LONDON — Imagine an environmentalist, a pro-life Catholic, a street preacher, an investigative journalist, and a peace activist all sitting in jail awaiting trial for the same offense — holding extreme views.
That’s exactly what a number of individuals and organizations fear Britain is heading toward, as Prime Minister Theresa May pushes ahead with plans to introduce a new anti-extremism commission, first announced this year in the Conservative Party manifesto for the general election. Commission members have yet to be revealed.
One may think it sounds like a good idea, following a series of appalling terrorism attacks in Manchester and London and revelations by British secret services that the actual number of suspected U.K. jihadists totals tens of thousands.
But what exactly does the prime minister and her government mean when they talk of “extremism”?
Simon Calvert, spokesman for the coalition campaign group Defend Free Speech, told the Register, “Outsourcing the impossible job of defining an extremist to some sort of statutory commission doesn’t resolve the central problem: that ‘extremist’ has become a term with no meaning.”
“It is a pejorative label used by those on one side of an argument to try to marginalize those on the other. Using it as a legal basis for draconian state action against citizens presents profound dangers to civil liberties, especially freedom of speech.”
The Defend Free Speech coalition is made up of a number of organizations, including the National Secular Society, Index on Censorship, The Christian Institute, and a number of individuals, including government minister David Davis, who is tasked with overseeing the U.K.’s exit from the European Union; Green Party leader Caroline Lucas; Conservative Member of Parliament Fiona Bruce; Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum; Lord Dear and Baroness Jones, both members of the House of Lords; and professor Timothy Garton Ash of Oxford University.
Britain’s New Secular Creed
The people of Britain had a new secular creed imposed in the form of “British values” devised by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011 and included in various government anti-terrorism strategies such as Prevent, which aims to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. It lays a responsibility upon staff in local governments, schools, the health service, universities, prisons and the police to implement the strategy, including referring individuals deemed “at risk” to a central referral point.
The public is told, based on government strategy documents, that extremism is the “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
But this is where critics are raising the questions: Who gets to decide what are and aren’t “British values,” and how much opposition is too much? What counts as “opposition”? Who gets to decide what tolerance looks like, and how is all of this monitored and enforced?
Human-rights advocate and former Member of the House of Lords David Alton told the Register, “The government has yet to come up with a consistent definition, and for good reason. As with our hate-speech laws, a lack of clear definition tends to give more power and discretion to a regulator.”
He contended that the government already has a police force, security services and law courts and that the anti-extremism commission should adopt a mediatory rather than quasi-judicial role.
The commission comes at a time when, according to a July opinion poll of just over 2,000 people, 54% said they don’t think labeling views “extreme” is helpful when discussing political or social opinions.
Outside the context of violent terrorist attacks, it seems the British public doesn’t have a common understanding of what should be termed “extreme.”
For example, the same survey found that 36% thought “The U.K. should leave the EU” was an extreme view, while 30% thought it was extreme to say, “The U.K. should stay in the EU.” And 41% said the statement, “Marriage should only be between a man and a woman” was extreme.
An earlier survey of British students found that “democracy” as a “value” made no sense to them — it’s a system of government rather than a value. However, they did understand Islamic values, Christian values and humanitarian values in the context of community relations.
And it’s not just the British public that does not agree on the meaning of certain words. The government itself does not have a clear legal definition of what it means by “extremism” and “nonviolent” extremism.
For instance, in June 2016, government minister Karen Bradley was asked by Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee to define what she meant by “extremism.” Her response was to offer no less than 10 different definitions in the course of the committee meeting.
And Parliament’s Human Rights Select Committee has robustly pointed out the difficulties and dangers of defining extremism.
In fact, David Anderson, the U.K.’s former government-appointed independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said in December extremism was a vague term. “I’ve not met anyone who can really define it in a satisfactory way.
“People are going to complain about neighbors; they’re going to complain about people they work with; the police are going to feel they have to investigate all sorts of people who are miles away from being terrorists but may just practice religion in a conservative way or may have eccentric political views.”
Who Will Be Targeted?
When she was home secretary, Theresa May strongly supported the introduction of Prevent, stating, “This strategy aims to tackle the whole spectrum of extremism, violent and nonviolent, ideological and non-ideological.”
But just a cursory look at government strategies, political discussion and media reporting about extremism shows the only two threats ever discussed at length in the U.K. are Islamic jihadists and the far-right.
There is rarely mention of radical Marxists, socialists, communists and other far-left organizations, even though the government’s list of terrorist individuals and groups recognizes many of them, and the latest Europol report reveals a rise in far-left terrorism and violent crime across Europe.
Given this context, those who hold traditional Christian beliefs and conservative views are concerned they will be targeted as “far-right” proponents of “nonviolent extremism” and as a stepping-stone toward violence. Groups like Defend Free Speech are particularly concerned about the introduction of “Extremism Disruption Orders” (EDOs). They would allow the police to apply to the courts for an order to restrict the “harmful activities” of a suspected extremist. The definition of harmful, as reported by the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, includes risk of public disorder, risk of harassment, alarm or distress, and threats to the functioning of democracy. The restrictions could include a ban on broadcasting and a requirement to tell the police in advance of any publishing online, on social media or in print. Taking part in protests could also be banned.
Says Calvert: “The commission is the latest plank in the government’s misguided endeavors to legislate against so-called ‘nonviolent extremism.’ The 2015 pledge to create ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’ was the flagship policy of the government’s strategy. EDOs would restrict the activities of people the government thinks are engaged in ‘extreme activities,’ even if they have not broken the law.”
“The government has gone silent on the introduction of EDOs, but the commission will be the body tasked, by statute, with defining who is and is not an extremist,” Calvert added. “That definition will be at the heart of all subsequent measures to tackle so-called ‘nonviolent extremism,’ including EDOs.”
At least one member of Parliament has called for EDOs against teachers opposed to same-sex “marriage.” In a letter to a constituent, Conservative Minister of Parliament Mark Spencer wrote, “The EDOs, in this case, would apply to a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong.”
‘Can of Worms’
Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, who has long campaigned to protect religious liberties, cautions against the scope the government’s anti-extremism plans are taking.
“By importing the equality agenda into the fight against terrorism,” he told the Register, “the government has opened up a can of worms, which could result in individuals and groups who do not support the ‘LGBT’ agenda, for example, being treated as extremists and accused of hate speech.”
Although a distinct area of law, the seeds for poorly and widely defined notions of extremism can be found in the government’s approach to “hate crime,” the content of which is slowly shifting into discussions around nonviolent extremism.
The Crown Prosecution Service defines hate crime as: “Any criminal offense which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person's race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.”
Essentially, if anyone, not just the victim, so much as perceives the criterion in the definition above, it is enough to count as a hate crime, whether committed in real life or, as just announced in August, online.
Asked if he thought the U.K. was slowly moving from labeling as “hate speech” certain views and beliefs toward labeling them “extremist,” Lord Alton told the Register, “That is the possibility with the proposals as expressed so far,” he said. “The ‘hate-speech’ definition in law is so broad that much of the Christian moral tradition, when expressed clearly, can fall afoul of the law if the subjective experience of the hearer is a negative one.
“Part of the problem is that there are people within the government who see all religions as the same — and often as a threat, not least to their secular atheism — and so they approach the problem of extremism with an approach based on one-size-fits-all.”
Register correspondent Daniel Blackman writes from London.