Six lessons in humanity from Virgin Disruptors

Sara Khan is a human rights activist and director of non-governmental advocacy organisation Inspire, which she co-founded in 2009. Her appearance at the recent Virgin Disruptors event touched upon some incredibly emotive and important topics...

What you will learn from reading this article:

  • The politics of fear is contributing to closed societies
  • There is a need to defend the political middle ground
  • Ignoring the elephant in the room only contributes to the rise of populist politics

Politics as we know it is changing, says Sara Khan, whose organisation Inspire goes into schools, delivering training sessions and creating online and offline content geared at targeting extremism in all its forms: "The traditional days or left and right are slowly being replaced with what are often termed as 'open' and 'closed' societies." Here are her suggestions for dealing with extremism.

The rise of extreme political views

"In the US and across Europe the politicians we often see who have greatest momentum are those whose rhetoric is nationalist, populist, anti-diversity and anti-establishment," she says, "from Donald Trump in the US, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Marine Le Pen in France, the propaganda is the same and many politicians are simply pandering to voters by engaging in the politics of fear; of the other, of us versus them."

Read: How one man is pushing back the tide on ocean plastic

This vision of a closed society, of a building walls and burning of bridges, instead of building them, is contributing to a politics of fear, Khan believes, "Who could forget when Michael Gove said during the EU Referendum campaign, that 'People in this country have had enough of experts…'? It would appear we have had enough of facts as well, that we’d rather be driven by our emotions."

The new political faultlines centre on immigration, identity politics, security, globalisation and Islam, Khan explains. She believes that the political centre ground is under threat but that also, "so is the wider ground that advocates the shared value and a common humanity. Each and every one of us who cares about the small planet we have to live on together, has a responsibility in challenging the politics of fear and we do it to protect the middle ground."

We need safe dialogue

Khan believes that within this there needs to be a frank and open discussion about Islam. "People should be able to have the dialogue without the fear of being called an Islamophobe or worry that we might cause offence. I have seen for far too long, many important discussions closed down and it does little to serve anybody." She adds, "We have gone into schools and delivered sessions and people have not attended because they’re scared of the subject matter. How are we going to educate our kids if people are too scared to engage?"

There are positive trends emerging

On the one hand, says Khan, we’re seeing a "positive, vibrant trend among young British Muslims, breaking the boundaries and excelling in all fields, in music, art, politics, fashion and drama. They’re perfectly comfortable in their roles as Muslims and Westerners. This is a positive trend that we need to cultivate." But, she says, there is also a rise of conservative and negative views, and worse. And this remains unchallenged in some quarters. Ignoring the elephant in the room, says Khan, "serves nobody. Because nobody’s talking about the elephant except the populist politicians."

Anti-Muslim rhetoric undermines the struggle

The truth is that many Muslims also sense a rising hostility. Khan cites a YouGov survey which suggests that 55 per cent of British voters believed there was a fundamental clash between Islam and British values. "The situation is a lot more nuanced than that," says Khan, "but the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is so common today, is undermining those at the front line battling extremism."

Khan advocates changing attitudes at an individual, school, civil society and business level: "We can all play a very small but significant role. If we come across hate-filled views, challenge them." She mentions sites such as, which can make a huge difference in getting awareness out there. She says, "I fundamentally believe schools should be at the forefront of teaching about human rights but we have to lobby hard for this. We need to invest and build an inclusive online and offline society that sells its own brand, its own message. The idea that we believe in the politics of hope, in shared values and the common humanity and we talk about that and promote an alternative."

Civil society needs better branding

There’s an image issue too. "Britain First has more than 1.5m likes on Facebook," Khan says, "There is no civil society counter-movement with that many likes, promoting a positive counter-message. That tells you about the scale of the problem." She adds, "If you look back at how we dealt with far-right extremists in this country, we recognised it was the wrong thing to do and it became an issue of political correctness. I am offended if we don’t challenge things. Anyone advocating the dehumanisation of others, should be called out and we shouldn’t feel that we can’t challenge them."

Khan believes that one of the problems is that the discourse has shifted away from racism and towards Islamophobia. "I try and tell people not to allow themselves to be defined by this. We live in a country that lets us break glass ceilings. Don’t buy into the anti-Muslim bigotry or extremist rhetoric. It’s about saying 'fight for your own path'."

Early intervention is key

Inspire’s work, says Khan, "is so much about early intervention. When you’re dealing with young people, they just need to hear a counter-argument. It’s making a difference but at the moment we’re only scratching the surface. There’s so much work to be done and this is the sort of work that needs to be invested in. So many businesses invest in philanthropy and foundations so why not invest in something that’s really going to have an impact?"

If you joined us in London and would like to share your highlights and how you've been inspired to make a change in your world, drop us an email on with the subject Virgin Disruptors 2016.

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