One of the features of the Queen’s Speech to Parliament on 27 May, by which the UK's new Conservative government laid out its policies, was a counter-extremism bill which will be presented very soon to Parliament. However, some are questioning the need for more laws to fight extremists since there are already many such laws, including the 2000 and 2006 Terrorism Acts.
In addition, other critics think that politicians exaggerate the scope and threat of radical Islamists. They also think that the bill is part of a campaign against Muslims, who number around 3 million out of a total UK population of 65 million.
Politicians and police have recently highlighted the increasing trend of radicalisation in the UK in the light of hundreds of British Muslims travelling to Syria in order to join the Islamic State militant group. Some have gone on to return to the UK.
For example, Andrew Parker, the director general of the Security Service (commonly known as MI5), said that terrorist-related arrests were up 35 percent compared with four years ago. He added that since 2010, more than 140 persons have been convicted for terrorism-related offences.
Moreover, the British police have stopped three terrorist plots in recent months after the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Besides, “there are several thousand individuals in the UK who support violent extremism or are engaged in Islamist extremist activity,” according to Parker.
Reports and individual cases show that radical Islamists have been recruiting through the internet, universities, mosques and radical preachers. One example is the 2012 conviction of nine individuals for planning an attack at the London Stock Exchange, where those convicted used the internet to plan their attack.
Girls and young women have also been recruited through social media to travel to Syria. A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue highlighted the role of Salma and Zahra Hussein (British twin sisters) in luring other young British Muslims to join the Islamic State in Syria. It should be mentioned that about 550 Western women, including Britons, have joined ISIS and others might follow suit.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, said that radicals have been able to operate in Britain because “we have been a passively tolerant society.” This means interventions and restrictions should be applied.
In this context, Hany El-Sebai, an ex-member of the Jihad Group in Egypt who has been living in the UK for years, told me in a recent interview that this number is very small if one looks at the number of Muslims in the UK. He added that the British government exaggerates the danger of the few people who damage Islam and Muslims in Britain.
It can be argued that those manifestations of radicalisation pose a threat to the British society. What happened in 2005 in London was a clear case to illustrate this threat as well as several plots that were stopped by police. A few days ago, a young woman and a young man were arrested on suspicion of preparing for acts of terrorism, according to police sources. The police and MI5 have spent money and deployed personnel to follow suspected extremists who might harm society. In addition, some of those radicals who came back or might come back from Syria have the intention to launch attacks inside the country, according to MI5 and sources in counter-terrorism police units.
Some researchers and experts, like Shiraz Maher from Kings College International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, suggested using returning fighters heading back to Britain in order to damage IS's “cool” image and convince potential British Muslims who are planning to join IS to do the opposite.
However, Dan Chugg, head of the Foreign Office’s ISIL Task Force, questioned whether returning fighters would want to be involved in such a programme, as it might put their life at risk. At the same time, he said that they could play an important role in deterring Britons from travelling to Syria or Iraq. Some think that freedom has been abused by some radical Islamists who have radicalised others, collected money for violent acts and facilitated others to travel in order to join extremist groups.
Since there is a threat to the British society even from a small number of people, tightening laws are a logical step, in the opinion of politicians, especially Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May. The suggested bill includes several elements, such as banning orders for extremist organisations, which undermine democracy, restricting the movement of radical preachers. In addition, it includes closure of places that offer a platform for radicals to influence people, and measures to take action against television or radio stations that broadcast extremist content.
The bill will be discussed in Parliament and will be a challenge before Cameron’s government can pass it. Even when it is passed and becomes law, it will not stop radicalisation and violent attacks inside and outside the UK.
There are several reasons that explain the inability of this bill to tackle this threat. Firstly, there are volatile people who commit terrorist acts who are referred to as “lone wolves.” It is very hard for security forces to detect them without full access to their internet and social media accounts, which in turn might restrict privacy and freedom.
Secondly, university staff members are reluctant to inform the police about potential extremists because they think this would constitute spying. Dealing with universities through counter-extremism narratives is more effective than informing police about any potential extremists’ activities.
Thirdly, Muslims have a big responsibility. They should monitor their children and guide them. When they cannot do that, community leaders should intervene to help young British Muslims struggling with their faith and their identity.
Fourthly, a well-prepared media campaign is needed to convince those in British society of their role in helping police, especially within the Muslim community.
Fifthly, Muslims should feel they belong and are integrated in Britain. Their religious leaders should sort out the struggle of being a Muslim and a British citizen.
Some Muslims blame British foreign policy for the misery of Muslims around the world and they find a justification to join Islamic State and plan attacks inside and outside the UK. This dilemma should be solved within Islamic circles, to avoid it being used to recruit more radicals in the future.
These suggested measures could help, but are not enough to undermine extremism in the UK.
The writer is a political analyst.