The British government has appointed Sara Khan, a veteran counter-extremism campaigner, to head up its new “Commission for Countering Extremism,” much to the objections of Islamist organizations.
The commission is charged with advising the government on new policies, publicly challenging different forms of extremism and promoting “pluralist British values.”
Khan is the co-founder and CEO of Inspire, a Muslim women’s counter extremism organization. Since 2008, Inspire has run counter-extremism programs, conducted media campaigns, trained teachers and organized conferences on gender equality in Islam. Khan has over a decade of experience in the field and is widely respected for her many achievements.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd described Ms Khan as “expertly qualified,” saying she “will bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the Commission which will prove vital as it works to identify and challenge extremism and provide independent advice to the Government.”
Rudd also underscored her commitment to stamping out extremism. “This Government will not stand by and allow the menace of extremism to undermine the fundamental, pluralistic values which underpin our society.”
Khan has pledged as her first act to undertake a comprehensive review of the “scale, influence and reach” of extremism in the United Kingdom. She pledged to both listen to counter-extremism campaigners and victims in building an accurate picture.
Some in the Muslim community hit back against her appointment, in part due to Khan’s outspoken support for the government’s counter-extremism program, PREVENT . Founders of the Muslim Women’s Collective Bushra Wasty and Sulekha Hassan wrote a wary op-ed in The Guardian calling on Khan to avoid making Muslims the focus of counter-extremism efforts and take care to consider “Islamophobia.” As a Muslim herself, Khan will no doubt already be attuned to the need to avoid increasing anti-Muslim bigotry.
Other groups, mainly Islamist-linked organizations and their apologists, went further and demanded Khan be sacked.
“We believe that this appointment will further damage relations between the Government and Muslim communities,” the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Muslim Council of Britain said in a joint letter with Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). “We have no confidence in this appointment and are concerned that Muslim communities will refuse to liaise with Ms Khan, thereby defeating the purpose of her appointment to the role.
“We call upon the Government to reverse this decision with immediate effect.”
Four MPs pulled out of a House of Commons event meeting with MEND in October 2017 over the group’s reputation for dismissing terrorism and hostility to Jews.
More than 100 Muslim organizations signed a petition calling on the government to fire her. Those calling for her dismissal included Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation, who previously campaigned to have counter-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz struck off from the Liberal Democrat party after retweeting a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed saying hi to one another.
But despite the ill treatment she received, Khan remained dignified and optimistic.
“I recognise the scale of the challenge we face in confronting extremism and I am deeply committed to this role,” Ms. Khan said in a statement accepting the position. “I will create a Commission that is forthright in challenging extremism in the name of our shared values, fundamental freedoms and human rights. To those in our country who recognize the harm and threat extremism continues to pose in our society, I am eager to collaborate and engage.
“I extend my hand out to you to work with me in supporting the Commission’s work in building a Britain that defends our diverse country while demonstrating zero tolerance to those who promote hate and who seek to divide us.”
However, Khan has received wholehearted support from organizations interested in tackling extremism.
“Many of those who claim to speak for Muslims do not like Khan because she promotes a positive message,” said the National Secular Society, which opposes the undue influence of religion in public life, in a piece slamming the media for undue criticism of Khan. “She encourages a degree of integration into British society. She says Muslims should obey the same laws as everyone else and cooperate with the British state. She has called for honesty among Muslims about hateful ideologies and intolerant practices which are specific to, or particularly prominent among, those who share their religion.”
Sir Barney White-Spunner, a retired general who commanded some of Britain’s forces during the Iraq War went further, saying “By appointing Sara Khan, the Government has shown that it is finally taking Islamic extremism seriously.”
Khan’s tenure could see the British government take a far more robust line against extremism than it has done in the past.