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Countering hate and extremism

The Christchurch Mosque shootings that killed 50 Muslims and injured another 50 shocked us all. New Zealand has an image of being a peaceful and safe society so this attack by a white supremacist on people, simply because of their religion, shattered our image of New Zealand. The wise and caring response of Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has reflected the best of her nation but this is not just an issue for New Zealand.

Similar incidents have occurred in our country too. Last week five mosques in Birmingham were attacked with a sledge hammer but nobody was hurt. The Finsbury Park Mosque saw a more serious attack in 2017 when a vehicle was deliberately driven into a group of Muslims, killing one and injuring nine others. Nor is hate only directed at Muslims. In March 2017 a 52 year old man deliberately drove his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing four and injuring 50 people before he fatally stabbed an unarmed police officer in the grounds of Parliament.

It would be wrong to think that these examples of extremism are rare and of no long term significance.  Sarah Khan, Britain’s first counter-extremism commissioner has been shocked by what she has found in every one of the thirteen towns she has visited so far since her recent appointment.  “I was really shocked that in every place I visited I heard deep concerns about the activity and impact of the far right”, she reported in the Observer. In towns and cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff, talking to civil society groups, youth leaders and activists, she heard evidence of a new wave of far right extremism.

This was not just the usual suspects like Britain First. Youth leaders told Khan that a whole generation of vulnerable children could be lost to the far right. This echoed what Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police told Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee. MPs are already aware of the threat from far right extremists from the death threats they have received in their constituencies and the abuse some have received even on Parliament’s door step. The Metropolitan Police are currently undertaking more than 700 live terrorism investigations so this can no longer be dismissed as the activity of a few cranks. So what do we know about these extremists and how can we counter their malevolent influence?

Hate is the currency of extremism. It trades in absolute certainty that the hater is right and the objects of their hatred could never be right so they must be silenced. So hatred has no place in democratic debate. That is why Jo Cox MP was murdered and other MPs have been threatened with the same fate. Extremists direct their hatred at categories and groups – the Blacks, the Muslims, the foreigners, the lesbians, to name but a few examples. So how can their hatred be countered?

It is probably too late to successfully persuade a hardened extremist to stop hating the objects of their hatred. Social media should be made to block extremist material on their platforms and the objects of their hatred may need to be protected or at least advised to take measures to protect themselves.

Preventing new recruits to extremist attitudes and behaviour is possible. Schools can use the study of the Nazis and other extremists to discourage young people adopting extreme views. Enabling them to meet those from other faiths and cultural groups may also help deter the development of extremism.

There is also a spiritual dimension to preventing hatred. “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded him.” (1John 2:11) Inter-faith meetings, held without any attempts at proselytism, may help to nurture mutual respect. As the Bishop of Newcastle has said, we need to see difference as a gift not a threat and helping young people to think like that is a key task of parents, teachers and the Church.

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