Government unveils new extremism definitionon March 14, 2024 at 5:11 am

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Groups falling under the new definition will be barred from government funding and meeting officials.

Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, speaks outside BBC Broadcasting House in London,Image source, PA Media

Ministers have unveiled a new extremism definition under which certain groups will be blocked from government funding or meeting officials.

It will apply to, but not criminalise, groups that promote an ideology based on “violence, hatred or intolerance”.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove said a surge in extremism since the Israel-Gaza war posed “a real risk” to the UK.

Civil liberties advocates, community groups and MPs have criticised recent government rhetoric on extremism.

Zara Mohammed, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, told BBC Newsnight the definition would lead to the “unfair targeting of Muslim communities”.

The government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall, has warned the new policy “could undermine the UK’s reputation because it would not be seen as democratic”.

It is not known which groups the government proposes to label as extremist, though it has promised to publish a list in the coming weeks and suggested Islamists and neo-Nazis will be targeted.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood outside Downing Street and said there were “forces here at home trying to tear us apart”.

Discussing pro-Palestinian protests that have taken place since the Hamas attacks in Israel, he said: “On too many occasions recently, our streets have been hijacked by small groups who are hostile to our values and have no respect for our democratic traditions.”

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Under the new definition, which comes into force on Thursday,extremism is “the 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).”

The previous definition, introduced in 2011 under the Prevent strategy, described 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 belief”.

The government says the new one is “narrower and more precise” and will help “clearly articulate” how extremism is “evidenced” in behaviours.

It also says there will be a “high bar” to being classed as extremist and the policy will not target those with “private, peaceful beliefs”.

Organisations or individuals added to the list will not be criminalised, unlike terrorist groups. Instead, they will be barred from contact with government and will not be able to receive government funding.

Alongside the redefinition, a new unit – the Counter-Extremism Centre of Excellence – has been set up, to gather intelligence and identify extremist groups.

Groups and individuals labelled extremist have the right to seek reassessment and submit new evidence to a review.

If they still disagree, they can challenge the government’s decision through a potentially costly judicial review.

Announcing the change, Mr Gove said “our values of inclusivity and tolerance are under challenge from extremists”.

“In order to protect our democratic values, it is important both to reinforce what we have in common and to be clear and precise in identifying the dangers posed by extremism.”

‘Tinkering’ not enough

Critics have warned a new definition could worsen community tensions and expose ministers to legal challenges if left too broad.

Mr Hall told the BBC: “Every attempt to update the definition of extremism has failed because it’s never clear what you’re trying to prevent by defining extremism.”

“What we see… is a move away from people who are doing bad things, towards people who think bad things or have a bad ideology.”

Azhar Qayum, CEO of Muslim Engagement and Development, said “delegitimising lawful dissent in this way is itself undermining liberal democratic principles” and that he had “placed the government on legal notice”.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who also serves as shadow communities secretary, said extremism was a “serious problem that needs serious action” and that “tinkering with a new definition is not enough”.

“The government’s counter-extremism strategy is now nine years out of date, and they’ve repeatedly failed to define Islamophobia,” she said.

In an open letter published in the Guardian on Sunday, former home secretaries Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd urged the Conservatives and Labour to “work together to build a shared understanding of extremism and a strategy to prevent it that can stand the test of time, no matter which party wins an election”.

“In the run-up to a general election, it’s particularly important that that consensus is maintained and that no political party uses the issue to seek short-term tactical advantage,” they said.

Brendan Cox, husband of murdered MP Jo Cox and founder of Survivors Against Terror, who also signed the letter, said the new definition was “not the scorched earth policy that we feared a few weeks ago”.

He added there were “some constructive elements” to it but that the government’s approach had been “mismanaged and mishandled”.

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