Padraig Reidy: UK’s counter-extremism strategy is another blow to universities as free spaces

Clive Chilvers /

Police move on the English Defense League members in Exeter City Centre. Credit: Clive Chilvers /

There are a few techniques you can use to spot whether someone has slightly dodgy views on the world.

My favourite is the hand-chopping test. Imagine, if you will, that you find yourself debating on a panel with a media-friendly community activist. He was very jovial in the dressing room, knows all the right words about the European Convention on Human Rights and a little bit about the emancipation of women. All the nice things. But something seems a bit shady. You’ve heard he’s associated with some rather dubious types. Try this: ask if they think thieves should have their hands cut off. If they say: “What an odd question. Of course not!”, they’re probably fairly normal people, but they won’t be your friend because they reckon you’re probably Islamophobic. But if they start waffling about the “Sharia being properly implemented… in an Islamic State the Sharia would necessarily… something something scholars…” etc, you are in all likelihood sharing a stage with someone who’s a bit, well…

Well what, exactly? Dodgy, yes. The test has served to establish that much. But does it mean they’re probably going to join the Islamic State immediately after you’ve finished your panel debate? Or encourage others to do so?

Probably not. We don’t really know.

Take another example. You’re at a bus stop late at night when you overhear a middle-aged man next to you railing against refugees to a young woman. Is he simply an anti-immigrant little-Englander? What if he starts explaining that the current refugee crisis has been caused not by Assad or IS, or oppressive governments in say, Eritrea, but by the machinations of “Rothschild Zionists” who are determined to flood Europe with dark-skinned people in order to pollute the continent’s Aryan bloodstock?

The UK government would class the beliefs outlined above as “extreme”. Indeed, in its newly-outlined counter-extremism strategy, it focuses almost exclusively on Islamism and neo-Nazism, which might come as a relief to anarchists, deep greens, animal rights activists and physical-force Irish republicans.

I’m not about to debate the merits of the term “extremism” itself. Yes, “extreme” is by its nature a relative term, and things change over time: the Prussian secret police who spied on Karl Marx in London as he wrote Das Kapital surely would have identified him as an extremist, but could not have possibly imagined his ideas would become so very prominent in the corridors of mainstream academia a century later.

The ideas of extreme Islamists and the far right, it is probably reasonable to say, are far from the mainstream of British society. And violence is carried out in their name. These seem reasonable assertions.

The question then is whether the government should do something about their existence. And if so, what?

The new counter-extremism strategy does at least attempt to identify specifics of what extremism might be and also shows some actual knowledge of the identified problems as specific political projects rather than floating notions.

But it’s still not entirely clear whether the ultimate aim is to prevent acts of terrorism carried out by extremists or to prevent general wrongs.

It is of interest, for example, to note that violence against women and girls, including genital mutilation, is identified. But I’m not sure that the “root causes” can be linked simply to the forms of extremism mentioned in the strategy document.

There are other issues that will also raise concern for those interested in free expression.

In an age when stories about who can and cannot speak on university campuses have become a staple of discussion, the government’s assertion that it expects “student bodies such as the NUS to avoid providing a platform for extremist speakers” feels like yet another incursion onto the idea that universities should be free spaces.

The suggestion that “the government will challenge broadcasters whenever extremists have been given a platform to preach harmful messages without critical challenge” appears to be moving beyond the existing role of Ofcom in promoting balance on the airwaves.

This is underlined by the pledge to “legislate in this parliament to ensure Ofcom’s existing powers to immediately suspend TV services that broadcast unacceptable extremist material also extend to all radio services” and to “consider changes” to regulation around shows that appear on the web.

We ultimately return to the challenge of our jovial preacher on the panel debate or our bus-stop Streicher.

As individuals and as a society, what do we want to do with them? Convince them that they are wrong and that liberal democracy is the way to go? The government suggests it will “act with confidence, unapologetically defending our shared values and robustly confronting extremists”.

This is important, certainly, and is something that must be put into practice in places such as prisons where the path to radicalisation and possible violence is at its clearest.

But it’s crucial that is seen as an act rather than an idea: the crime is to plant the bomb or recruit, fundraise for violence in the name of the Islamic State, or attempt to foment race war longed for by Nazis. The crime cannot be simply to believe in the Islamic State or the race war. We come back (as we so frequently do) to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

#IndexDrawtheLine: Graphic content on social media: how much is too much?


With the rise of Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East, people across various platforms of social media are sharing videos of brutal killings by the terrorist organisation. This month’s #IndexDrawTheLine question is: How much is too much?

Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath Al Kasasbeh was captured by IS at the end of last year, and a graphic video was shared on the internet earlier this month, which appeared to show the pilot suffering a barbarous death.

In last year’s Gaza-Israel conflict, various graphic images were shared on social media. One incident that stood out was the case of four Palestinian children who were reportedly killed by Israeli shells whilst playing on a beach. Photographs and videos depicting the dead bodies of these children were shared on various networks.

Some would argue that sharing graphic content is a means of revealing the truth, helping to raise awareness of what actually happens to the people involved in these situations and how serious the issue is. Others would say that refraining from sharing these videos would stop terrorists from achieving their goals, respect those who were killed and perhaps remember them in a different way.

With all the graphic videos and photographs shared on social media, and the wider internet, where should we draw the line? Does this differ depending on who shares the content: terrorists? passers-by? news stations?

Tweet your response to #IndexDrawtheLine to join the conversation.

This article was posted on February 24, 2015 at

#IndexDrawtheLine: How can we balance religious freedom and religious extremism?


Religious freedom and religious radicalism which leads to extremism has become an increasingly difficult balancing act in the digital age where presenting religious superiority through fear and “terror” is possible both locally and internationally at internet speeds.

The ongoing series of beheading videos released by the Islamic State and the showcase of kidnapped school girls by Nigeria’s Boko Haram on YouTube are both examples that test the extent to which the UN Convention of Human Rights can protect religious freedoms. According to a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Egypt’s Youth Ministry are targeting young atheists vocal on social media about the dangers of religion. In Saudi Arabia, Raef Badawi was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 and received 600 lashes for discussing other versions of Islam, besides Wahhabism, online.

Article 18 of the Convention states that the “right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. The interpretation of “practice” is a grey area – especially when the idea of violence as a form of punishment can be understood differently across various cultures. Is it right to criticise societies operating under Sharia law that include amputation as punishment, ‘hadd’ offences that include theft, and stoning for committing adultery?

Religious extremism should not only be questioned under the categories of violence or social unrest. Earlier this month, religious preservation in India has led to the banning of a Bollywood film scene deemed ‘un-Islamic’ in values. The actress in question was from Pakistan, and sentenced to 26 years in prison for acting out a marriage scene depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. In Russia, the state has banned the publication of Jehovah’s Witness material as the views are considered extremist.

In an environment where religious freedom is tested under different laws and cultures, where do you draw the line on international grounds to foster positive forms of belief?

This article was posted on 15 December 2014 at