new definitions threaten human and civil rights

The UK government’s approach to dealing with extremism has been hugely controversial since its Counter-Extremism Strategy was published in 2015.

After years of appealing to the subjective idea that extremists oppose “fundamental British values”, the government’s current definition of extremism has been deemed futile and some far-right groups have even used it to their advantage.

The UK Government currently defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom and mutual respect and tolerance of different beliefs and beliefs”. This definition and its emphasis on “fundamental British values” enables the far right to lean further into nationalism and distance itself from allegations of extremism.

Research has also shown that the definition reinforces the Islamophobic tropics while drawing on the controversial positions of previous governments on Muslim communities in the UK. So if the government’s definition doesn’t quite work, what exactly will it do?

In the past few weeks, two new interventions have attempted to address the problem. The first is a report from the Commission on Combating Extremism. The second comes in the form of proposals from Her Majesty’s Police and Fire Brigade Inspectorate. Unfortunately, neither of these offer better ways to understand how to define or respond to extremism effectively. There is even the potential for one to contradict the other.

Before we can find more suitable alternatives, we should look at these two approaches.

Police patrol the streets of Westminster during far-right protests against the removal of statues in June 2020.
Guy Corbishley / Alamy

A new definition

The Anti-Extremism Commission has criticized the government’s definition and its shortcomings. While it is right to point out these shortcomings, it also concerns the Commission’s statement on ‘hateful extremism’.

According to the Commission’s definition, hateful extremism includes behaviors that:

  • Incitement and intensification of hatred, involvement in persistent hatred or ambiguity towards and moral justification for violence
  • Bring hateful, hostile, or supremacist beliefs aimed at groups seen as a threat to the well-being, survival, or success of another group
  • And cause (or likely to cause) harm to individuals, communities, or society at large

Much of this is open to interpretation, which means the definition could be applied inconsistently. It could also be unfairly used on any person or organization that the government does not agree with. And that without addressing the fact that many of these abusive behaviors are already covered by existing laws. Incitement to racist or religious hatred is regulated under the Racial and Religious Hate Act 2006, the glorification of terrorist violence under the Terrorism Act 2006, and crimes considered to be motivated by hostility or prejudice under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and Criminal Regulated Justice Act 2003.

The fact that the Commission now wants hateful extremism to be seen as a hate crime is also a cause for concern. Actions looking at examples of “hateful extremism” include:

  • Spreading extremist propaganda and disinformation
  • Radicalization, indoctrination and recruiting others for extremist ideologies
  • Incitement, inspiration, encouragement, glorification or justification of violence against certain outside groups (groups with which the participants do not identify)

These criteria can be used against innocent or non-violent ideological or political views. Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, which had to be banned by the whole world in the late 1908s, could easily have been classified as an example of “hateful extremism” at the time because it was believed to be inherently Islamophobic.

Questionable positions held by the far right could also carry more weight. For example, calls by the likes of Dutch politician Geert Wilders to ban the Koran in 2017 could easily be mimicked under the Commission’s understanding of “hateful extremism”. But Wilders’ rhetoric could well be seen as inciting and reinforcing hatred based on hateful, hostile, or supremacist beliefs directed against Muslims that cause harm to those individuals, communities, or society at large.

Turning away from “domestic extremism”

The intervention of the Police and Fire Brigade Inspectorate focuses on changing terminology and not applying “domestic extremism” which has long been criticized for its vagueness.

As David Anderson, the UK’s Independent Terrorism Legislator, said in 2017, domestic extremism was:

An amorphous concept that ranges from groups who currently only occasionally raise concerns about public order (animal rights, anti-fracking), to attack planning by employees of the banned XRW terrorist organization (right-wing extremist) National Action.

Police surveillance network, Netpol, agrees, claiming that police forces used the term arbitrarily to target groups they were biased or hostile to. Domestic extremist lists issued by police in the past have included non-violent groups such as Animal Aid, Extinction Rebellion, and the Vegan Society, as well as extremely violent groups such as Atomwaffen Division, National Action, and Sonnenkreig Division. The fact that the guidelines have been labeled “Fight against Terrorism” underscores a worrying lack of distinction between extremism and terrorism.

Protesters march across the bridge holding a large green sign with the Rebellion Extinction logo and the words Extinction Rebellion has historically been classified as a “domestic extremist”.
Zefrog / Alamy

While the Police, Fire and Ambulance Regulators’ decision to abandon the term “domestic extremism” is welcomed, its intention to replace it with “aggravated activists” is a problem. Because of this unclear wording, it is likely that nonviolent groups that respect and uphold human and civil rights will continue to face unfair attacks and criminalize those who protest or hold views that violate social norms.

This, along with the recently introduced Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, could also result in more people potentially losing their right to protest. Among other things, the proposed legislation will impose more extreme restrictions on the police on public demonstrations.

It is not difficult to imagine how movements for social progress that we are celebrating now will be targeted today. For example, if the suffragettes had appeared a century later than they did, it would be likely that they too would have been classified as “extremists” according to these criteria.

We need a new answer to extremism. A good place to start would be to reconsider the government’s confused strategy. It is also necessary to be clear about the differences between extremism and terrorism and how extremist views make people vulnerable to terrorism, if at all.

As the interventions of the Commission and the Supervisory Authority show, the understanding and response of extremism in different fora also needs to be much more coherent. Until that happens, only relying on customizing the definitions will only prolong these problems.

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