UK needs 'response unit' to deal with extremist flashpoints

Review by Dame Sara Khan warns of tide of intimidation linked to Islamists and the far right

Dame Sara Khan's report warns of both Islamists and the far right fuelling social tensions in Britain. Getty Images
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A growing culture of intimidation egged on by Islamists and far-right extremists is casting a chill over democratic freedoms in Britain, a major report has found.

Counter-extremism tsar Dame Sara Khan said the UK needs a special response unit to tackle “live flashpoint incidents” threatening social cohesion.

An ugly episode in which a teacher was forced into hiding after showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in class shows the “devastating impact” such harassment can have, she said.

Her report warns that many Muslims and other religious believers who engage in public life are harassed by both the far right and hardliners in their own community.

Dame Sara warns police must be alive to intra-faith divisions to avoid inadvertently taking sides with extremists in the name of inclusion.

She warns of threats to British society that are “chronic, insidious and often sit below the radar”, with extremists pouncing on social and economic malaise during a cost-of-living crisis.

“The current winds of extremism, polarisation and democratic disruption combined with social and economic issues may cause even more unrest,” it says.

Key findings

Among the findings in the 150-page Khan Review:

· A majority (60 per cent) of people in Britain say the problem of “freedom-restricting harassment” has worsened in the past five years

· The problem extends well beyond abuse of politicians, with journalists, teachers, faith leaders, artists and community activists also subject to harassment

· A growing number of students think academics should be sacked for teaching offensive content, while a third of librarians have been asked to remove books

· The Israel-Palestine conflict has been a “radicalising moment”, with both far-right and Islamist extremists deliberately stoking tension

· The banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir discouraged Muslims in Stoke-on-Trent from taking part in elections, for example by distributing anti-democratic literature

· There was a “considerable lack of leadership” over the Batley Grammar School cartoon incident, with the teacher involved suffering long-term distress.

Dame Sara, who was appointed adviser for social cohesion and resilience in 2021, called for a five-year strategy to address the worrying trend.

One recommendation is for a “cohesion response unit” to be set up across departments to “respond to early tensions in live flashpoint incidents in a quicker and effective manner”.

The unit could also undertake “horizon-scanning initiatives” to raise preparedness.

A second suggestion is that protesters be kept 150 metres away from schools, the same buffer zone that applies to abortion clinics.

Intra-faith tension

The review also raises the alarm about harassment within faith communities. One Muslim official who works for a local authority said they were called a “traitor” and a “snake”.

“My children have been harassed and have had to move school. My tyres have been slashed and my house is red-flagged,” they were quoted as saying.

“I don’t have confidence that either the police or the local authority understand the intra-community abuse I and other Muslims experience and how frightened we are.”

An imam said he received death threats from hardliners. A Muslim woman said she feared sharing the fact she had attended an interfaith event with Britain's chief rabbi.

At the same time, the far right adds to harassment of Muslims, for instance, by leaping on to allegations about grooming gangs, which in some cases proved to be false.

In Stoke-on-Trent, there is concern both about Hizb-ut Tahrir supporters trying to infiltrate schools and mosques, and neo-Nazi elements who also have a foothold, the report says.

Equally, the tension in Batley was fuelled both by Islamist and far-right elements who “hijacked the incident” on social media.

The report suggests police should have safety officers with expertise in the religious narratives used to incite hatred.

Police forces “must have a thorough understanding of the diversity among a local faith or minority community to ensure effective policing”, it says.

“It is vital that police forces do not inadvertently support hate preachers and extremist actors in the misguided belief that such activity supports social cohesion or diversity and inclusion principles.”

Updated: March 25, 2024, 12:17 PM