New Counter Terrorism Laws and Civil Liberties

06/01/2015 09:18 | Updated 07 March 2015

There is an accepted wisdom across political divides, one that views extremist ideology as a cause of radicalisation. The previous and current government introduced strong and often arbitrary pieces of legislation to address the perceived root causes and tomorrow we will see further such legislation beginning its passage through Parliament. Yet all of this comes in the face of growing academic opinion that questions the very essence of the apparent root causes of terrorism.

In a recent report released by the think tank Claystone, counter terrorism expert Dr. Arun Kundnani says:

"Over the last decade, the narrative that extremist ideology radicalises people into terrorists has been repeatedly promoted by government ministers. The notion that extremist Muslim preachers are brainwashing young people on a 'conveyor belt' towards terrorism does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny. A growing body of academic work holds this position to be fundamentally flawed. "

This is supported by John Horgan, director of the International Centre for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University who argues that "the idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research ... [First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don't necessarily hold radical beliefs."

Marc Sageman, one of the most influential analysts of national security policy in the US, has moved away from his previous emphasis on religious ideology being a significant factor in causing terrorism. In 2013, he suggested that governments should "stop being brainwashed by this notion of 'radicalisation'. There is no such thing. Some people when they are young acquire extreme views; many of them just grow out of them. Do not overreact - you'll just create worse problems."

To solve the problem of terrorism by suppressing 'extremist' opinions is a strategy that causes much concern for civil libertarians. This brings to my mind Martin Luther King who was once described as an extremist by other Christian leaders who objected to his policy of civil disobedience. In his letter from a Birmingham jail, he wrote: "But though I was initially disappointed at being categorised as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label."

Although the details of the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill remain somewhat vague and unclear we do know that the Secretary of State is proposing to further curtail freedom of expression. Among her powers is a measure which imposes restrictions on universities and schools to prevent the expression of opinions deemed to be "extremist." Individuals expressing such opinions will be subject to compulsory, internal relocation in the UK without the need for them to be convicted of a crime through a court process.

Like many I am very uncomfortable with the notion of a Home Secretary curtailing freedom of speech which is the very foundation that defines a university. It is the basis of the professional notion of "academic freedom". Universities are a space for wide debate, whether this be on religious identity, ideology or foreign policy. A debate amongst young people who may feel excluded from mainstream politics and are quite capable of arguing against far right or indeed far left extreme ideologies. It is a space that allows narratives to be challenged so we can produce confident students who are able to reason with arguments. It is imperative that these freedoms are maintained so that students and staff can have open discussions on controversial issues without fear of being referred to panels. One of the liberal values that define British society is the freedom of expression, which means governments not deciding that certain ideas are too dangerous for citizens to express.

If this was not absurd enough even nurseries must now understand and be vigilant to the risks of radicalization of toddlers .

Since 2004 the journey of the concept of radicalisation has become central to the study and scrutiny of terrorism. The profound resulting consequences on our society should not be underestimated. There is a stark warning from Kundnani who believes parliamentarians must be cautioned.

"The newly proposed counter terrorism laws far from making Britain safer, are actually counterproductive. We must avoid nurturing a new generation of antagonised and disenfranchised citizens. Such an approach is likely to contribute to radicalisation not stop it"

Yasmin Qureshi is the Labour Member of Parliament for Bolton South, and a member of Home Affairs Select Committee