The government’s appointment of Sara Khan as the lead for the new Commission for Countering Extremism has been welcomed by many people. That a Muslim and a woman has been chosen for the role is encouraging, not least because it shows that inclusivity is on the agenda. Yet given Khan’s track record in the field of countering extremism, the choice calls to question the government’s overall approach. Is it one that encompasses the far right, which has increasingly inspired violent attacks? Or does it intend to heavy-handedly single out Muslims, which would reinforce the feeling of a community under constant scrutiny?
It is no secret that Khan is a controversial figure amongst British Muslims, and yet a key part of her role will be to productively engage with a wide spectrum of Muslim viewpoints, and deal with those she might disagree with in a fair and civil manner. Her longstanding support for the widely criticised Prevent strategy has made it especially important that she build bridges with those who might be suspicious of her motives. Muslims don’t desire to be in a constant state of opposition, so this chance to regain their confidence must not be missed.
We welcome positive dialogue that is based on nuance and mutual understanding, and propose that Khan critically evaluates both the successes and shortcomings of past strategies. Muslims don’t desire to be in a constant state of opposition, so this chance to regain their confidence must not be missed.
We and the British Muslim women who participate in the online forum we founded – the Muslim Women’s Collective – are keen to ensure that the commission and the government engage with diverse voices in the spirit of partnership. With the increase in Islamophobia that has occurred (particularly the attacks on visibly Muslim women) our concern is that the commission will neglect this idea, and cast an unjustifiably wide net in terms of who it considers religious extremists, in a manner that risks being counterproductive.
We also believe that there needs to be a fundamental change in the way extremism is viewed. Many ethno-cultural practices have been questionably presented as markers of religion. This conflation creates ambiguity and fosters a general suspicion of religious people, when these issues are often a matter of integration rather than extremism. We would hope that Khan is able to make that distinction.
Muslims may be a faith group, but we are all affected by social issues, such as access to decent housing, employment and education. While counter-extremism is a matter of serious concern to us all, it is important that it is not the sole means of engaging with British-Muslims. The vast majority of us, as with all other faith groups, are decent people who live, work and study in the UK and want to be part of a Britain that is diverse, tolerant and equal. We therefore invite the commission to consult with us and other groups across Britain to help inform a counter-extremism strategy that is truly collaborative.