Countering radicalisation: Rethinking the role of communities

By Hilary Pilkington, The University of Manchester

On 4 June, Home Secretary Sajid Javid launched the government's  Strategy for Countering Terrorism making ‘stronger partnerships with communities, civil society groups, public sector institutions and industry' the corner stone of the preventative (Prevent) strand of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy. The Greater Manchester Commission on Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Social Cohesion – established after the MEN Arena attack in Manchester on 22 May 2017 – also included in its remit the aim ‘to develop a distinctive community-led Greater Manchester approach to challenging hateful radicalisation’. Its final report will be published at the end of July.

Why are communities suddenly at the forefront of policy-makers’ minds in preventing radicalisation leading to violent extremism?

The UK Prevent strategy is often understood to be part of the problem rather than the solution since it contributes to the construction of Muslim populations as ‘suspect communities’ (Pantazis and Pemberton, 2009; Awan, 2012; Breen-Smyth, 2014; Choudhury and Fenwick, 2011; Kundnani, 2014; Kapoor, 2018; Acik et al., 2018; Hussain and Meer, 2018). So is this policy shift a way to get individuals to spy on each other as push-back to Prevent continues? Or an attempt to responsibilize communities for problems in the operational processes of MI5 and the police prior to the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester of March-June 2017 (Anderson, 2017)? Possibly. But there are also opportunities here. Community engagement, if properly valued and supported rather than exploited for its PR benefits, could not only help agencies seeking to prevent terrorist attacks but provide space for communities to highlight, and demand action on, the root causes of violent extremism. Evidence from current research with young people affected by radicalisation discourse and counter-terrorism policies, suggests that – notwithstanding their healthy scepticism about government policy - there is an appetite for engagement.

Our recently completed research with young Muslims in the UK as part of the H2020 PROMISE project[1] confirmed that Prevent procedures are perceived as reinforcing the association of Muslims with terrorism and stigmatsing Muslim communities (Acik and Pilkington, 2018). However, the study – which focused on young people’s responses to stigmatisation – also revealed that the securitisation of society and politics was experienced particularly as the denial of entitlement to talk. Research participants felt nervous about what they said, afraid that organisations they participated in might be infiltrated or fearful that getting involved in community counter-radicalisation work would lead to accusations of being extremists themselves. In short, ‘We can’t speak about terrorism without being attacked, for being terrorists.’  The result is young Muslims feel excluded from the discussion of key issues driving extremism and interpret negative media coverage, or social media abuse, of young Muslim activists as being consciously designed ‘to scare people into silence’. However, while Prevent (and the wider discourse of the war on terror) contributes to the stigmatisation of young Muslims, at the same time, as one research participant put it, ‘it gets them to mobilise’. For some this means participating in targeted ‘prevent Prevent’ campaigns or protest actions but for many more it is expressed  in charity work, volunteering, educational and social activities that aim to counter negative images of Islam and re-present Islam in a positive way.

While the structural forms of exclusion underpinning their experiences should not be equated, it is nonetheless worth noting that these feelings of being denied the right to voice their opinions expressed by young Muslims participating in the study bear a striking resemblance to the sentiments expressed by young activists in the English Defence League (EDL), with whom I had conducted ethnographic research previously[2].  That study showed EDL activists experienced the political realm as a politics of silencing in which the expression of their views was prohibited by the application of the ‘racism label’ (Pilkington, 2016: 220). Feeling themselves silenced by constraints on legitimate issues for discussion and marginalised, through class position, from the formal political realm, they learned that it was best to 'keep your mouth shut'. In this context, the EDL, offered them alternative ways to claim political voice, manifest primarily in participation in street demonstrations where they could stand ‘loud and proud’.  While for those on the receiving end of the abusive chanting and national flag waving,  this social activism is intimidating, for young activists it felt like the only means  of ‘being heard’. Moreover, as for the young Muslim activists mobilising against Prevent, EDL activists were motivated in part at least by the desire to resist media representations and public perceptions, which, in their case, caricatured and ridiculed them as racist, thuggish, drunken and uneducated (ibid.: 57). This positioning, and the response to it, is encapsulated in the movement’s core slogan, ‘Not racist, not violent, just no longer silent’.

