Interview with the UKʹs Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism Sara Khan

"Weʹre living through an era of extremism"

In a bid for more dialogue, Sara Khan, UKʹs Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism, calls on individuals to challenge extremism and on countries to ensure they defend and promote equality, human rights, pluralism and diversity. Interview by Ismail Nermin

In January 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed you Lead Commissioner for Countering Extremism. How do you intend combatting extremism in the UK?

Sara Khan: Extremism is a problem for society as a whole, hence it requires a solution for society as a whole. Everyone has a role to play, schools, government, civil society, religious leaders. As yet, an across-the board response does not exist, which explains our current focus. Since the Commission is new, our first task is to foster awareness.

What specific objectives are you pursuing?

Khan: Firstly, we need to engage in outreach. I have been to some 30 towns and villages in England and Wales. I have spoken to thousands of academics, civil society groups and government representatives to better understand the challenge.

The second goal is a study. Currently there is no comprehensive study into extremism in the UK that could provide us with an overview of the problem. Weʹre interested in public perception; we want to examine the tactics of the extremists and the damage they do. We have also set up a counselling centre for this purpose. What is crucial, however, are the potential responses. We intend to make some initial recommendations and draw up a programme based on what we learn.

#TurnToLove march in Manchester, England, one year after a terrorist attack killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in May 2017 (Getty Images/L. Neal)
Society as a whole needs to act: "to believe that the only extremists are Islamists is fundamentally wrong. Extremism can come from any political ideology or religion and can affect any group around the world. Extremism of all kinds is currently increasing – from the neo-Nazis in Germany and the Hindu nationalists in India to Muslim fundamentalists," explains Sara Khan

What exactly are the challenges facing Britain when it comes to extremism?

Khan: There are many different types of extremism in Britain. But some are more prominent and more dangerous than others. Over the last two years, we have witnessed a sharp rise in right-wing extremism. Islamist extremism is also a big issue. In 2018 alone we had five terrorist attacks, four of which were Islamist, one right-wing. But there is also left-wing extremism, extremist groups within the Sikh community or among Jewish groups.

To believe that the only extremists are Islamists is fundamentally wrong. Extremism can come from any political ideology or religion and can affect any group around the world. Extremism of all kinds is currently increasing – from the neo-Nazis in Germany and the Hindu nationalists in India to Muslim fundamentalists.

What do all these extremists have in common?

Khan: Many extremist ideologies promote the "us" versus "them" mind-set, fomenting hate against other groups and spreading racism. Extremists do not believe in universal human rights. They attack people because they are supposedly different. Extremists are against diversity in society. That is why we must defend these values, human rights, equality of all people and plurality.

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