When is an extremist not an extremist? If violence is dangerous, is non-violence safe?

When is an extremist not an extremist?

Earlier this year, Gavin Bailey (MMU) and I organised a seminar (with support from the British Society of Criminology North-West) focusing on myths and realities of extremism and counter-extremism. The event was attended by academics from across the region, with lively debate on topics ranging from the “Trojan Horse” affair to the peace process in Northern Ireland. However, what we kept coming back to was the government’s Prevent programme, particularly as it affects schools and young people.

Prevent is the counter-terrorist programme that counters extremism at the individual level. The aim is to prevent people from becoming involved in political violence by intervening ‘upstream’, at a point when they are beginning to develop extremist sympathies. Last year the government imposed a ‘Prevent duty’ on schools and many other institutions. This is a duty to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”; the scope of the duty “includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit”. In other words, children and young people are now being monitored – by law – to ensure that they don’t express ‘non-violent extremist’ opinions, and inadvertently give popularity to views that terrorists may be able to exploit. We already have numerous examples of where this can lead: the ten-year-old interviewed by police after he wrote about living in a ‘terrorist house‘, the four-year-old whose mother was threatened with referral to social services after he mispronounced ‘cucumber’ as ‘cooker-bomb‘.

Here’s another story, involving a different kind of radicalisation. Aged 14, P becomes interested in Communism; he reads around a bit and decides that he is a Communist. Over the next couple of years, P develops a fascination with the guerrilla forces who were then fighting US-backed regimes in central America; he even daydreams about going out there himself. A teacher intervenes, but he isn’t discouraged. Wider reading persuades him that Communism isn’t the answer after all – only anarchism will do. He buys anarchist magazines and grows interested in the urban guerrillas operating in Italy and Germany at the time…

How does the story end? I’ll tell you how it ends: P (wannabe Communist, age 14) is now Phil (lecturer at MMU, age none of your business). It ends with P – me – going to university, writing a lot of poetry, getting a girlfriend, graduating, moving to Manchester and getting a job. My teacher’s intervention, incidentally, consisted of telling us it was nice to see a bit of Communism in class, even though he didn’t agree with it himself; everyone moves Right as they get older, he said, so at least some of us would still have somewhere to move to. (Thankyou, Mr Fairman!)

How many ‘P’s are out there now, inspired by jihadism instead of Communism, watching IS videos on Youtube instead of reading anarchist magazines? And how many of them would, left to themselves, leave it all behind them as a natural part of growing up? (My guess is: almost all of them.) Several participants in our seminar argued that Prevent discriminated against young British Muslims, putting thousands of innocent young people under surveillance for no good reason – and with the risk of creating alienation. But there’s a bigger question: should we be monitoring children for signs of extremism at all?

Kids break laws; offending is far more widespread for people in their late teens and early twenties than it is in any comparable age-group. If you think about it, this also tells us that almost all of those offenders grow out of it. There are many reasons for this – physical maturation brings more considered thought processes; leaving the parental shelter of childhood makes rebellion seem less attractive; legal adulthood opens up legitimate opportunities; long-term relationships give people a stake in society. And if this is true of crime – which can have life-changing consequences even for very young offenders – surely it’s all the more true of nebulous things like ‘views which terrorists exploit’ and ‘non-violent extremism’.

So I worry about the effects of Prevent on kids – not just four-year-olds who aren’t even talking about bombs, but teenagers who are.  I’d expect any class of 14-year-olds to contain several kids who would tell me (for example) that the CIA blew up the Twin Towers, a few who had watched IS videos, and at least one who sincerely believed in implementing Shari’a law in the UK – just as I believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat when I was that age. Under the law as it stands, unfortunately, I’d have a legal duty to report every one of them.

Kids should live their teenage years in safety, even (especially?) at school. Prevent is often justified in terms of safeguarding – as if being drawn into terrorism was the same kind of risk as being groomed for abuse – but trying to protect kids from thinking the wrong thoughts strikes me as precisely the wrong way to go. Young people need to be able to experiment – make a bit of noise, flare out, mess up and try something different. And, for some kids, political extremism is a great way to experiment – just as it was in my day.

Dr Phil Edwards is a lecturer within the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Phil’s research interests include:

  • anti-social behaviour, focusing on how it is defined, perceived and measured
  • the regulation of behaviour and how it relates to the rule of law
  • political disorder, politically-motivated violence and ‘terrorism’
  • victims and the experience of victimisation