This is an uncomfortable comparison of course and it is important to note that the young people in the PROMISE project were not participating in any form of ‘extremist’ activism; they were selected for study as young people overcoming stigmatisation to become socially involved. Indeed, both these studies were concerned with questions of youth participation - not radicalisation. However, their findings have been important in shaping our current research for the DARE (Dialogue about Radicalisation and Equality) project.[3]  That young people want to voice their views  - be it on UK foreign policy or the failure of institutions to respond appropriately to organised Child Sexual Exploitation -  without being prejudged or accused of complicity in extremism, underpins the DARE project’s social approach to the study of radicalisation. By this we mean research that focuses not on profiles or pathways to terrorism but on how radicalisation discourse, messages and encounters affect everyday lives. This approach does not dismiss radicalisation as another stick with which to beat already beleaguered communities but recognises that the vast majority of people who encounter those messages are not radicalised and those who hold radical ideas do so, often temporarily, without ever contemplating violent acts.

While the DARE research is in its early phase of data gathering, it has found initial evidence that young people in both Islamist and extreme right influenced environments seek dialogue. In some cases, talking with peers has been crucial to cutting short radicalisation pathways. One research participant, angry about the suffering of fellow Muslims in Syria, explained how friends with whom he had shared his feelings had been key in talking him down from thoughts about leaving for Syria (Ryan, 2018). In other cases, dialogue with oppositional voices is sought. A research participant involved since 2015 in movements widely considered to be far right, called for an initiative that ‘sat us – right wingers, Islamists, left wingers – sat us down round a table and spoke about it’. Both these young men also saw communities as central to addressing radicalisation. For the first, the mosque is one of the best places to talk to young people about radicalisation. For the latter such a place was missing, but necessary, in his community: ‘I think every community should have a little centre you could go every month… a certain place in the community, just sit there, as a community, tell them what’s going on’. 

‘Radicalisation’ is a politically charged, potentially divisive, discourse and engaging in ‘radicalisation’ research does not sit easily with sociologists. Their instinct for critical thinking propels them towards positions which see the study of radicalisation as a government-funded industry in which academics become complicit in stigmatising Muslim populations while ignoring the policies that fuel their anger and alienation. By adopting a social approach to the study of radicalisation, the DARE research project aims to shift the agenda away from individual ‘pathologies’ and help create the space and time for people to talk about grievance, structural inequalities and alienation from power structures – the profoundly social issues that security-focused radicalisation research shy away from. Evidence to date from our research suggests that discussion of diverse and often contentious views on what those causes are will make for tough conversations but feeling denied the space for such discussion can itself be a driver of radicalisation. From this perspective current shifts in emphasis towards community engagement in counter-terrorism policy offer an opportunity – for communities to stand up to stigmatisation, engage in dialogue and to show their strength and resilience not only in picking up the pieces after terrorist attacks but in safe-guarding each other in a way that makes their occurrence less likely.


Acik, N. and Pilkington, H. (2018) Youth mobilisations of ‘suspect communities’, Deliverable Report for H2020 PROMISE Project. Available at:

Anderson, D. (2017) Attacks in London And Manchester (March-June 2017):  Independent Assessment Of MI5 and Police Internal Reviews. Available at:

Awan, I. (2012) ‘“I am a Muslim not an extremist”: How the Prevent Strategy has constructed a “suspect” community’, Politics & Policy, 40 (6): 1158-85.

Breen-Smyth, M.  (2014)Theorising the “Suspect Community”: Counterterrorism, Security Practices and the Public Imagination’, Critical Studies on Terrorism 7 (2): 22340.

Choudhury, T. and Fenwick, H. (2011) The impact of counter-terrorism measures on Muslim Communities, Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 72.  Available at:

GMCA (2018) 'Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Social Cohesion', Available at:

HM Government (2018) CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism (Revised June 2018). Available at:

Hussain, A. and Meer, N (2018) 'Fundamental British Values and Muslim Identity in Public Life', Discover Society, 1 May 20108. Available at:

Kapoor, N. (2018) Deport, Deprive, Extradite: 21st Century State Extremism, London: Verso.

Kundnani, A. (2014) The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, London and New York: Verso.

Pantazis, C. and Pemberton, S. (2009) ‘From the “old” to the “new” suspect community: Examining the impacts of recent UK counter-terrorist legislation’, British Journal of Criminology, 49 (5): 646–66.

Pilkington, H. (2016) Loud and Proud: Passion and Politics in the English Defence League, Manchester: Manchester University Press. Available at:;keyword=manchester%20university%20press

Ryan, (2018) ‘Why does a person become radicalised? That's the million dollar question’, The, 13 March 2018. Available at:

[1] The PROMISE project is funded under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, Grant Agreement no. 693221. Researchers on the study cited here were Necla Acik and Hilary Pilkington. See:

[2] This research was undertaken as part of the MYPLACE project funded under the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7-266831).  See:

[3] This research is funded from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 725349. UK field researchers are Ajmal Hussain and Hilary Pilkington. See: