Britain to beef up counter-extremism legislation

Sunday 12/06/2016
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn return at the House of Commons in London, on May 18th.

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.”