On May 27, a few weeks after the elections, Queen Elizabeth II addressed the British parliament with a speech that laid out a number of important proposed bills, including changes to immigration and the welfare system; a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, and, most importantly, a series of new measures to tackle Islamic extremism.
The “Extremism Bill,” the government has announced, will “unite our country and keep you and your family safe by tackling all forms of extremism.” It will also “combat groups and individuals who reject our values and promote messages of hate.”
To achieve this, the government is attempting to establish a number of new proscriptive powers. “Banning Orders” would allow the Home Secretary to outlaw designated “extremist groups.” “Extremism Disruption Orders” would restrict the activities of individual, designated “extremists.” They would be prohibited from appearing on television, and would have to submit any publications, including social media posts, to the police for prior approval. “Closure Orders” would allow the government to shut down institutions, including mosques, used to promote extremism.
In addition, the government has announced plans to take “tough measures against [television] channels that broadcast extremist content.”
Changes to background checks would also mean that companies could find out whether a potential employee is an extremist. If so, they would be barred from working with children.
Alongside these counter-extremism efforts, the government will also attempt to introduce a “snoopers’ charter,” to allow the security services to track everyone’s web and social media use. Additionally, according to a report in The Guardian, the Bill “moves to strengthen the security services’ warranted powers for the bulk interception of the content of communications.”
Critics argue that many of these new measures are draconian. Former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has claimed that the rights of British citizens were being “threatened by a turbo-charged snooper’s charter.”
These counter-extremism measures, others claim, threaten freedom of speech. Before the recent elections, the Liberal Democrats claimed to have blocked the Conservatives’ proposals on “three different occasions.” Tom Brake, a Liberal Democrat MP, argued that, “Banning orders will undermine existing efforts to engage with communities and run the serious risk of criminalising legitimate groups who have a right to speak out against the government. It risks being a licence to silence any opinion the government doesn’t like.”
“The case for stronger law enforcement is overwhelming — but legislation that erodes basic principles of freedom won’t make us safer. … The public should certainly expect the security services to track terrorists online, but the broad powers of proposed Extremism Disruption Orders could be abused. Those engaged in passionate debates — such as Christians objecting to gay marriage — could find themselves slapped down. Monarchists or communists could be swept up for peacefully expressing their political views.”
Another Cabinet member, Sajid Javid, has also opposed the Home Secretary’s plans to censor broadcaster’s programs. As The Guardian revealed, Javid told the Prime Minister the proposed censorship would mark a “fundamental shift in the way UK broadcasting is regulated, away from the current framework which is designed to take appropriate account of the right to freedom of expression.”
The government is evidently facing plenty of opposition to its proposals from both sides of the aisle.
Concerns about threats to freedom of speech have also been intensified by the vagueness of the terms. Home Secretary Theresa May has made repeated reference to the promotion of “British values.” The proposed “Extremism Bill,” she claims, is designed to “protect” these “British values.” Leaked Home Office documents also advocate immigrants must adhere to “British values.” In the wake of the Trojan Horse scandal, in which some English schools were found to have been infiltrated by Islamic extremists, the Education Secretary at the time, Michael Gove, announced that schools must promote “British values.” And in a speech in March, Theresa May declared that, “Islam is entirely compatible with British values and our national way of life, while Islamist extremism is not.”
What, then, are “British values”? And, for that matter, what is an “extremist”?
There is no statutory definition of extremism. Since 2011, however, the government hasclaimed, without legislative foundation, that extremism is a “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.”
There are obvious shortcomings in the government’s demand that all “beliefs” deserve “mutual respect.” While it is important in a free society to tolerate beliefs we dislike, we should not be required to “respect” them.
Further, without a statutory definition of “extremism,” there is no indication under the proposed new laws of what constitutes a “crime.” These measures will be ripe for abuse. No wonder there is opposition to the government’s plans.
Similar vague rhetoric was heard under former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party. He declared that the promotion of “British values” necessitated discussion on “how we better integrate our ethnic communities” and “how we respond to Muslim fundamentalism.”
Notions of “tolerance” and “mutual respect” sound promising but are largely meaningless, especially when faced with the very particular threat of Islamic extremism. By proposing a ban on “extremists” from appearing on television and vetting their writings, the present government demands that we “respect” others’ beliefs, while it simultaneously proposes to censor their views.
Censorship is notoriously counter-productive. In the 1980s, similar bans on broadcasters had been introduced. This led, the journalist Padraig Reidy writes, “to the ridiculous scenario where [IRA leader] Gerry Adams and other republican representatives had their statements dubbed by actors before interviews were broadcast, as if it were not their words but their very voices that might attract sympathy for terrorism.”
The government’s proposals seem to many a combination of bluster and censorship. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered an address in Munch, where he claimed that, “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”
Despite this acknowledgement of the problem, not a thing has been done to resolve it. For progress to be made, Britain would do well to re-examine the state’s relationship with religious groups. Mosques and community groups that promote extremist preachers continue to receive public funding. Further, the government refuses to shut down Islamic charities that openly support terrorist organizations. Interpal, for example, is a designated terrorist organization under U.S. law, but enjoys mainstream political support in the UK. Its trustees openly attendHamas rallies in Gaza.
So long as the government, as part of its multiculturalism policy, funds and legitimizes extremist groups within religious communities, Islamist movements will continue to encourage segregation and foment extremism — presumably not part of the “British values” advocated by government.
“Extremism” is a nebulous term, begging statutory guidelines for what defines it. The state appears keen, in fact, to introduce further bureaucracy rather than enforce existing laws.
Current legislation already allows the authorities to prosecute preachers who incite violence or express support for foreign terrorist organizations, but these laws are rarely enforced. The flags of outlawed terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are frequently seen on London’s streets, despite the Terrorism Act of 2000, which criminalized support for banned terrorist organizations.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Act and various Public Order Acts also prohibit incitement to violence. Nevertheless, Islamic preacher Abu Usamah at-Thahabi has publicly said: “Take that homosexual man… and throw him off the mountain. If I were to call homosexuals perverted, dirty, filthy dogs who should be murdered, that’s my freedom of speech, isn’t it.” Despite advocating murder, he has never been charged.
If the government would stop funding and backing religious separatism, and start using existing laws to prosecute preachers who incite violence and promote terrorism, these measures would go a long way to preventing extremists from operating with impunity. Censorship, on the other hand, will harm everyone.