Keeping the Faith III: Cults & Extremism

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Religious and political extremism is a clear and specific national security threat (Defending Wales VII).

Although it’s perhaps not as serious a problem in Wales as other parts of the UK, there have been incidences where the police and security forces have stopped extremists based in Wales from carrying out attacks. More recently, Neo-Nazis have started to carry out low-level intimidation in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport.

What’s the difference between a “religion”, a “cult” and an “extremist”?

Before anything else, there needs to be a clear definition of what counts as the above. It’s nowhere near as easy as you might expect as one person’s religion is another person’s cult, and one person’s “extremist” may be just devout to another person.

If the state were to define an “extremist” or a “cult” it should be based on practices – not ideology or belief. Such definitions should protect the religious freedoms of well-meaning “new religious movements” and emerging denominations.

These would be my definitions based on the available evidence:

  • “Religion” – A system where a person freely worships or believes in a supernatural force/being, practices core life rules and rituals which may or may not derive from a sacred text/texts or the teachings of what they believe to be a divine prophet(s).
  • “Cult” – A social group made up of individuals who share a common spiritual or religious belief (as defined above), but who: follow or submit to an authoritarian figure/leader, willingly isolate themselves from non-members and the wider community, follow rules that make it difficult or impossible to leave, actively practice “shunning” and ostracism of members who do leave and/or are required to make extraordinary payments of money, labour or property to advance (a religion is “free”).
  • “Extremist” – An individual or group who will, or would have, knowingly committed, planned or be planning to commit acts in Wales or friendly nations that are, or would be, deliberately intimidating, treasonous, seditious, unconstitutional, would infringed the fundamental rights of others or incite hatred against others – religious or otherwise.

What makes someone radicalised?

There are a number of outward signs that someone is being, or at risk of being, radicalised:

  • Mental health problems and/or recently undergone a major life event.
  • A strong need for identity, belonging, adventure, political/social change or social status.
  • Feeling threatened, withdrawing socially and/or the making of a completely new circle of friends.
  • Use of discriminatory language, becoming fixated on a single topic or repeating the same phrases over and over again (as if reading from a script).
  • Outward change of appearance and use of symbols which are associated with extremists (i.e. swastika, IS flag).

There are a number of other reasons a person may become radicalised including: upbringing (i.e. a racist being brought up by racist parents), sexual frustration, being exposed to extremist propaganda/preaching, legitimate opposition to the actions of the government which turns into wanting violence or revenge, being victim of a crime or injustice which “turns” them against a particular group.

How does Wales/the UK currently deal with extremism?

The Prevent Strategy is the guidance used in the legal jurisdiction of EnglandandWales to deal with counter-terrorism, extremism and radicalisation. It’s not aimed at any particular group and deals with all kinds of extremist behaviour. It’s not a devolved matter.

If anyone has a concern that someone may be radicalised or at risk of being so they refer it to a local authority safeguarding group – the majority of referrals come from schools, colleges, universities and the police.

Referrals are screened to make sure the subject isn’t already being investigated by counter-terrorism units. If they’re not and deemed at risk of potential radicalisation, their case is referred to a Channel panel.

If the Channel panel decides the person referred to them isn’t at risk of radicalisation, they may direct that person to other forms of support. However, if the panel decides there’s a clear risk, they can offer targeted individual support – particularly important support being mental health/counselling and theological/ideological mentoring by a specialist mentor.

Participation is voluntary and once a person leaves the support programme their case is reviewed at 6 months and 12 months.

Religious & Political Extremism in Wales

During 2016-17 (xls) there were 265 referrals in Wales under the Prevent Strategy – 4.5% of the EnglandandWales total and an increase of 79% compared to 2015-16 – the only part of EnglandandWales to see a rise. No reason is given for this sudden and dramatic increase.

27% of referrals in Wales were for people under the age of 15 and just under half of the referrals were aged under 20. 43 of the 265 cases (16.2% of referrals) were discussed at a Channel panel and 28 people (10.6% of referrals) ended up receiving Channel support.

85.7% of referrals in Wales were male and 14.3% female. 86% of those who went on to receive Channel support were also male.

70.6% of Prevent referrals in Wales were for Islamist concerns and 24.5% for far-right extremism. Equal proportions of suspected Islamists and far-right extremists in Wales were later referred to Channel support (46.4%). Only two English regions had more far-right extremists referred to Channel than Islamists – the south west of England and north east of England.

What could an independent Wales do?

Civic, political and religious education – As usual, it all starts in the classroom. The sort of attitudes which lead to political and religious extremism need be broken as early as possible. As a significant proportion of Prevent referrals are under-15s, it makes sense to start discussing things like extreme politics and religious extremism as early as age 11/12 and possibly even in late primary school.

Identifying those vulnerable to radicalisation as early as possible – The simplest thing to do would be to continue the Prevent Strategy and Channel support as it currently is and including it as part of school staff training (if it isn’t already). Whether it has to be tweaked (i.e. to make participation compulsory, or to move radicalised children to residential centres/de-programming centres or pupil referral units) is a matter for debate.

Deal with the root causes of extremism – This could include: providing adequate mental health services (particularly for men), providing more “real life” social opportunities for young people so they don’t become socially isolated (i.e. widening access to sports and the arts), clamping down on bullying in schools, encouraging inclusive civic Welsh patriotism (i.e. St David’s Day national holiday, ensuring a Welsh head of state can come from any background), proper and appropriate press and social media regulation, travel bans for extremist ring-leaders/recruiting sergeants (i.e. radical clerics and far-left/far-right personalities) and addressing both poverty and direct and indirect forms of discrimination.

Correctly balancing national security with civil liberties – Some people reading this may not like the idea of Wales having a security service or special forces at all, but there’s no doubt they’ll have to be used at some point. I went into this in more detail in Defending Wales VII, but the use of special forces and counter-terrorism tools could come with caveats including no secret trials, no extended detention without a court order, no secret evidence etc.

The proscription of extremist religious and political groups – As mentioned in Defending Wales, a Welsh equivalent of the Home Secretary could have the power to outlaw being a member of, fundraising for or indicating support for certain organisations that are a direct and credible threat to the Welsh way of life. The key legal test (to prevent clampdowns on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly) would be “incitement” – does an organisation actively promote or want to cause harm to Wales, its citizens or its allies? If the answer is yes, then it’s probably a good candidate for proscription. Evidence would need to be provided to justify it (i.e. speeches, recruitment material).

Make it difficult, if not impossible, for cults to operate in Wales – There’s one particular litigation-happy cult I would be more than glad to see lose its status as a “religion” in an independent Wales. It doesn’t have a big presence here admittedly and it’s probably on its last legs globally. Like those believed to be (or proven to be) members of a proscribed organisation, cult members could be banned from applying for public service jobs, running for election or joining political parties (similar to practices in Germany). People fleeing cults could also be eligible to apply for asylum while travel bans could be put in place for key figures. Cults and companies connected to them could also be denied charitable status – none of this would impact a person’s freedom of religion.