The political arrests in Saudi Arabia of dissidents, clerics and TV personalities highlights the need for a radical overhaul of the global countering violent extremism project as it raises a very important question: Is the use of CVE globally curtailing human rights and free speech?

The Global Context: Saudi Arabia

Recently Saudi Arabia made headlines again due to a recent wave of arrests made which included prominent clerics, TV personalities and a poet of whom some of which align themselves with terrorism while others are vocally critical of the Saudi Monarchy.

In their article Saudi Arabia: Prominent Clerics Arrested’ Human Rights Watch have stated that these arrests are politically motivateand that “Saudis’ alleged efforts to tackle extremism are all for show if all the government does is jail people for their political views

A press release by the Saudi Press Agency confirmed the political nature of the arrests when it stated that the Saudis were able to Monitor the intelligence activities of a group of people for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity”.

What is interesting in the statement is that there was no hint of any form of political violence being committed but rather that these people were primarily arrested due to them allegedly working for foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests…which again highlights the political nature of countering violent extremism in Saudi Arabia which is that CVE isn’t primarily about protecting human lives, it’s about protecting the corporate state and its interests which in some instances can curtail human rights.

Although many within the CVE community would disagree with this analysis and would go on to state that CVE includes empowerment and inclusion as partners in the fight against violent extremism, I would argue that the global CVE project is merely a clever rebranding, by the Obama Administration, from what it was known before; the War on Terror and therefore forms a critical part of National Security giving primacy to the protection of state interests. The alignment of human rights with countering violent extremism has been a critical feature for the UN Secretary Generals Plan of Action to Counter Violent Extremism but whatever the rhetoric the fact is that the lack of a definition of what globally constitutes “extremism” has stoked a global crackdown on dissent. This has particularly been the case due to western powers, such as Britain, promoting the concept of tackling non-violent extremism abroad. A concept that has been warmly received by non-democratic states in the Gulf who favour the sort of broad definitions that tar nonviolent dissidents with the same brush as violent onesand therefore tend to see Britain’s approach as validating their view that it is legitimate to criminalise dissident beliefs as a threat to national security”.

This is how countries like Saudi Arabia can get away with making broad arrests of terrorists as well as political dissidents such as Sheikh Salman Al Ouda, most probably due to his involvement in the Sahwa movement and his continuous call for political reform within the kingdom.

More people are beginning to notice the correlation between the rise of extremism and the crackdown of political dissent as noted by Christopher Davidson in page 469 of his book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East where he writes

The rise of the Islamic State ‘offered unprecedented political cover for heavy handed security crackdowns on all forms of dissent in the name of combatting extremism and terrorism

However, the use of the term non-violent extremism to curtail political dissent isn’t only active in the Gulf monarchies. Activists in the west have also seen the erosion of political dissent due to being labelled non-violent extremists by the advocates of the CVE agenda.

The Local Context: United Kingdom

Within the UK context, the targeting of non-violent extremists has been undertaken by various organisations and institutions. For example, the Henry Jackson Society, previously known as the Centre for Social Cohen,’s report “Extreme Speakers and Events in the 2016-17 Academic Year” lists a group of conservative and non-conservative muslim speakers as “Extreme speakers” for various reasons including the promotion of religious conservatism and pro-Palestinian activism. On 30 July 2015, the Society hosted contributions from Rupert Sutton, Director of Student Rights from the Henry Jackson Society, Lloyd Randle, former Prevent Engagement Officer & Dr Usama Hasan from Quilliam, for an event called “Preventing Prevent: Challenges to Counter-Radicalisation on Campus”. The objective of the event was to give a brief historical overview of radicalisation and the need to counter the anti-prevent lobby on campus.

The Henry Jackson Society, a think tank supported by key US Neoconservatives and two British Prime Ministers, launched a research centre (Centre for Response to Radicalisation & Terrorism(CRT)) to provide research and analysis on the very real threat that ‘Radical Islam poses on our society’. But from the onset, the centres lobbying in the Syria vote to bomb ISIS strongholds shows that it also aims to influence British foreign policy.

The society’s focus on radicalisation within the muslim community context means that it has had some influence on the UK.governments domestic counter-extremism strategy.

