Charlotte Littlewood is the Counter Extremism Coordinator for an area of East London that ranks as one of the highest at-risk areas in the country to radicalization and extremism. She spent two years delivering on the Prevent strategy, helping safeguard individuals from radicalization, which involved working on cases that prevented whole families from leaving to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. Now, as a part of her role as Counter Extremism Coordinator, she has developed and is leading on delivering a programme that looks to empower young people to speak out against extremism online: the Arts Against Extremism Programme.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is counterterrorism? What is counterextremism?
Charlotte Frances Littlewood: Counterterrorism is countering violent extremism; when acts of violence are committed on behalf of a political and/or religious ideology. The UK government tackles terrorism through its CONTEST strategy that can be broken down into four subsections, Protect, Pursue, Prevent and Prepare. Let’s take Protect as an example: Protect aims to strengthen key infrastructures to better withstand an attack, for example, in the borough I work for, we have large concrete plant pots bordering the longest market street in London, these are there to protect from a potential vehicular attack. With regard to counter terrorism my expertise is in Prevent, which aims to prevent vulnerable individuals from being drawn into terrorism or becoming terrorists, it means working in local government in collaboration with the community safety team to safeguard these individuals from harming themselves and others.
Counter extremism is countering non-violent extremism. Extremism is that which opposes democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. For example if one was to create a parallel legal system that enforced illegal cultural practices such as female genital mutilation both the rule of law and ones right to individual liberty would be opposed. Therefore we are not just discussing Islamist and Far-Right extremism here, we’re talking about honor killings, FGM, homophobia, Islamophobia; everything that falls under something that goes against our values of tolerance, respect, equality – essentially human rights.
The strategy, for which I now lead on for my Borough, can also be broken into four strands. Building the capacity of community groups that work to build cohesion and/or directly tackle hate and prejudice; increasing the reach of community groups that do the above; tackling the extremist narrative and opposing extremist groups. In my borough I have developed a programme using Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund money to do all the above. The Arts Against Extremism programme uses local community organisations to empower a group of young people to speak out on issues that affect them. These groups are paid for their contribution whilst also being able to share the platform with the participants to allow for their work to also gain greater reach. The messages that the participants disseminate are all ones of countering the manifestations of extremism they are learning about (homophobia, Islamophobia, FGM, sectarianism, Islamism and the far right) as well as putting out positive messages of shared values. Essentially we are flooding the online space, which is sadly predominantly dominated by negative content, with positive messaging, whilst also empowering local organisations that counter extremism and building resilience in both that participants and the community to extremist messaging. The programme launches this week with Hibo Wardere, a victim of FGM, speaking on her life and work, so do follow the hashtag ‘ArtsAgainstExtremism’ and our facebook page.
Jacobsen: What is Quilliam?
Littlewood: Quilliam is a counterterrorism think tank. It researches the drivers of radicalisation and runs campaigns, programmes and outreach to tackle radicalisation at its root. Some of their work is used to inform how we inderstand radicalisation but otherwise it is completely separate. They are an independent think tank whereas I am a government employee.
Jacobsen: What has been a big success in the government work of identifying extremism and countering it?
Littlewood: So, I would suggest that the government’s work in identifying extremist narratives is ongoing [Laughing]. Its biggest success has been in shifting perspectives on how we challenge extreme harmful cultural practices, tackling FGM being a prime example. It has been a slow progress of getting people to understand that there are actual ills and problems coming out of certain cultures because there is a real sense that when you push against a cultural practice then you’re being culturally imperialistic. It has taken victims to these practices, born out of the cultures that propagate them, taking a stand against the practice.
Again I would point you towards Hibo Wardere, she really is a wonderful example of how perspectives can be shifted to understand something as harmful and therefore necessary to oppose. She is an anti-FGM activist who went through FGM in Somalia. Now, she goes all over the world talking about how FGM isn’t a part of her religion and is a cultural practice, how harmful it is, how it is a human rights abuse and how we can work with the communities who continue to practice it to make a change. Initially her community hated her and countering FGM was considered to be interfering with religion. Now we see many of her community, especially locally, working with her and an increasing awakening to the harms of FGM. It is her passion, personal experience, knowledge and relationship with her community that has allowed her to make this kind of success in tackling extremism.
Now people are starting to get behind tackling some really intolerable and disgusting practices, even if they might be attached to a culture. So, positive voices from the culture are really important and having people like myself who understand that and have the ability to support and platform those voices are all part of ensuring we can be as effective as possible in tackling hate, prejudice and harm.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your time, Charlotte.
Image Credit: Charlotte Frances Littlewood.