You can’t cancel extremism

Michael Gove’s ‘crackdown’ is illiberal, dangerous and doomed to fail.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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They say you can’t defeat an enemy you can’t name, or solve a problem you can’t readily define. The UK government’s never-ending war on extremism is a good example of this. The past 20 years have been pockmarked by acts of nihilistic – predominantly Islamist – slaughter on our streets, and various crackdowns on ‘extremism’ that haven’t made the blindest bit of difference, all while encroaching upon free speech.

While the police and the security services have been charged with detecting and stopping would-be jihadists – not always with glittering success, it should be said – politicians have tinkered with their ‘deradicalisation’ schemes and argued the toss over official definitions of extremism, all in the hope of tackling the hate-filled ideologies that drive and inspire acts of terror.

We’re on at least our third round of this, since I’ve been writing about it, at least. In 2011, the revamped Prevent strategy defined extremism as ‘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’. In 2016, Theresa May proposed a bill to ‘tackle the menace of extremism’, before later shelving it, having failed to come up with a legally solid definition of ‘extremism’.

Today, Michael Gove – who is Minister for Everything, apparently – has unveiled his new definition, intended to curb the kind of hatred we’ve seen displayed on all those pro-Hamas demos of late. Thus, ‘extremism’ is now defined by central government as ‘promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: (1) negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or (2) undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or (3) intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).’ Clear as mud? There’s even a blacklist being drawn up of groups who the government believes meet these new criteria.

Before we go any further, it’s worth understanding what this isn’t. Contrary to much hasty commentary earlier this week, Gove is not, with this specific announcement, criminalising groups who fall under this new definition, including the gaggle of Islamist-linked and far-right groups who he named and shamed in the House of Commons earlier today. ‘This definition is not statutory and has no effect on the existing criminal law – it applies to the operations of government itself’, reads the government press release.

(Reportedly, Gove wanted to make it statutory, but was ‘warned that making it legally enforceable could capture political organisations such as the Scottish National Party’, presumably given the party’s agitation against the ‘the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy’. Which is a useful demonstration of why it’s so unwise and unwieldy to try to legislate against such nebulous concepts as ‘extremism’ or ‘hate’.)

What the definition will do is bar government from dealing with, meeting with, offering a platform to, or funding groups deemed to be ‘extremist’. ‘Non-central government institutions, such as arms-length bodies, higher-education institutions and independent organisations including the police and [Crown Prosecution Service]’, the press release goes on, ‘will not be obliged to adopt the definition or apply the engagement principles initially’. But it’s hard to imagine that exemption will last very long.

All this follows a slew of mind-boggling revelations about dodgy individuals acting as advisers to various wings of the British state. In November, the Metropolitan Police cut ties with Attiq Malik after a video surfaced of him leading a spirited rendition of that genocidal, anti-Semitic chant, ‘From the river to the sea’. Last month, the Met was also forced to disown Mohammed Kozbar, a deputy secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who had previously ‘praised the founder of Hamas’. Both were members of something called the London Muslim Communities Forum, which was set up by the Met to ‘inform and help shape police policy and procedure’.

Still, you don’t have to be a terror apologist to recognise the problem with the government drawing up blacklists. Gove might not be proscribing the Muslim Association of Britain, Patriotic Alternative or any of the other groups he named today, but he is using the pen of officialdom to deem them beyond the pale. This can only chill the civil liberties of organisations that – while undoubtedly composed of unsavoury scumbags – are not engaged in illegal activity. While universities are technically exempt (for now), what brave vice-chancellor would happily allow a student-run event featuring someone labelled ‘extremist’ and a ‘threat to democracy’ by central government? This wouldn’t just curtail the free speech of Islamist or far-right hotheads, it would curtail our ability to hear and challenge them out in the open.

What’s more, extremism – like hatred – is in the eye of the beholder. There are plenty of people in positions of influence who believe gender-critical feminists to be engaged in a campaign of ‘violence’, ‘hatred’ and ‘intolerance’ – even ‘genocide’ – against transgender people, purely because they know biological sex is real and think sex-based rights are important. Our increasingly hysterical elites are also convinced that right-wing Tories are essentially crypto-Nazis. Given it will fall to civil servants and public-sector officials – hardly known for their conservatism or anti-wokeness – to decide who this new definition applies to, the Tories should not be surprised if it all comes back to bite them.

If you think I’m exaggerating, just glance at some of the commentary today. Hope Not Hate – those professional ‘anti-fascists’ who seem to be infinitely more concerned about Suella Braverman’s spicey Telegraph pieces than they are the Islamofascism on our streets – has just released its annual report, arguing that the ‘already blurred line’ between Conservatives and the far right ‘has become ever fainter and the distinction less clear’. In the Commons this afternoon, Labour MP Imran Hussain invited Gove to condemn the supposedly ‘extremist, vile, dangerous’ language used by Conservative backbenchers, as if the bloviations of right-wing Tories were in any way comparable to the violent agitation of fascists and Islamists.

Of course, extremism of all forms – and particularly the Islamist variety – really must be confronted. The ridiculous reactions in parliament and on the comment pages today make clear that there are plenty of people who would rather downplay the Islamist threat and bang on about those ‘nasty’ Tories instead. But taking extremism seriously doesn’t mean drawing up sweeping definitions and blacklists that are bound to be abused.

If the government doesn’t want state institutions to be captured by Islamists posing as ‘community leaders’, it should dismantle the multicultural state. Parliament should make law and the government should set policy in line with the views of the people. State bodies should then implement those laws and policies. They shouldn’t outsource their authority and expertise to dodgy ‘charities’ that represent no one but themselves.

Meanwhile, if we want to defeat the ideologies trying to divide the British people, we need to realise that free speech and open debate are our best weapons. We need to expose and demolish the extremists. We need to agitate against them wherever they rear their ugly heads. Crackdowns only drive them underground, or lend them a glamour they don’t deserve. You can’t cancel extremism. Time to take it on instead.

Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK


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