In page 56 of their report The Henry Jackson Society and the Degeneration of British Neoconservatism: Liberal Interventionism, Islamophobia and the War on Terrorfrom Spinwatch, the public interest investigations organisation, the authors state

One of its first events at the House of Commons – held in November 2010, prior to the Centre for Social Cohesion’s absorbtion into HJS – celebrated the launch of the CSC report ‘Islamist Terrorism: the British Connections’ which talked up the issue of radicalisation in universities and influenced the governments revised prevent strategy

PREVENT is the UK governments counter-extremism strategy. The strategy has gone through three iterations and although the latest iteration of PREVENT is proving to be the most problematic, it doesnt mean the previous iterations were free from their own exclusive problems.

One academic who studied the effects of PREVENT and counter-extremism measures in the Muslim community early on is Arun Kundnani, professor of media, culture and communications at New York University & teacher of Terrorism studies at John Jay College. According to his findings, central to PREVENT was the view of state actors viewing muslim youth as potential terrorist recruits in a global insurgency against the interests of the state.

A vocal proponent of a government counter insurgency model is Majid Nawaz, co-founder of the anti-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation.

Describing himself as a counter-extremist, Maajid Nawaz has been responsible for the popularization of the term the “Regressive Left” which takes aim at non-muslim liberals supporting and providing, according to my opinion,entryism to politically active muslim individuals and organisations. The term has been used against established academics such as Noam Chomsky and investigative journalists such as Glenn Greenwald. Along with Maajid, other academics and commentators have attempted to define this section of the left. One notable academic, Dave Rich, described this branch of the left as The radical, street activist, anti-war, pro-Palestinian leftin page 242 of his book The Lefts Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism

Since muslim terrorism is primarily political in its nature, it is interesting to note that seeking a political resolution to the multiple political grievances that the muslim community may harbour is not mentioned by Maajid in his four point plan to tackle extremism.

The importance of finding political resolutions to conflicts reverberating around the Arab & Muslim world is a key driver towards challenging islamic extremism and has routinely been cited by counter terrorism advisors and even home office intervention providers.

Hanif Qadir, founder and CEO of Active Change Foundation states on page 209 in his book Preventing & Countering Extremism & Terrorist Recruitment: A Best Practice Guide;

Reinforcing the state’s willingness and ability to acknowledge and tackle the causes of grievances appropriately and effectively – is probably one of the most important, indeed essential actions that can be undertaken to prevent and counter violent extremism

Instead of mentioning the need to resolve political grievances in his 4 point plan, Maajid believes that the UK is in the midst of an insurgency and insurgency’s are primarily ideological. He goes on to state that there is a need for the government to surveil the muslim community in order for the authorities to separate the 3,000 known jihadists and the other 23,000 who the intelligence services want to surveil, from the rest of the muslim community.

The idea of separating the extremists from the moderates is a counter-insurgency method that some government advisors think should be integrated in to PREVENT since PREVENT is the programme that works in the pre-crime space and therefore legitimising the securitization of a UK domestic counter terrorism strategy that views muslim youth as a potential fifth column within British society.

Prior to PREVENT actually being a legal duty, there are examples of counter-insurgency methods, such as intelligence gathering, being used in the early iterations of PREVENT.

In 2009, professor Arun Kundnani released the findings of his 6 month investigation in to PREVENT in a report called Spooked: How Not To Prevent Violent Extremism. In the report Professor Kundnani highlights how some youth workers have been questioned by police about their beliefs, how certain youth centres were used for intelligence gathering and monitoring websites and one example of MI5 harassment.

In his book The Muslims are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism & the Domestic War on TerrorProfessor Kundnani further elaborates how the fear of radicalisation was used to stop muslim youths from attending a public counter-demonstration against the far right English Defence League in Bolton. On page 166 the author states

Representatives from the Council of Mosques agreed to the police’s recommendation that Muslims be prevented from entering the town center, and they sat with police officers in the operational control center for the day, helping to identify young people on closed-circuit television screens. From the point of view from the police, the EDL was not an extremist threat. The real danger was that the EDL’s presence would foment radicalization amongst young muslims. The best way to prevent this, reasoned the police, was to keep young muslims off the streets

Further efforts were made to see how counter-terrorism measures could be used against lawful protestors, especially students.

