Britain to beef up counter-extremism legislation
London - Many questions remain about recently introduced legislation aimed at preventing radicalisation and tackling extremism in the United Kingdom.
The legislation, which is meant to complement Britain’s Prevent counter-extremism policy, draws parallels between non-violent extremism and terrorism. Prevent worked with 2,790 institutions and engaged with nearly 50,000 individuals in 2015 but has been criticised for clamping down on non-violent discourse.
British Prime Minister David Cameron praised the country as “one of the most successful multiracial, multifaith democracies anywhere on Earth”, in a written introduction to the queen’s speech that opened the new parliament.
“But we must also recognise that extremists, both violent and non-violent, are trying to drive our country apart,” Cameron said, explaining the new legislation.
The bill would give the government power to close premises, including mosques, used for extremist purposes and silence those — from individual preachers to media outlets — spreading hate speech. The measure would also allow the government to intervene in the running of unregulated religious schools thought to be promoting hate.
The announcement of the counter-extremism legislation was purposefully vaguely worded. Much will depend on details of the bill, including how easily it will be passed by parliament. Cameron said he hoped the measure would receive support from across parliament, although the main opposition Labour Party immediately cast doubt about whether it would support the bill.
“Everybody in this house understands the risk posed by terrorism,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told parliament. “This city, London, has experienced it before, as have other cities here and around the world. We will, of course, support strong measures to give the police and security services the resources they need but we will also support checks and balances to ensure that powers are used appropriately.
“We would welcome any proposals from the government to reform the Prevent strategy and instead to emphasise the value of community-led work to prevent young people from being drawn into extremism in any form.”
Analysts warned that the proposed legislation could be used to silence opposition voices under the guise of fighting extremism, particularly given that the term “extremism” has yet to be clearly defined by the government.
Hate speech and promoting terrorism are illegal under the 2006 Terrorism Act but the government’s new legislation would see the criminalisation of the intent to spread hate speech or promote terrorism, an important legal distinction and one that is being scrutinised even by close allies of the government in the fight against extremism.
More than two dozen leading religious figures and multifaith organisations in Britain, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), signed a statement expressing concern about the proposed bill.
“As a nation, we not only tolerate diversity but celebrate it. And when we differ, our values of liberty and respect underpin how we respond: Through discussion and disagreement, not prohibition and exclusion,” the statement said.
“The fact that such a diverse range of groups have come together should tell us that there are widespread concerns about the proposals in the government’s counter-extremism bill. The terrorists would like nothing better than provoking ill-thought through policies that undermine all our freedoms,” MCB Secretary-General Shuja Shafi said.
Even senior police officers attached to the Prevent programme cast doubt on the beefed-up extremism bill, warning that this risks creating a “thought police” in Britain.
“Unless you can define what extremism is very clearly then it’s going to be really challenging to enforce. We don’t want to be the thought police,” Chief Constable Simon Cole told the Guardian newspaper.
“Within society as a whole we have to… have some limits about what you can say but they have to be as broad as they possibly can be.”