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Artillery Row

The problem with “extremism”

Violence and intimidation are deplorable, but can there be a clear definition of a concept as subjective as “extremism”?

In pre-internet times, “big stories” such as political scandals or foreign conflicts used to dominate the news cycle for weeks. Nowadays, in a climate of twenty-four hour rolling news, attention quickly moves on. With every journalist constantly striving to land the next Twitter scoop, serious events are rapidly forgotten, buried under a pile of “breaking” and “exclusive” trivia.

So it seems to be for the serious events that occurred in Westminster on 21st of February, when House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle overrode centuries of parliamentary procedure to protect Labour MPs who were facing threats from “extremists” over a vote on the situation in Gaza. This was against the backdrop of appalling protests outside the Palace of Westminster, attempts to “shut down Parliament” and the projection of genocidal slogans onto our iconic national monument, the Elizabeth Tower.

There are numerous remarkable and frankly shocking dimensions to this story. Consider the response in the UK to the appalling attacks on Israel by Hamas, where instead of an outpouring of sympathy for the victims of unimaginably evil acts, hundreds of thousands of anti-Israel activists flocked to the streets to berate the Jewish nation before it had made any military response. Or consider the scandal of the inadequate policing of demonstrations that has allowed racism and overt support for terrorists to go unchecked and central London to become a “no-go” area for British Jews. Or contemplate the disgraceful levels of intimidation by anti-semites and far left activists who (successfully) tried to hijack democracy by bullying MPs into bowing to their demands. I could go on.

However one looks at it, British democracy is under threat. Domestic divisions are now seriously undermining national and international security. As Suella Braverman claimed — and George Galloway’s election proves — multiculturalism has indeed failed. Yet the rolling news cycle seems to have moved on from this existential crisis with little discussion of what the future might hold or how we can tackle the very real threat of radical Islamists and the useful idiots who enable them.

While sections of the media might not be particularly interested in this situation, fortunately the Government is. Last week outside 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called attention to the challenges we face, saying:

In recent weeks and months, we have seen a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality. What started as protests on our streets, has descended into intimidation, threats, and planned acts of violence…The situation has gone on long enough and demands a response not just from government, but from all of us.

This statement was followed days later by a story in The Times setting out the Government’s plans to “broaden the definition of extremism as part of a crackdown on people and groups “undermining” Britain’s institutions and values.” It was reported that “A new definition, which is still being finalised, is expected to cover those whose actions more broadly “undermine” the country’s institutions or values.”

I admire the Prime Minister for seeking to address the issue while others bury their heads in the sand. However I am deeply concerned that these proposals will not only fail to tackle the real issues at hand, but could actually threaten fundamental democratic freedoms, in fact the very freedoms that violent Islamists and their enablers want to destroy.

In a democratic society with a plurality of beliefs and opinions it is surely impossible to establish robust legal definitions of terms such as “extremism”

In a democratic society with a plurality of beliefs and opinions it is surely impossible to establish robust legal definitions of terms such as “extremism” or “British values”. One man’s extremist is another man’s courageous champion of an unpopular cause. Many people claim that gender critical feminists are “extreme” in their belief that males should not be admitted to female spaces. Others claim trans rights activists are the real extremists with their fanatical views on the fluidity of gender. I think current attempts to legalise abortion to birth are “extreme”. Opposition politicians view the current government as “extreme”. William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and the Suffragettes were all considered “extremists” by many of their contemporaries.

Some people certainly do hold truly extraordinary, eccentric and even downright ridiculous views. But if we are to maintain fundamental individual freedoms such as freedom of speech, the State should only intervene on those with “extreme” beliefs when they cross the line into violence and intimidation. It is already a criminal offence to cause physical harm, incite violence, racially abuse, intimidate, harass and threaten (although there are serious questions for the police and CPS to answer over whether they are properly prosecuting these crimes).

In a free and democratic society it is foolish to detach the legal definition of “extremism” from violence and terrorism. If “extremist” opinions become illegal without manifesting as actual harm, then those who hold the pen on the legal definition of extremism acquire extraordinary powers to curtail free speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion. History teaches us that this is the slippery slope towards authoritarianism.

