On Armistice Day, 2010, as the nation's leaders led two minute's silence at the Cenotaph, just a couple of miles away in Kensington, two groups of 'extremists' faced each other. The first group, 30 or so radical Islamists from the group known as al-Muhajiroun or Muslims Against Crusades, began shouting 'British soldiers go to hell' as the nation’s silence began. Watching them was the second group, a similarly small group of the counter-Jihad or far-right English Defence League. Police officers and news photographers separated the two groups. However, despite advance notice, the two groups together didn't manage to get a hundred people to turn up. Further, nobody was hurt, and no serious crimes were committed. Why, then, did the radical Islamists' burning of a giant poppy, done to wind up the far right and wider society, make headlines and force government to take action?
Taken at face value, policies that ban al-Muhajiroun and restrict the English Defence League are done to stop the disorder and violence associated with their activities, particularly at set piece clashes such as this. Such policies may also prevent angry words from persuading people to extreme actions, including terrorism. Some individuals have moved from 'non-violent extremism' to violence and terrorism, including the killers of Lee Rigby and the Soho bomber. However, these individuals are a small proportion of a small pool of activists. Many activists, even those who glorify violence, don't want to get their hands dirty themselves. Drawing on Eatwell's ideas of 'cumulative extremism', I argue that counter-extremism policies demonstrate a further concern: it is feared that the provocative actions of these groups - including demonstrations, poppy and Koran burnings, mosque invasions, and Muslim patrols - prompt a reaction from others not already involved. Restrictions on speech and actions are made to avoid riots and communal conflict.
Underlying this latter fear are assumptions about community and culture which contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Standard explanations for the existence of radical Islamism and the far-right are made in terms of 'Asian Muslim' and 'white working class' communities being separated, and having cultures that facilitate hatreds. Such explanations simplify the range of opinion within these segments of society and posit particular 'communities' as uniquely suspect or problematic. When those in power promote 'British values' they place a range of attitudes (homophobia, racism, religious chauvinism) and behaviours (gender segregation, veiling, flag flying) on the extremist spectrum. Thus, they add credence to the idea that Britain is seeing a local version of the 'clash of civilisations', where Islam and 'the West' are incompatible. This, of course, supports what the extremists themselves argue.
In my own work I argue that such explanations do not explain, and unfairly malign vast swathes of British society. Those engaged in real extremist activity are a tiny minority, and most people condemn them. Nor is there a sharp divide between sections of society fully subscribing to 'British values' and other sections which do not: survey research finds the presence of racism, homophobia and other intolerance everywhere, and tolerance can be found in all sections of society. We also exaggerate problems if we describe 'normal' but old-fashioned 'isms' as extremism. Most problematic, however, is the media's presenting of particular extremist individuals (for example Anjem Choudary, Nick Griffin, Tommy Robinson) as representative of whole communities or wider currents of thought, instead of the outliers that they are.