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A Crime to Promote Ideas that Offend Conservative Ministers? The Government’s Changing Definition of Extremism

The proposed change to the definition of extremism risks tipping society into a dystopian political space, argues Adeeb Ayton

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The Government has concocted a new definition of extremism as part of an upcoming plan for promoting “national cohesion”.

According to reports, it will treat as ‘extremist’ anyone who undermines the UK’s institutions and values.

Great concern has been expressed by human rights groups that this proposed change marks the latest, and most serious, effort by the Government to restrict the right to free speech enjoyed by its critics.

To understand the impending danger, it is important to compare the subtle differences in wording that distinguish this proposed definition from the version currently in use.

The Government’s counter-terror strategy, Prevent, defines extremism as “the active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

While this definition too has received widespread criticism, the impending one appears to cast the net wider still, by asserting that: “Extremism is the promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values”.

The distinction between the two appears to centre on the term “active opposition” versus the “promotion or advancement of any ideology” that is seen as threatening to British institutions and values.

There is a difference between someone who is knowingly, actively, opposing Britain as a socio-political entity – and someone who is championing a cause they sincerely believe in, but who harbours no subversive intent.

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The danger, of course, is that the latter individual, or protest movement, may nevertheless be ensnared by this new definition if the state deems their ideas to be risky to the established order of things. Indeed, the proposed definition seems to have little to do with measures to pre-empt terrorism and appears to be much more concerned with protecting the status quo from criticism.

Anyone claiming that this is a cynical reading of intentions should consider how this Government has treated its critics, particularly their right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Take, for example, the recently enacted Public Order Act, which equips the Government with new powers to restrict the right to peaceful protest, including what it calls “slow walking tactics”. Individuals may be subject to a “protest banning order”, which will then see them barred from enjoining others to protest for a given cause.

It was condemned by a roster of officials and organisations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as Conservative peer Baroness Camilla Cavendish, who described it as “an affront to a civilised society.” JUSTICE, the law reform and human rights charity, argued that the Government’s thinking on this issue appears to be increasingly in harmony with that of authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia.

It is noteworthy that the Act was implemented following a wave of protests by environmentalist groups critical of the Government’s energy policies; and Black Lives Matter, which seeks to uproot what it frames as a systemic racism permeating Britain’s institutions.

But by reportedly rewriting the definition of extremism, this Government has its sights set on one group in particular: Muslim civil society.

Well-established outfits such as The Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Engagement and Development – the shared raison d’être of which is to represent British Muslim interests in the media and politics while combating the scourge of Islamophobia – are said to be ‘captured’ by the new definition.

The notion that the work done by these legitimate civil society groups risks toppling British institutions and dispelling British values is so absurd that it borders on parody.

Considering their well-established track records of campaigning for democratic participation among Muslims, which British institutions and values does this Government think these organisations are trying to overturn?

In the end, it is difficult to avoid the impression that these groups are regarded as anathema because they are critical of the Government’s methods to tackle violent extremism, particularly its Prevent strategy.


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Needless to say, this is not because they are opposed to fighting terrorism – but rather, it is because the evidence simply shows that Prevent is broken and significantly discriminates against Muslim communities. These concerns are shared by human rights giants such as Amnesty International (which recently authored a report on the topic) and the United Nations.

The Government is making this move at a time when it appears to have been caught off guard in recent weeks by hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest against Israel’s bombardment of the beleaguered Gaza Strip.

Senior officials have barely been able to contain their outrage towards ordinary people, particularly Muslims, for disagreeing with their policy toward Israel-Palestine.

The now former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, characterised the peaceful movement as “hate marches” and repeatedly called for them to be banned. The protests, which have included Jewish and LGBTQ+ groups, have been so alarming to Communities Secretary Michael Gove that he has reportedly requested £50 million in new funds to counter “radical ideologies” in Britain. A number of senior Conservatives demanded that a pro-Palestine march in London be forcefully prevented by the police because it coincided with Armistice Day, on 11 November – a position which was repudiated by the British Legion who instead defended the right to protest.

The Government’s proposed change to the definition of extremism risks tipping society into a kind of dystopian political space in which it is a crime to promote ideas that offend the sensibilities of senior Conservative ministers. Yet, there is also an irony to all of this.

A fundamental part of the Government’s own definition of British Values is “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” – which includes political beliefs. This all begs the question: if this Government is attempting to muzzle those whose beliefs and positions do not align with its own, is it not then guilty of extremism under its own definition?

Adeeb Ayton is a senior policy analyst with Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND)

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