Consider the very recent example of those who criticised lockdown policies during the Covid pandemic. We now know that significant attempts were made to monitor the social media accounts of those who expressed such opinions. Unsurprisingly given the pro-lockdown propaganda broadcast by the mainstream media, those expressing these alternative views were widely considered to be “extremist”. If there had been legal sanctions available at the time to suppress this non-violent “extremism”, it seems likely that the Government would have used them. Yet as it turns out, the critics were right; lockdowns were both ineffective in containing the virus and catastrophically damaging. And, because UK laws did allow lockdown skeptics to express their views, to organise and to campaign and to retain positions in public life, eventually the message got through and the Government — mercifully — changed course.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is serious about tackling the current genuine threats to democracy. It is no easy task to turn the tide on the rise of antisemitism and intimidation on our streets and many of the factors that are contributing to the current crises are hugely challenging to address. But it is a mistake to think that attempts to define and prosecute “extremist” views and those who “undermine British values” can be targeted narrowly at Islamists (or indeed Nazis). In fact, recent unsuccessful attempts to legislate in this area in 2015 would suggest that this approach is pregnant with unintended consequences.  

Over the last decade there have been efforts — again in response to the threat of radical Islamism — to enforce British Values through the school system. But as anyone with any experience in education can testify, many schools and universities have been captured by the worst excesses of social justice ideology. Contested beliefs about sex, gender and race have taken precedence over biological and historical facts and teachers and pupils are frightened to express small “c” conservative views.

Or consider the “Prevent” counter-terrorism programme, which was introduced primarily to tackle Islamist terrorism by intervening at the first signs of radicalisation. In the year ending March 2022, just 16 per cent of referrals made to the programme were on the basis of concerns of Islamist radicalisation, despite the fact that around 90% of those on the MI5 watchlist are suspected Islamists. 

The Government may well intend to use an expanded definition of extremism to tackle radical Islamism, but the fact is that any new guidance will be administered by civil servants who may seek to use the rules asymmetrically to target anyone who challenges liberal progressivism. We have seen this play out with activists’ interpretation of the Equality Act which, instead of merely preventing bigoted discrimination, has led many working in the public sector to mistakenly believe that the law provides that men who identify as women must indeed be treated as women in every circumstance. 

The truth is that people are (understandably) afraid of upsetting radical Islamists in a way that they are not afraid of upsetting gender critical feminists or Christians or those with pro-life views. It follows that any apparently neutral guidance using vague and non-exhaustive definitions of extremism is in fact less likely to be applied to Islamist extremism than any other form of perceived “extremism”. In other words, it will fail to tackle those with dangerous intentions while having a chilling effect on those with harmless views. According to The Times, the Government’s plans are intended to prevent those connected to extremist organisations from receiving funding and from working with public bodies. But the danger is this will create a two tier society where some people who hold and express lawful opinions and practice their right to freedom of association are marginalised and prohibited from full participation in society. Chilling indeed.

In our attempt to preserve our freedom, we must not inadvertently abandon it

It may be the case that there are some gaps within our current legal framework. The Government should consider whether to proscribe more groups and restrict the funding of organisations by certain foreign entities. We certainly need a much more robust approach to the policing of excessive behaviours at protests and a zero tolerance policy on attempts to intimidate public figures. We must also face up to the challenges of a multicultural society and be honest about the fact that some cultures do not value the very freedoms that many believe are core to the British identity.

In 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron made a similar attempt to define extremism in the Counter Extremism Bill. Justifying his proposals, Cameron said, revealingly:

For too long we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law we will leave you alone.

Suffice to say, no Government of any persuasion should be pursuing citizens who obey the law. Fortunately, Cameron’s plans were dropped after robust objections from an unlikely but compelling alliance of campaigners ranging from the Christian Institute to Peter Tatchell. As Lord David Anderson KC, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorist Legislation who had a ringside seat in 2015 remarked:

When it comes to recommending new offences or other coercive measures, work with the grain of what is already there: just because extremism is a word does not mean that it is a useful legal concept.

In our attempt to preserve our freedom, we must not inadvertently abandon it. Attempting to define such nebulous terms as “extremism” and ‘British values’ will have a further chilling effect on those with lawful, conservative views. Instead we need to have the courage to take targeted action to punish and detain those who conspire to and commit offences that are already proscribed under existing laws. This will take sustained and determined effort from those in public office, long after our fickle media loses interest. 

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