UK’s new anti-extremism tsar divides opinion

Many anti-extremism groups ruled out collaboration with Khan.
Friday 16/02/2018
Sara Khan, the new UK anti-extremism chief. (Home Office)
Questions. Sara Khan, the new UK anti-extremism chief. (Home Office)

LONDON - The appointment of Sara Khan as the government’s anti-extremism chief was welcomed by those who approved the selection of a moderate British Muslim woman to the prominent post but others decried the move, warning that Khan lacks grass-root support among British Muslims.

Khan is to lead the newly established Commission for Countering Extremism, which is to assess the threat posed by extremism to Britain. However, the human rights campaigner almost immediately faced calls to resign from British Muslims upset about her outspoken support for the government’s counter-extremism Prevent programme

“I recognise the scale of the challenge we face in confronting extremism and I am deeply committed to this role,” said Khan. “I will create a commission that is forthright in challenging extremism in the name of our shared values, fundamental freedoms and human rights.

“To those in our country who recognise the harm and threat extremism continues to pose in our society, I am eager to collaborate and engage,” she added.

Many existing anti-extremism groups ruled out collaboration with Khan, expressing concern that the new government commission, which has also been tasked with advising ministers and the Home Office, will simply reaffirm government policies.

The non-profit Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) organisation described Khan’s appointment as “deeply flawed and inappropriate” and called on her to resign.

“Ms Khan has no grass-roots credibility within Muslim communities and no academic background or serious practical experience upon which to take up the role,” a MEND statement said.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which represents more than 500 British mosques, schools and charities, also criticised Khan’s appointment.

“The fight against terrorism requires equal partnership between all parties, including Muslim communities,” said MCB Secretary-General Harun Khan. “This appointment risks sending a clear and alarming message that the government has no intention of doing so.”

Prominent British Muslims raised questions about Khan’s suitability for the role given her backing of the government’s controversial Prevent programme.

Khan previously sat on the Home Office’s Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Working Group, which was established in September 2005 after the London bombings and has also worked with the United Kingdom’s education and international development departments.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman to serve as a British cabinet minister, acknowledged that many British Muslims view Khan as a “mouthpiece” of the government. “Can someone considered by many in British Muslim communities as simply a creation and mouthpiece of the @UKHomeOffice ever be independent, credible or effective?” she posted on Twitter.

The Home Office’s Prevent Strategy, established in 2011, is a counter-extremism plan aimed at supporting those at risk of joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities but has been strongly criticised by many British Muslims as being counterproductive.

The strategy calls on schools, hospitals and universities to refer people believed to be at risk of radicalisation to the government. The programme’s critics argue that the strategy is intrusive and damaging and that, rather than helping combat extremism, it increases feelings of isolation and fear of government monitoring that could ultimately push people towards extremist views.

While the Prevent strategy remains in place, many had hoped that the newly established and nominally independent Commission for Countering Extremism would take a more diverse approach to counter-extremism.

MP Naz Shah, who represents Bradford West, which has the second-highest proportion of Muslims of any parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom, described Khan’s appointment as “devastating.”

“She’s a brilliant appointment for the Home Office but the worst appointment for such a critical role and devastating for the Muslim community as it lacks transparency and they are yet to qualify her position,” Shah told the Independent.

Despite the torrent of criticism, many groups welcomed Khan’s appointment.

“The Commission for Countering Extremism will form a crucial part of this government’s work to stop the scourge of extremism in all its forms and Sara Khan is expertly qualified to lead its important work,” Home Secretary Amber Rudd said.

Counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam also supported the establishment of the commission and Khan’s appointment, stressing that it had long called for the creation of a counter-extremism branch separate from the Prevent Strategy.

“The urgency with which she takes the counter-extremism agenda is refreshing. As is the courage it takes to speak out as a Muslim woman,” said Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz on LBC radio. “We need more Muslim voices out there, not less.”