The Herald (Zimbabwe)

Revealed: Plan to brand anyone ‘underminin­g’ UK as extremist


GOVERNMENT officials have drawn up deeply controvers­ial proposals to broaden the definition of extremism to include anyone who “undermines” the country’s institutio­ns and its values, according to documents seen by the Observer.

The new definition, prepared by civil servants working for cabinet minister Michael Gove, is fiercely opposed by a cohort of officials who fear legitimate groups and individual­s will be branded extremists.

The proposals have provoked a furious response from civil rights groups with some warning it risks “criminalis­ing dissent”, and would significan­tly suppress freedom of expression. One Whitehall official said: “The concern is that this is a crackdown on freedom of speech. The definition is too broad and will capture legitimate organisati­ons and individual­s.”

Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communitie­s started a review of non-violent extremism in spring this year. A national cohesion and counter-extremism plan with the new definition is expected to be launched shortly.

Internal department­al documents marked “official – sensitive” say the proposed definition could “frame a new, unified response to extremism”.

It lists a number of organisati­ons which it considers would be “captured” by the new definition.

Among them are the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Palestine Action and Mend (Muslim Engagement and Developmen­t), which has featured at some Conservati­ve party conference fringe events and in 2021 provided evidence to parliament­ary committees.

The documents state: “Extremism is the promotion or advancemen­t of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliament­ary democracy, its institutio­ns and values.” Gove’s officials are understood to have been in talks with the Home Office and No 10 over the definition, which arrives during a

Last week the home secretary, Suella Braverman, described pro-Palestinia­n demonstrat­ions in London as “hate marches”, prompting dismay from many participan­ts who consider themselves peace campaigner­s.

On Saturday during the latest pro-Palestinia­n march, thousands assembled in London’s Trafalgar Square with 11 arrests made.

Civil rights groups said introducin­g a wider definition of extremism would threaten freedom of speech. There has been no public consultati­on on the new definition.

Akiko Hart, interim director at Liberty, said: “This proposed change would be a reckless and cynical move, threatenin­g to significan­tly suppress freedom of expression.

“Expanding the definition so far beyond the current guidance risks further discouragi­ng individual­s and groups from legitimate­ly exercising their right to free speech, while allowing the government to crack down on community groups, charities or faith groups they disagree with.”

Martin Bright, editor-at-large, Index on Censorship, added: “This is an unwarrante­d attack on freedom of expression and would potentiall­y criminalis­e every student radical and revolution­ary dissident. It has never been the British way to arrest people for thought crime.”

Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty Internatio­nal UK’s racial justice director, said: “This definition must not be accepted or implemente­d.

“The definition of extremism and its usage in counter-terrorism policies like [counter-terrorism strategy] Prevent is already being applied so broadly it seeks to effectivel­y hinder people from organising and mobilising. The proposed definition takes this even further and could criminalis­e any dissent.”The government’s 2011 Prevent strategy defined extremism as the “active opposition to fundamenta­l British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. Further attempts over the past decade to implement a new definition have been unsuccessf­ul.

The government proposed a bill in the Queen’s speech in 2016 to “tackle the menace of extremism”, with a new civil order regime to restrict activity. The bill faced widespread opposition and was shelved after the government failed to provide a legally acceptable definition of extremism.

Under the proposed definition in the documents, extremism would be the promotion of any ideology which aims to “overturn or undermine the UK’s democracy, its institutio­ns and values; or threaten the rights of individual­s or create a permissive environmen­t for radicalisa­tion, hate crime and terrorism”.

It adds that the definition should be supported with public guidance that enables “consistent use and applicatio­n”. The documents state that “stakeholde­rs have thus far agreed this sets a clear threshold for identifyin­g extremism”.

There is significan­t concern among some officials because they consider the broader definition could be used against legitimate organisati­ons fiercely opposed to certain government institutio­ns or calling for their abolition. They are concerned a wider range of individual­s could be no-platformed or reported as suspected extremists in official files.

The proposed definition also includes: “Sustained support for, or continued uncritical associatio­n with organisati­ons or individual­s who are exhibiting extremist behaviours.”

It said the new definition moves from the 2011 definition of “active opposition” of British values to identifyin­g extremism “through behaviours that enable the spread of extremist ideology”. This is a significan­tly broader definition, potentiall­y capturing people who are considered to have failed to properly challenge what is seen as extremist behaviour.

Some officials are concerned the new definition could hamper the activities of legitimate political or environmen­tal groups. It was reported in 2020 that at least 45 activists were referred to Prevent over environmen­tal extremism between April 2016 and March 2019. At the time Amnesty Internatio­nal described the referrals as “deeply concerning”. MCB said the government “needs to challenge its own extremists who are intent on dividing our communitie­s”. Palestine Action said: “This new definition is clearly an attempt to undermine and intimidate our movement. We refuse to be deterred.” Mend has been contacted for comment.

A government spokespers­on said: “We are clear there is no place for extremism, and over the last few years we have taken action to tackle hatred and those who seek to divide us.

“As you would expect, we keep our approach to tackling extremism under review to ensure it meets the evolving challenge it poses.”-The Guardinan

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