Sara Khan: who is she and why can’t she be the counter-extremism tsar?
Categories: Latest News
Thursday February 01 2018
The recent appointment of Sara Khan as head of the newly-formed Commission for Countering Extremism has been received with great concern by the British Muslim community. In just a couple of days, over 100 mainstream Muslim organisations and community leaders have signed an open letter condemning Ms Khan’s appointment to this position, and questioned the Home Office’s choice whilst highlighting the wider implications for the delicate balance between counter-extremism efforts and civil liberties.
Sara Khan is a highly controversial figure among British Muslims, and for good reason.
She is the founder of Inspire, which describes itself as “an independent non-governmental counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation”, and which, as Khan herself puts it, came to be out of frustration “with the lack of concern and will from many so-called representative Muslim organisations” in addressing extremism.
However, Inspire quickly became associated with highly-criticised governmental strategies to counter terrorism – namely Prevent (2011) – which is renowned for its flawed approaches and lack of evidentiary basis, as well as its role in feeding a toxic narrative that stigmatises and marginalises communities, particularly the Muslim one.
Khan’s open support of Prevent perhaps explains why she came to prominence so quickly. Indeed, as 5Pillars bluntly puts it, Khan is a “woman who has shot to fame because she, as a Muslim, is willing to come onto mainstream media and say things about the Muslim community that neo-cons would like to say but can’t.”
In her book The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism – which was co-authored by a Home Office consultant, Tony McMahon – Khan dedicates an entire chapter to Prevent (titled “The Islamist-led assault on Prevent”), which she describes as a pivotal piece of legislation that “fills a much needed gap” – i.e. prevention of radicalisation – while dismissing the legitimate concern of hundreds of academic and experts by ludicrously labelling them as “Islamist”.
Her views fully reflect those of the previous government. John Hayes, then the security minister, commended Prevent by saying it is “about protecting people from the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas that are used to legitimise terrorism… Protecting those who are vulnerable and at risk of radicalisation is a job for all of us. The new duty will make sure key bodies across the country play their part and work in partnership, as part of our one nation approach to bring the country together to tackle extremism.”
Many, however, wisely anticipated the dangers of this new approach. Following the 7/7 attacks, Mehdi Hasan, political journalist and author, warned that “British Muslims would be subjected to unprecedented scrutiny; tagged as a suspect community, the enemy within… Wherever you turn, it seems, those dastardly Muslims pose a threat to you, your families and your way of life. Meanwhile, Muslim grievances are mocked or ignored.”
Hasan was correct in predicting the emergence of increasingly invasive counter-terrorism strategies. Since the 7/7 attacks, the UK government responded to the terrorist threat by passing the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Terrorism Act 2006, the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. The new legislation, which has greatly expanded the provisions contained in the Terrorism Act 2000, moves beyond the traditional ‘post-crime’ system and towards the adoption of a system based on ‘pre-criminal’ justice.
But as argued by Professor Ian Loader, Professor of Criminology at Oxford University, “what matters in a society that is… a liberal democracy is not that we control crime but how we do so”, a statement that reflects the biggest concern of the consequences of excessive counter-terrorism legislation: a state that uses coercion to curtail civil rights can no longer be considered a liberal democracy.
Interestingly, the Quilliam Foundation – an organisation with concerning links to the right-wing, Islamophobic Gatestone Institute – has been central to the promotion of a strategy focused on countering non-violent extremism in Britain, and thus also in proposing preventative strategies against radicalisation centred upon the conviction that ideology is in fact the driving force in radicalisation. Incidentally, Sara Khan’s Inspire has strong links to the Quilliam Foundation.
Inspire is an indirect recipient of Prevent funds. Indeed, although the organisation does not collect core funding from the UK government, councils and schools pay for the group’s workshops and conferences with funds they obtain from Prevent.
In addition, an official document from the Home Office produced in March 2015 and titled Local Delivery Best Practice Catalogue Prevent Strategy, reveals that Inspire was chosen to “support dissemination of national campaigns to their networks of target groups with an emphasis on community engagement”, opening it up to accusations that it simply promotes the Governments message.
“The [#MakingAStand] campaign”, reads the Home Office document, “is creating a national network of British Muslim women across Prevent priority areas who will be able to transmit HMG counter extremism messages into communities and hard-to-reach audiences including workplaces, community institutions, schools, higher education and mosques.” However later it was shown that the [#MakingAStand] campaign was actually a product of the Home Office’s Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU), thus challenging Sara Khan’s narrative that Inspire was an independent organisation.
But no credible organisation seeking to empower or voice the concerns of the Muslim community, or to effectively counter extremism, would be supportive of Prevent. The Open Society Justice Initiative argued that Prevent “creates a systemic risk of human rights violations”, as well as being “counterproductive because its erroneous targeting of individuals who are nowhere near being drawn into terrorism may make them more susceptible to that path”. In addition, there is a significant body of evidence suggesting that the study underpinning Prevent is no more than “a theoretical model and… does not have an evidence base demonstrating clear links to future offending”.
Many human rights organisations have been vocally critical of Prevent. In 2009, the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, called Prevent “the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times and an affront to civil liberties”, and since then, the programme received the criticism of the UN Rapporteur on Freedoms, the NUT, the NUS, and countless academics, including the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University – who condemned the strategy for its limiting effect on free-speech and legitimate critical debate.
As one example of the discriminatory nature of Prevent, Muslims have become 40 times more likely than someone who is not a Muslim to be referred for the de-radicalisation programme since it was made statutory duty in 2015.
The concern surrounding Khan’s appointment thus reflect a broader issue, that is, the Home Office continues to perpetuate a Counter-terrorism strategy that discriminates, marginalises, and stigmatises.
One of the concerns is how Sara Khan will define issues of extremism in respect of traditional Muslim beliefs and customs. Only a few months ago, in November 2017, she co-signed the letter to Head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman to ban the hijab from primary schools. The proposal was opposed by over 1,000 teachers, academics and campaigners which described it as “discriminatory and institutionally racist”, while being inherently against the principles enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998, which guarantees freedom of thought belief and religion.
Khan’s subscription to deeply flawed approaches to counter terrorism is not the only reason to be concerned. For example, the fact that her sister, Sabin Khan, worked for the Office of Security & Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) and is deputy chief of RICU (the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit) should open serious questions on transparency, nepotism and independence.
Likewise, several members of Inspire have appeared in the publication commissioned by Baroness Caroline Cox, author of Rape of Reason (1975), and former co-director of the anti-Muslim think tank Centre for Social Cohesion, headed by Douglas Murray.
Finally, there is no available evidence on the Inspire website, or Khan’s own website, of any published peer-reviewed articles or academic studies detailing methodological rigour in the investigation or evaluation of types of extremism and the publication of scientific findings on the process of radicalisation.
In a sense, Khan is perhaps the most appropriate appointment for the ‘Prevent-centred’ Home Office. A person who can offer no evidence of empirical expertise in the field, yet be fully supportive of an inaccurate and unscientific strategy.