Comment & analysis

The UK and extremism: understanding the problem and owning our values

22 July 2015 Larry Attree

In the wake of recent comments by the UK Prime Minister, Saferworld's Larry Attree argues that a more effective approach to reducing extremist violence would be to craft a foreign policy that itself more consistently promotes the values we are claiming as ‘British’.

The Prime Minister David Cameron has made a number of statements recently explaining the UK’s approach to dealing with extremism. On 29 June, he reaffirmed a definition of extremism as opposition to ‘fundamental British values’ including democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty. On Monday, he asserted that we must challenge the view that people become radicalised because of historic injustices, recent wars, poverty or hardship, describing such arguments as ‘grievance justification’.

The Prime Minister is right that historic injustice, recent wars, poverty and hardship can never excuse acts of violence that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. However, conflicts are rarely brought to a just and lasting end by refusing to understand and address the factors – and grievances – that drive them. Examining the motives and interests of all conflict actors, and making a concerted effort to address grievances, will be central to any credible strategy for achieving peace both in the UK and in the many other countries threatened by violent extremism.

While the Prime Minister is correct to point out that 9/11 cannot be viewed as blowback from the Iraq war, which began two years later, it did follow another misguided Western policy: even after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the late 1980s, the US went on arming the most brutal elements within the mujahideen, who proceeded to destroy Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was born of these movements in the chaos that ensued.

At the same time, the Iraq war does appear to have fed grievances linked to violent acts: Mohammed Siddique Khan, the leader of the July 2007 London bomb attacks, said in a pre-recorded video that the bombers were retaliating against Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq. As the UK Defence Ministry concluded in a leaked report: ‘The war in Iraq ... has acted as a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world’. And in Yemen, the ranks of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have also grown significantly on the back of recruitment drives boosted by public anger at violent, repressive counter-terror policies – including drone strikes – that have killed local civilians. 

Where grievances that underpin violence do have a connection to past and present foreign policy, it is important to understand these connections and be prepared to consider changing the policy. Instead of seeing such changes as capitulating to terrorists and caving in to violence, the UK government should recognise that if it condemns those who oppose ‘British values’ as extremists, it ought to promote these values itself consistently in practice in the wider world.

Everyone is outraged by the public beheadings and other human rights abuses perpetrated by so-called Islamic State. But is the UK government as clear in opposing those perpetrated by Saudi Arabia, the UK’s apparent ally in the region? And should the UK not challenge rather than support the Saudi airstrikes that have killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians in recent weeks?

In recent years, many terror atrocities that gained global notoriety took place against a backdrop that has not been sufficiently in focus. Nothing can justify the actions of those who attacked Garissa university in Kenya in April 2015. Violence by extremists is wrong, and yet to solve the problem of extremism in Kenya in a lasting way, the world will also need to pay more attention to addressing the serious human rights abuses suffered by marginalised groups in Somalia and Kenya.

The vicious terror attacks in Sana’a, Yemen in May 2012 and Peshawar, Pakistan in December 2014 were widely condemned around the world. However, awareness of the counter-terror measures that preceded them was much more limited. In Pakistan, counter-insurgency operations in North Waziristan in 2014 had displaced over 1 million people, with communities caught up in them routinely reporting disproportionate use of force. In Yemen in 2012, Yemeni security forces crushed whole villages and killed many civilians in counter-terror offensives in Abyan.

In many countries around the world, the UK does work to protect civilians, raise sensitive questions of human rights and, for example, provide human rights training to relevant security forces. However, it should not downplay the context in which extremism is occurring, nor should it provide moral and material support to those who respond to extremism with indiscriminate violence, exclusion and abuse, as it has in contexts such as Yemen. Doing so risks undermining ‘British’ values of democracy, the rule of law, and individual liberty, feeding extremism and jeopardising the UK’s long-term security and prosperity. As a 2004 report by the UK Foreign and Home Offices observed:

‘It seems that a particularly strong cause of disillusionment amongst Muslims including young Muslims is a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of western governments (and often those of Muslim governments), in particular Britain and the US’.

So how can we strengthen policy? As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon argued in April, ‘Missiles may kill terrorists, but I am convinced that good governance will kill terrorism’. The UK government has been far-sighted in other debates in accepting the evidence that corrupt, abusive and exclusive governance both sets back development and drives conflict. Under the direct leadership of the Prime Minister, the UK has lobbied successfully to ensure these issues are tackled proactively as part of the world’s new Sustainable Development Goals. It is vital that the UK now applies this same evidence-based approach to its policy on ‘extremism’.

The UK should not seek to ostracise those in Britain who, while opposing violence, are also rightly concerned about injustices faced by Muslims and others around the world. By listening to their concerns, the UK could move towards a strategy that is focused on constructively tackling the drivers of conflict wherever it finds them.

The best evidence available suggests that this strategy must be founded on consistent support for good governance and human rights all around the world – especially in the back yard of Britain’s apparent ‘allies’ in counter-terrorism overseas. Building on the experience and expertise that the Department for International Development brings to the table, a developmental approach to security in which the UK assiduously supports societies to negotiate their rights more effectively is the primary way to uphold British values and achieve the lasting peace that we want and need. Diplomats, civil society organisations and law enforcement bodies also have a constructive role to play in exploring peacebuilding options that can provide alternatives to overly-securitised responses.

Yes, violent attacks on the West will persist even if the UK revisits inconsistencies in its foreign policy. Measures to ensure the safety and security of UK citizens and other people living in contexts affected by violent extremism are also necessary in the immediate term. However, consistent promotion of inclusive, fair, responsive and accountable governance could help check and reverse the escalation in violence and in recruitment to anti-Western militant groups that we have witnessed over the past decade. This would be an important step towards ensuring that violent extremism does not radicalise us away from the fundamental values that should be the bedrock of British foreign policy.

Larry Attree is Head of Policy at Saferworld

Find out more about Saferworld's work on constructive alternatives to counter-terrorism.

“The UK government should recognise that if it condemns those who oppose ‘British values’ as extremists, it ought to promote these values itself consistently in practice in the wider world”

Larry Attree