Friday, 15 May 2015

Cameron's Counter-Extremism Plan Is Not A Good One

In the papers today we read about David Cameron's new plans for counter-extremism:

"The Prime minister will announce a counter-terrorism bill including plans to restrict harmful actions of those seeking to radicalise young people. The policies include disruption orders to prevent extremists airing their views in public or radicalising young people, new powers to close premises such as mosques where extremists are seeking to build influence, and extra immigration restrictions for those thought to be preaching extremist views."

No no no, this is a terrible idea. While I'm all for coming down hard on Islamic extremism, this legislation will unleash an unwanted genie from the bottle - not just because it encroaches on people's free speech, but primarily because it involves backward reasoning that will probably make the problem it is trying to solve even worse.

Here's why. Generally speaking, you’re likely to reduce speeding by introducing speed cameras; you’re likely to reduce street crime by introducing CCTV; and you’re likely to reduce the chances of being burgled by getting a burglar alarm. What you are not likely to reduce by legislating against Islamic radicalisation is Islamic radicalisation - you are only likely to take it into even more secretive, private and harder to detect places.

The most dangerous Muslim fundamentalists are obsessed with the total and unchallengeable absoluteness of Islam - they are not going to let something comparably trivial like British legislation curb their ambitions - they will only be more likely to attempt to propagate their dangerous and fanatical influence from the subtle underbelly of society, underneath the radar of the authorities.

It's not that the idea of restricting pernicious radicalisation and dangerous extremism is an unworthy one, it's simply that it will make things worse - it will make many more young Muslims feel averse to the British establishment and increase their chances of being ripe for extremism, and it will remove many fundamentalist activities from where they can be observably checked.

The law is an effective deterrent only by preventing easily preventable activities. Islamic fundamentalism is not an easily preventable activity because its exponents consider it to be more valid than human laws. The best way to reduce the damaging effects of radical Islamic fundamentalism is not to prevent extremists from airing their views in public or repudiate the 'passive tolerance' we've come to enjoy - it is to leave untouched the liberty of free expression, and lock up those who end up committing criminal activities in the name of religious extremism.

Even that doesn't wholly get to the crux of the issue though - which is that words like 'extremism' and 'radicalisation' are nigh-on impossible to legislate against in any sense of hoping for pre-emption, because they are not objectively measurable states - they are subjective and part of a broad spectrum of viewpoint and behaviour. That simple truth gives us another reason why it's much better to afford people the freedom to believe and express whatever they want, and enforce the law when their freedom of belief and expression turns into a criminal activity that harms individuals in the society in which they live.