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Politicising Dissent: Michael Gove’s New Extremist Definition is ‘an Attack on Civil Liberties’

The head of community engagement at MEND responds to the Government classifying the organisation as ‘extremist’

Michael Gove. Photo: AP/Alamy

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The new definition of extremism announced by the Communities Secretary Michael Gove today is a blatant attack on civil liberties and free speech.

We believe this new definition is a highly politicised and undemocratic polemic aimed at trying to exclude and ostracise peaceful and law-abiding Muslim organisations that have been critical of the government from having a voice. Labelling a group that is critical of Government policy as ‘extremist’ is a lazy and convenient way of avoiding dialogue. It is a tactic more suited to authoritarian repressive regimes stifling dissent rather than a pluralistic Western democracy silencing those exposing UK Government complicity in the Gaza ‘plausible genocide’ as designated by the International Court of Justice.

The new definition is ;

Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 

  1. negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or
  2. undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or
  3. intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).

Under (1) none of the aforementioned organisations have sought to negate the rights or freedoms of others, and we await to see the evidence upon which any of our organisations would meet this part of the definition. Indeed given the focus in the Government Press Release on “Islamist extremists” in Muslim communities, we expect that this part of the definition will be used to label Muslim groups exercising their democratic right to legitimate criticism and dissent as ‘promoting hatred’ and thus impacting on the freedoms of other groups.

Under (2), again none of the aforementioned organisations are seeking to replace the “UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy”. We note the manner in which  the definition has been introduced, deliberately avoiding any parliamentary scrutiny debate or criticism, is itself undermining our Parliamentary democracy.  

Under (3) it is clear that the context for this new ‘anti-extremism’ drive emanates from the Government’s perspective from recent rises in antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate.  


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Moreover, we have to consider whether the Government’s own track record of ‘extremist’ policies has created this ‘permissive environment’ where hate crime is flourishing.

The Government has a long history of racist and Islamophobic policies including the Windrush Scandal, the ‘hostile environment’ and the discredited Prevent Strategy. More recently senior Conservative MPs have made blatantly racist and Islamophobic comments. The former Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Lee Anderson stated that ‘Islamists’ had ‘got control’ of the London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said “the truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now.”

The former Prime Minister, Liz Truss spoke at a right-wing conference in the US and said “there’s going to be by-election in the next few weeks, and it could be a radical Islamic party win in that by-election. So that is a possibility.” It thus appears that such comments by senior Conservative MPs are driven by a hatred or intolerance of people from the Muslim community, and thus would fall foul of this definition.  

Gove himself has a long track record of Islamophobic views and associations. He is a founding member of the Henry Jackson Society which is neo-Conservative think tank that has promoted an anti-Muslim agenda over many years. Despite having no expertise in Islam, Islamic theology or history he authored a book called Celsius 7/7 published in 2006  in which he highlighted the threat of “Islamism” in Britain.

He led the government’s role in ‘The Trojan Horse’ affair. This falsely accused a number of schools in Birmingham of an ‘Islamist takeover’ on the back of a fake letter , perpetuating Islamophobic tropes of Muslims being a ‘fifth column’ and a threat to British democracy. Subsequent inquiries found no evidence of radicalisation in these schools. Given his own ‘extremist’ credentials, for him to be lecturing others as to who is or is not an extremist is an example of rank hypocrisy, and there would appear to be a persuasive argument that he is also an extremist on his own definition!

The Government’s proposals have been criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and remarkably also by three former Conservative Home Secretaries warning him that  “no political party uses the issue to seek short term tactical advantage.”  This indicates that Michael Gove’s policies appear to be ‘extremist ‘even within his own party.

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Gove stated in the commons that “Islamism is a totalitarian ideology which seeks to divide, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia law and seeks the overthrow of liberal democratic principles”, and added “Organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain, which is the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups such as CAGE and MEND, all give rise to concern for their Islamist orientation and views.”

We challenge him to provide the evidence to back up his view that the organisations above have called for the establishment of an ‘Islamic state governed by sharia law’. Of course, he has made these comments under the cover of parliamentary privilege and we call upon him to repeat these claims outside of that, if that is what he truly believes.

In a General Election year, and noting their dismal opinion poll ratings, it is clear that Gove and the Conservative party want to demonstrate their ‘anti-Muslim’ credentials to head off mass defections to the Reform Party and appeal to a far-right electorate. Defining extremism requires a calm, measured and cross-party approach and should not be used as a political football to target marginalised groups.

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