kind of trends and help this kind of negativity and intolerance from forming?

SK: I believe fundamentally that extremism is a whole society problem and it requires a whole society response. Everyone has a role to play, from the government to schools and civil society groups. Civil society has a really important role to play in standing up [against hatred] – like we did yesterday at the Yad Vashem exhibition about the 71 Albanian Muslims who had protected Jewish citizens and refugees during the Holocaust – often at risk to their own lives.  They show how it’s possible to not be intimidated by extremists, to stand up against hatred and stand up for tolerance, respect and human rights.

This is really, really critical and this is what we need to continue to do but maybe we can do this in a much more effective way. Do we need to do this in a way where we can build a much stronger network of people for example? When I’ve gone around the country and I’ve spoken to a lot of people, there are people who are doing really great work but often they feel isolated. What they would like is a greater network of people which brings them together to try and help them support them, where they feel that they belong a part of a kind of movement or a coalition who are standing on the basis of human rights and equality and respect and tolerance and what can we do to try and help facilitate that. There’s some great work that civil society groups are doing. I think what we need to look at what more can we do to help facilitate that.

Government also has to show leadership on this issue – but it has to bring communities with it. We need local bodies to be brave and sensitive to address complex issues in communities. We need civil society – including faith groups – to speak out whenever they are faced with intolerance. And all of us have to do our bit to make our public discourse less angry and polarised. As the Queen said at Christmas we need to get better at disagreeing respectfully.

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Protesters in Sydney (2012) (Image credit: Jamie Kennedy, CC) 

VoS: There is definitely some great work happening on the ground and it’s always great in quite a difficult climate to know that there are other people doing the same work, from whom you can learn best practice and also share mutual support. Yesterday’s event had an interfaith feel as an event based on Jewish-Muslim relations. In the UK, there’s some great interfaith work going on which is building bridges between people of different faiths and none. Where do you see the role of interfaith work in countering extremism?

SK: I think it’s really critical. I’m a strong believer that faith communities and faith leaders do play and are playing a really important role. Their role is critical. When we come across extremists who are driven from a religious background, the role of theology and the role of faith leaders in working with young people and helping to build resilience for example is really critical. And we’re seeing some really great examples of that, whether it’s challenging extremist ideologies or helping to build resilience amongst young people or working with women for example.

I think the power of faith and faith communities is important in healing our divided society and I’ve got a strong belief that faith does enrich our society, that faith enriches our country as a whole and our British society and I think we have to always recognise that. With interfaith work bringing different faith groups together, again it’s really important because at a time of growing intolerance and division, there are some groups with different faith communities who don’t want us to work together and we saw examples of that yesterday. There are different factions within different faith communities who don’t want to build bridges, who actually want to burn those bridges. Again, I think the role of interfaith work in bringing different faith communities together at a time of division and polarisation is really, really critical and something I definitely support.

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Community and interfaith dialogue is crucial in combatting intolerance and
ultimately extremism

VoS: That’s great to hear! So, to finish, do you have a final message for Voice of Salam readers?

SK: The first thing would be the call for evidence. I passionately want Voice of Salam readers to share their experiences, insights and views on extremism. I’d encourage readers to seize the opportunity to influence the counter-extremism policy in our country. The second key message is really: extremism impacts all of us. It’s something that it’s is not just about one particular community – it impacts all different types of communities, it impacts young people. Extremists are fundamentally opposed to human rights and equality, so whenever we see extremism pop up in any part of our country, we shouldn’t just see it as affecting one community. When we see it anywhere, it impacts upon all of us as a society.

VoS: 100%. Any form of extremism puts our rights at risk as a whole society.

SK: Definitely. If Muslim kids are being preyed on by extremists, we should see that that could be any child in our country and that child is part of our country. We‘re all together in all of this. It’s not about saying: “Oh this is your problem. You need to fix it.” I think that’s sometimes been the message that’s come across over the last couple of years. My view simply is: we’re all in this together. If your child’s affected, no matter which community you know you’re from (and it could equally be people from those who are vulnerable to far-right extremism), that’s one child too many. Secondly, we know we’re in this together. We have to battle it together. We’re one country, we’re one society, and it means we have to tackle extremism together in an inclusive way where we recognise the harm it’s causing. We have to take on this battle together.

VoS: That’s a great message. I think that’s the key message when we’re talking about for example how Muslims for example can stand up against anti-Semitism and vice versa, and to reflect upon why we’re doing what we do. It’s not about one community, it’s about our community as a whole, our society as a whole.

SK: Yes. Hate threatens us all. It doesn’t matter if it’s anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim hatred. Hate is hate. We’ve got to challenge hatred wherever it comes from in whichever way of form it comes as well.

VoS: Definitely. Thank you, Sara, for taking the time to speak to Voice of Salam. We’d like to wish you the very best for the future!

Biography

Sara-Khan-Website-1-620x620.jpg

Sara Khan was appointed by the Home Secretary to lead the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) in January 2018.

Before her appointment she was director of Inspire, an organisation she co-founded in 2008 to challenge gender inequality and Islamist extremism.

Inspire’s work has included:

  • conferences and workshops for Muslim women
  • training and support for teachers and schools
  • campaigns to encourage communities to stand up to extremism including the Home Office-supported Making a Stand campaign, which challenged Daesh propaganda

In 2016 she co-authored the book ‘The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism’.

In 2002 she graduated from the University of Manchester with a master’s degree in Pharmacy and went on to complete her MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London in 2006.

To find out more about the Commission for Countering Extremism, visit their website.

To submit evidence and views to the enquiry, please click here.

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