‘Prejudice, Islamophobia’: Free speech fears as UK redefines extremism | News


The United Kingdom government’s new definition of “extremism”, touted as a bid to tackle rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the aftermath of Israel’s war on Gaza, has ignited fierce debate across the political spectrum, with critics on all sides claiming it will erode freedom of speech and civil liberties.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove last month named several UK-based far-right organisations, including the neo-Nazi British National Socialist Movement and the Patriotic Alternative, which will be held “to account to assess if they meet our definition of extremism and [we] will take action as appropriate”.

Amid heightened domestic tensions since October 7, he also named several prominent groups advocating for Muslims’ civil rights, including the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain – which he described as the UK affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cage, and Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND).

“The fact that there are immediately Muslim organisations who are labelled as [‘extremist’] tells you exactly what this piece of legislation is intended for,” said Imran Khan QC, the British lawyer who rose to prominence representing the family of Stephen Lawrence, whose racist murder in 1993 exposed institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police.

Organisations deemed “extreme” under the new definition will be blacklisted, made ineligible for government funding, and they will be banned from meeting with ministers.

“What is the starting point of ‘extreme views’?” said Khan, who has worked on numerous “extremism” and “terrorism” cases following the July 2005 bombings in London, and represented surviving families of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

“The classic example that’s always used is about [Nelson] Mandela being a freedom fighter in one instance, and a terrorist in another,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It’s based on prejudice, Islamophobia, racism, and it will be those sections of society who are not able to protect themselves, who are going to be subject to further prosecution and persecution.”

Britain is home to a sizeable Muslim minority of about four million people, or 6 percent of the population.

The last definition of extremism in the UK, which placed greater emphasis on acts of violence, was drafted in 2011.

Individuals or groups were seen to be “extremist” if they demonstrated “vocal or active opposition to British fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

The revised definition is non-statutory, which means proscribed individuals or groups will not be prosecuted.

The government now says extremism is the “promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance”, and that groups with the following aims will be considered extremist:

1. negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others

2. undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights

3. or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in 1 and 2.

The development comes in the wake of weekly national protests held across the UK in solidarity with Palestinians, as Israel’s war on Gaza, which has to date killed about 33,800 people, rages on.

Pro-Palestine rallies in the UK have been riddled with claims that they play host to anti-Semitism. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman lamented what she called “hate marches” in November after raising the possibility of banning them.

Gove has previously described those attending pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “good-hearted people” who were “lending credence to extremists”.

Amnesty International, Liberty, and Friends of the Earth warned that the latest definition of extremism was too broad.

Other critics say it unfairly targets left-wing, socialist, environmental and anti-fascist groups, such as Palestine Action, which has targeted the UK’s subsidiary factories and offices of Elbit Systems – Israel’s largest arms manufacturer which supplies the majority of land and air munitions used by the Israeli army.

“My worry is that it cannot only serve to further misrepresent and delegitimise such protests, but securitise and criminalise them, Palestinians, Muslims, and the left,” said Aaron Winter, a senior lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University, referring to the naming of MEND, Cage and other organisations by Gove.

He added that while some far-right organisations are also named, the recent opposition to pro-Palestine protests shows the “equivalence is false and indicates that there will be a double standard”.

“This is something we have already seen in the way counter-extremism has disproportionately targeted Muslims.”

In a joint statement published on March 12, the archbishops of Canterbury and York warned the government that its new extremism definition risks “disproportionately targeting Muslim communities” and “driving us apart”.

“The new definition being proposed not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech, but also the right to worship and peaceful protest – things that have been hard won and form the fabric of a civilised society,” the statement said.

“Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse,” it added.

Across the political spectrum, those on the right have also expressed fears the definition could be used to ban groups with socially conservative values around transgender rights, same-sex marriage, or abortion.

“The definition suggests that extremism can be the ‘promotion’ of an ideology based on ‘intolerance’ – this riskily allows for a great deal of subjectivity,” said Rakib Ehsan, an independent counter-extremism analyst.

“Trans-radical activists would argue that believing a biological male can never be a woman is ‘intolerant’,” he added. “Pro-choice organisations might put forward the view that those who support greater protections for the unborn are a fundamental threat to women’s rights.”

In March, Gove said Britons “cherish free speech” and that conservative religious beliefs, anti or pro-trans activists, and environmental protest groups will not have their rights infringed upon.

Days before the new definition was introduced, 12 anti-extremism experts, including three former Conservative home secretaries – Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd – signed a statement warning about the risks of politicising the issue in the run-up to this year’s general election.

For Khan, the definition evokes memories of othering and racism he felt as the child of Muslim, Pakistani immigrants.

He fears the revised definition will have “more than just a chilling effect” on British Muslims and other disenfranchised communities.

“I fight on behalf of individuals who believe the system isn’t treating them well.  Am I in danger of being labelled an ‘extremist lawyer’ because of somebody who is an extremist?” Khan said.

“We’re becoming more authoritarian, dictatorial [and] preventing legitimate arguments, legitimate attempts at challenging the status quo.”


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