Why Is The Government's New Definition For Extremism So Controversial?

Michael Gove promised it would "protect our democratic values" – but not everyone agrees.
Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak have unveiled a new definition of extremism this week.
Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak have unveiled a new definition of extremism this week.

The government has just unveiled a new definition for extremism – and it’s already being met with significant backlash.

While this updated definition does not give the government new powers because it’s not enshrined in law, it has sparked widespread fears about freedom of speech and how it could impact Muslim communities.

What is the new definition of extremism?

The new definition describes extremism as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance”.

This ideology could include intent to “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others,” or “undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights”.

The new definition also encompasses promoting any ideology is meant to “intentionally create a permissive environment for others” to destroy fundamental rights or overturn the UK’s democratic system.

The previous definition – first outlined in 2011 said extremism is “vocal or active opposition to British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief”.

It also included any “calls for the death of members of our armed forces”.

The government claims that the new definition will not silence those with “private and peaceful beliefs” nor will it impact free speech.

Why has the government unveiled a new definition?

The government said this is a “narrower and more precise” definition than the one outlined in the 2011 Prevent programme.

Levelling up, housing and communities secretary Michael Gove said: “Our democracy and 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.”

He also pointed to the October 7 attacks, when the Palestinian militants Hamas killed 1,200 people on Israeli soil and took another 240 hostage, sparking the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

Concerns about rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have been on the rise since the war began last Autumn.

Who did Gove mention in the Commons today?

The cabinet minister used parliamentary privilege to list five groups which could fall under the new definition.

He mentioned two “extreme right-wing” groups which “promote neo-Nazi ideology”, the white supremacist group, the British National Socialist Movement and the far-right nationalist group, Patriotic Alternative, which used to be part of the BNP.

Gove then pointed to three Muslim groups which he said “give rise to concern for their Islamist orientation and views” – including a British Sunni Muslim group, Muslim Association of Britain, which reportedly may have links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

Gove also named campaign group CAGE which campaigns for those affected by the “war on terror” and MEND, which tries to tackle Islamophobia and engagement within British Muslim communities.

What happens next?

A new counter-extremism centre of excellence will be set up within the levelling up department, to ensure “consistent application of the definition”.

It is expected to draw up a list of groups its officials think meet the new definition.

Gove and home secretary James Cleverly will then sign off the list in the coming weeks.

Those on the list will not receive government grants, ministerial meetings, access to the senior civil service, honour and public appointments.

They will also not be able to appeal the decision other than calling for a full judicial review in the High Court.

Why is the extremism definition facing backlash?

Dr Alan Mendoza from the Henry Jackson Society told Sky News that the new definition does not actually ban extremism, but just stops the government “giving money or platforms to extremists”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell said that the proposals risk “disproportionately targeting Muslim communities”.

CAGE, Palestine Action and Black Lives Matter UK also collectively accused ministers of “weaponising ‘extremism’ to shield” the government.

Zara Mohammed from the Muslim Council of Britain told BBC Newsnight last night: “What we’re seeing in this proposal is the unfair targeting of Muslim communities and Palestinian groups.”

Is there backlash from those in Conservative ranks?

Yes – some fear this is a step too far and a move towards limiting free speech.

Tory MP Miriam Cates wrote in the Critic Magazine that the policy brings “extraordinary powers to curtail free speech”.

She added: “History teaches us that this is the slippery slope towards authoritarianism”.

Other fears suggest the definition may be expanded.

Former Conservative home secretaries, Priti Patel, Amber Rudd and Sajid Javid, warned Gove that the issue needs “as broad a consensus as possible” and should not be used “to seek short-term tactical advantage”.

Do recent political events undermine the new definition?

Rishi Sunak recently promised to crack down on extremism in a dramatic speech outside No.10, and claiming “our democracy itself is a target”.

However, the Conservatives have been heavily criticised this week over the government’s response to Tory donor Frank Hester’s alleged remarks about MP Diane Abbott.

According to The Guardian, Hester said back in 2019 that Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

Tory peers such as Chris Patten are now calling for the £10m he donated to the party to be handed back.

Gove was also asked by BBC Breakfast if Hester’s alleged comments reflected an extremist view.

The cabinet minister replied by saying the remarks were “unacceptable”, but refused to make a decision about whether or not it fell under the extremism definition.

He said: “It wouldn’t be me making a decision on the basis of a quote, however horrific, it would be a due diligence process that would be conducted very carefully.”

Charity Hope Not Hate’s recent report also took aim at the Conservatives, saying: “However unpleasant the Conservatives might have been on immigration [in the past], there was generally a difference between them and the more extreme far right.

“Sadly, that already blurred line has become ever fainter and the distinction less clear.”

It claimed: “There is a conscious strategy to adopt Radical Right and conspiratorial language to generate fear and anger amongst sections of British society in order to win electoral support.”


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