2009 saw an energised student movement protest against Operation Cast Lead, Israels Offensive in Gaza. 2010 saw an even more vigurous student movement take part in a series of demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees, the first major demonstration jointly organised by University & College Union & the National Union of Students, the co-organisers of the various anti-prevent Students Not Suspects tours. The 2010 demonstrations showed the rise of a new, young generation inspired by a radical politics popularised by a new breed of conscious political hip hop artists such as the pro-palestinian, anti-war activist Lowkey who would attend and speak at some of the student demonstrations that took place.

By 2011, the various mechanisms established through PREVENT were starting to respond to a range of different political activities. This time taking a firm look at the student demonstrations that ocurred prior. In page 169 of The Muslims are coming, Arun Kundnani wrote how an email from Scotland Yards Counter Terrorism Command to University College London (UCL) staff illustrated the new atmosphere:

As the student population is returning to ‘work’, we anticipate a renewed vigour in protests and demonstrations. The picture is currently building and we are monitoring the situation…..i would be grateful if in your capacity at your various colleges that should you pick up any relevant information that would be helpful to all of us to anticipate possible demonstrations or occupations, please forward it on to me”

The email above shows how the police were monitoring the rise of the student movement and how intelligence was needed to monitor this form of political activity. As a response to the student demonstrations, the Conservative government aligned think tank Policy Exchange organised an event called The Rise of Street Extremism where Peter Clarke, former head of the Counter Terrorism Command at Scotland Yard said

We need to, mentally atleast, compare the ambitions of some of the current crop of protestors and the terrorists. The distinction to my mind is not so much about their intention as in our response to it

The about their intentionpart of his statement aligns the protestors with terrorists therefore referring to the potential use of the various counter- measures provided by PREVENT as it is a counter-terrorism strategy that permits the surveillance of non-violent extremists leaving many academics, like Kundnani, to believe that the state defines extremism as any form of radical, political opposition to its interests.

Due to organisations like the National Union of Students, Cage and others taking part in the various anti-Prevent Student Not Suspects tours, a pro-prevent lobby has been initiated where interventions speak to the media and participate in events. The pro-prevent lobby accuse the anti-prevent lobby of promoting scare stories about the nature and the methodology of prevent stating that many of the examples promoted by the anti-prevent lobby are factually innacurate. The alignment of organisations like the NUS with organisations like Cage via the many Students Not Suspects tours situates the anti-prevent lobby, in the eyes of the pro-prevent lobby, as the core of the “Regressive left” in the UK.

However recently a study of the PREVENT strategy was conducted by the researcher from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Mohammed Elshimi who’s findings confirmed that the UK governments counter-extremism strategy contained elements of counter subversion.

In pages 73-74 of his book Deradicalisation in the UK Prevent Strategy: Security, identity and Religion’, the author states

Ultimately, the data shows that de-radicalisation as a policy exhibits a tangled logic in which it performs the functions of counter-terrorism, counter-subversion, community cohesion and crime prevention altogether

The counter subversive element of the UK Governments counter-extremism strategy essentially views elements of the british society as problematic and since the main focus are those involved in non-violent extremism, this means that mainly British muslim citizens who are politically active against western foreign policy are seen as subversives within the counter-extremism arena.

There is no doubt in the fact that we all have a duty to challenge violent extremism wherever it rears its ugly head and this would include working with the police when necessary. However our duty to protect our fellow citizens and our country doesnt mean that we keep quiet when the state violates the rights of our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity whether domestically or abroad and the focus on non-violent extremism within counter-terrorism discourse certainly violates the rights of others whether in our country or not. Theresa Mays visit to the US highlights the dangers of non-violent extremism in counter terrorism discourse. Early on in the year,she spoke at the Republican Convention where she said

And nor is it enough merely to focus on violent extremism. We need to address the whole spectrum of extremism, starting with the bigotry and hatred that can so often turn to violence

Her reference to challenging non-violent extremism was a cause for concern for the Christian Institute as they rightly pointed out that, historically speaking, even Dr Martin Luther King was seen as a non-violent extremist.