This article appears in the Witness section of the Spring 2018 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

After the Manchester arena bombing last May – one of five terrorist attacks in Britain in 2017 – Theresa May launched plans for a new Commission for Countering Extremism, a body to be tasked with identifying and challenging “all forms of extremism”, advising ministers on new policies and promoting “pluralistic British values”.

In January, Sara Khan, the co-founder of the anti-extremism group Inspire, was announced as its head. The decision was controversial. While Khan has many supporters, others feel she is too closely aligned to the government’s existing Prevent strategy. Inspire was funded by Prevent, which for many British Muslims is anathema. Former Conservative chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi summed up this criticism when she tweeted: “For the commissioner to be effective the person has to be an independent thinker, both connected to and respected by a cross-section of British Muslims. Sara is sadly seen by many as simply a creation of and mouthpiece for the Home Office.”

Others insist that this characterisation is unfair. In a review of her book The Battle for British Islam in the Autumn 2017 New Humanist, Jeremy Rodell suggested that her critics may not have read “the sections which criticise the government’s crass communications to Muslim communities, its unwillingness to view social cohesion other than through an anti-terrorism lens, and her fears that proposed new counter-extremism measures will feed the victim narrative and violate human rights”.

If nothing else, the controversy over Khan demonstrates how toxic the Prevent label has become. Years of infringement on civil liberties and a severe lack of transparency about the parameters of the programme have fed a sense that one rule exists for Muslim Britons and another for everyone else – particularly when it comes to freedom of speech. It is difficult to see how any truly productive counter-extremism work can be done under this banner – and it is a banner that Khan is closely associated with.

Yet the debate over Khan’s merits as an individual has overshadowed fundamental questions about the best approach for tackling terrorism. The connection between someone engaging with extremist ideas and committing an act of violence is far from clear; some people can espouse radical Islamist ideology for a lifetime without becoming violent. There is certainly very little evidence that governments can accurately identify, based only on people’s opinions, who will go on to commit an act of terror. The idea of the “pre-criminal space” is common in policy circles – a space occupied by those vulnerable to radicalisation. It now appears to be accepted that this is where government should be focusing its attention.

“In the past of course we had legislation that made it a criminal offence to be a terrorist, but for the first time now, we have legislation saying it’s a criminal offence to be an extremist,” Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, told New Humanist in 2016. “You can, under criminal law, find your bank account shut down, find yourself removed from the country, find yourself unable to function in British society. Let’s be honest about that. That’s criminalising people for their opinions.”

With the establishment of the commission on counter-extremism – regardless of who is at its helm – the government appears to be doubling down on this approach.