Far right threat has slipped under the radar of a counter-extremism strategy targeting Muslims

Looking the right way? Yorkman/shutterstock.com

In late November, Ben Wallace MP, the security minister, told British parliamentarians that there had been an increase in the number of people from the far-right being referred to deradicalisation programmes. This followed the conviction of Thomas Mair for the murder in June of the MP Jo Cox, who had been outspoken in her support for her constituency’s ethnic and religious diversity. The judge said Mair’s act of “lone-wolf” terrorism was inspired by “an admiration for Nazis and similar anti-democratic white supremacist creeds”.

On December 12, the government moved to proscribe a neo-Nazi group called National Action. This is welcome, particularly as in recent years the government’s counter-extremism strategy has been heavily targeting those suspected of “Islamist” extremism, and not doing enough to stop those who espouse anti-Muslim hate and anti-Semitism online.

Most affected group

The government has two tools it can use to address the growth of extremism in the UK. A deradicalisation programme called Channel was piloted in 2007 to deal with those people suspected of being drawn into extremism. Since then, the programme has expanded significantly. In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent duty, a requirement on schools and universities to report those vulnerable to radicalisation.

My analysis, based on a freedom of information disclosure from the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), showed that before the Prevent duty was introduced, Muslims were already far more likely to be referred to the Channel programme than non-Muslims.

More recently, NPCC data demonstrates that counter-extremism powers continue to be used disproportionately on individuals with Muslim backgrounds. For example, the referral of Muslims aged under 18 far outpaces the referral of their counterparts from any other religion. Across England and Wales, Muslims were 50 times as likely as Christians to be referred to Channel between March 2014 and March 2016.

While these calculations are only indicative, the absolute number is more revealing: of the 1,747 under-18s referred to Channel between March 2014 and March 2016, 1,194 of them (68%) were Muslim. To put this in context, just over 8% of under-18s in England and Wales are Muslim, according to the 2011 Census.

Another NPCC disclosure shows that from March 2012 to the end of March 2016, the vast majority of referrals were for “Islamist” extremists. During this period, the number of “Islamists” referred to the Channel deradicalisation programme increased at a much higher rate than referrals for the “far right”, as the graph below shows.

In 2015-16, the first financial year in which the Prevent duty applied – there was an 82% increase in referrals for “Islamists” and a 74% increase in referrals for the “far right”. While referrals for right-wing extremism have also increased, the increase has not kept pace with referrals for “Islamism”.

Of all people referred to Channel from 2012 to 2016, 40% of them were judged by Channel panels, composed of police officers and officials from the local authority, the NHS, and other safeguarding bodies, not to be in any need of deradicalisation support. The remaining 60% were recommended for deradicalisation programmes.

An outdated strategy

Prevent and Channel are optimised for detecting and referring Muslims that might be under the influence of extremism. While there is improvement with regard to referring right-wing extremists, much is going unchallenged. The Tell MAMA (Monitoring anti-Muslim Attacks) charity, where I am also a senior researcher, records increasing numbers of anti-Muslim incidents and crimes every year.

Part of the problem is the government’s outdated understanding of the dynamics of contemporary right-wing extremism and white supremacy. The current Counter-Extremism Strategy cites the Stormfront forum, a neo-Nazi site started by a Ku Klux Klan member in the early 1990s. Stormfront is certainly an important site for right-wing extremists to communicate, but they have started to rely more on social media platforms to spread their ideology. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the primary platforms of right-wing radicalisation – just as they are for “Islamist” extremism.

Britain First, for example, fashions itself as a group of “patriots” who use a massive Facebook following of over 1.5m to disseminate anti-Muslim memes as well as videos of their “Christian patrols” in Muslim neighbourhoods. Other blogs such as Farenheit 211, recently advertised a grossly offensive campaign in which racist stickers were placed on London’s public transport network and which led to an arrest in early December.

Twitter took down 125,000 pro-ISIS extremist accounts after political pressure between mid-2015 and early 2016. Yet in the past, Tell MAMA struggled to suspend an account that calls for the mass deportation of Muslims. To Twitter’s credit, it has now started to act on blocking “alt-right” accounts, but this has been too little, too late.

It is time for politicians and social media platforms to take more responsibility for countering right-wing extremist content on social media platforms. Some might object, suggesting that these groups are non-violent, pose no threat to the safety of the public and that religiously-motivated extremists are surely the bigger threat. Yet, research has demonstrated that ideological networks can lead to lone-actor terrorism such as the massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and Mair’s murder of Cox in 2016. Research has also shown that right-wing extremists constitute the largest proportion of lone-actor terrorists and are the most deadly.

In light of the threat, it is imperative that the government understands that right-wing extremism plays a significant threat to the stability of diverse communities across the UK.