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White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism
Home Secretary Theresa May spoke at a summit on violent extremism in Washington DC, organised by the White House and US Department of State.
Good afternoon Mr Chairman and thank you for the opportunity to intervene in this important debate.
It is very good to see that so many countries from around the world are represented here today because it shows how determined we are to address the significant threat that we all face.
I would like to make four brief points. First, about the nature of the threat.
Of course it goes without saying that the precise nature of the threat will vary from country to country, but the scale of today’s event shows us that this is now something that affects us all.
We only have to think back a few years to the threat we faced from Al Qaeda, which was often described as ‘something that was happening overseas’, or just dismissed as ‘someone else’s’ problem.
At the same time more and more countries have faced the reality of home-grown threats from individual citizens radicalised and inspired to commit acts of terrorism in their own countries.
And now we are all here because these threats have culminated in the most potent form yet - that of ISIL and its so-called caliphate.
So if the nature of the threat has changed in its sophistication, reach and impact, how must our response change?
We must ensure our response is comprehensive, has impact and is relevant to audiences the world over.
In fact it is vital that our response is clear and consistent at home and abroad, because there is no longer any distinction between domestic and international when it comes to radicalisation, the communications methods used by the terrorists, and the threats we all face.
And this leads me to my second point - that it is not good enough just to focus on the violent end of the spectrum.
We must address the whole spectrum of extremism, and that applies to our communications response as much as anything else.
What I mean by that is it is no good just focusing communications at dealing with terrorism alone - its must address all forms of extremism: non-violent or violent, extremism based on cultural norms and extremism driven by ideology, Islamist extremism or neo-Nazi extremism.
It also means that the response isn’t just about delivering a ‘counter-narrative’. It’s about promoting a whole set of positive values that define who we are and what we stand for.
In promoting the values we believe in, we can set the boundaries and limits of the extremist arguments - on our terms, not theirs.
Extremists often talk about a ‘them’ and ‘us’ - often described as a war between the West and Islam - and we do not challenge that successfully or often enough.
Promoting the values we believe in will allow us to define the ‘them’ and ‘us’ on our terms - where the ‘us’ is made up of the overwhelming majority of people united behind pluralistic values and driven by a proud and positive agenda.
And the ‘them’ can remain the tiny core of angry zealots who want to destroy our societies and dictate to everybody how they should lead their lives.
Which leads me to my third point - which is that we will only succeed in communicating these important messages if we work in partnership, a partnership made up of government, civil society and industry.
Effective counter-narratives should of course be communicated by voices closest to the audiences we need to reach. They should be authentic and carry weight.
This is often the domain of people and organisations in civil society - but it cannot be done by them alone. They need our help.
For government, we can put communications expertise at the disposal of the right people and organisations in civil society.
In the UK, we have supported a number of important communications campaigns. We give people access to a range of experts and advice. We make sure civil society groups have access to the right tools at the right time to communicate their messages.
This is particularly true when it comes to social media expertise.
But much of that social media expertise exists not in government or even in civil society but in industry.
And the volume of terrorist and extremist material online presents a serious challenge for internet and social media companies.
That is why we must make sure the internet industry plays its part in the partnership too.
All companies should take a zero-tolerance approach to the use of their systems by extremists.
I firmly believe that they have a social responsibility to ensure that their platforms are not being abused for extremist or terrorist purposes.
And I’m pleased to see that the main players from the internet industry are all present at this conference today.
I started this short intervention talking about the changing nature of the threat and how our response must change alongside it.
Which leads me to my fourth and final point.
If we only look back a few years to the threats we faced before the emergence of ISIL - just imagine what could happen in the next few years if we don’t act now.
Imagine how the ISIL threat may yet transform into something even more grotesque and inhumane - or more powerful with greater capability and reach - if we don’t take action now.
There is simply no choice - none of us can leave here today thinking that as long as it is done by someone else then it will all be ok.
Equally we cannot think that if we get this right in our own countries then the job will be done.
The extraordinary nature of the threat posed requires an extraordinary response.
It must be international in reach, unprecedented in scale and immediate.
So my final message is we need to act, we need to act together, and we need to act now.
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