UK government's anti-extremist plans offer new tools against 'ever-evolving threats'

Drawing up a blacklist is among options under a new drive that follows on from protests and rising political tensions

Pro-Palestinian supporters wave the Palestine flag at a London protest. The UK government's new definition of extremism could stoke Islamophobia, some MPs have told The National. AFP
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The British government is “stoking up” its ideological battle against the influence of hatred by rushing through a hostile definition of extremism, Labour and Conservative politicians have told The National.

With the Israel-Gaza war creating an intense atmosphere in Britain, there has been a concern over the rise of radicalism among the hard-right and in pro-Palestinian marches.

As a result, the Conservative government will introduce a new definition of extremism on Thursday, as well as potentially blacklisting a number of groups, possibly including the Muslim Council of Britain.

The move comes during a week of focus on religious issues, after the release of a government report on blasphemy on Monday and the announcement of £117 million ($150 million) funding to help protect mosques and community centres.

The report is being led by Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, who will make a statement to Parliament on Thursday outlining the new official definition of extremism.

In the coming days government ministers are expected to work on the document in which they will name allegedly extremist organisations.

Unacceptable extremism

Asked by The National of the rationale behind the definition, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there had been “an unacceptable rise of extremist activity” and it was the government’s duty “to ensure it has the tools it needs to tackle this ever-evolving threat”.

“This new, more precise definition will be used by government departments and officials to ensure that they are not advertently providing a platform, funding or legitimacy to groups or individuals who attempt to advance extremist ideology,” he added.

He said the new definition would be the “first in a series of new measures to counter extremism”.

But the move has been condemned by a number of MPs spoken to by The National.

The centre-left Labour MP Jon Cruddas said the policy was a political manoeuvre to “open up the culture wars” with Labour in an attempt to embarrass the main opposition party ahead of this year’s general election.

“If they are going to spread the extremist net wide, they will cause all sorts of trouble, especially within their own party over issues of liberty and tolerance,” he said of the Conservatives.

He added the government was “rushing this through with no consultation”, which could “stoke up the situation”.

“This is fraught with difficulties and not a good use of the government’s time,” he added.

River to sea

Mr Gove’s definition will allow the government, as well as institutions such as universities and councils, to ban engagement with Islamist extremist and far-right groups, changing the current Prevent counter-terrorist policy.

“The definition will replace the existing Prevent definition and give practitioners more specificity on the ideologies, behaviour and groups of concern to support vital counter-radicalisation work,” Mr Gove told The Sunday Telegraph. “For all state institutions, this definition and a set of engagement principles should act as a guide.”

One reason behind the move has been pro-Palestinians demonstrators' use of the phrase “from the river to the sea” that suggests the Israeli state should be erased. Mr Gove described this as “an extremist position, which intimidates and leads to hate” as well as anti-Semitism.

But his plans have also been questioned by right-wing Conservative MP David Jones, who said he was “very, very reluctant to ban people from saying things”.

“Michael Gove has said he doesn't want to interfere with freedom of speech so given that that is his intention, he needs to set out in some detail as to how that's going to be achieved,” he added.

Evolving threat

Former front bench Labour MP Afzal Khan said the move was “further stoking the culture wars” at a time when hate crimes against Muslims had trebled since October 7.

“The government is creating policies which would potentially lead to incitement of more Islamophobia,” he warned.

Mr Khan said the government was also creating an unnecessary confrontation as “a definition of extremism is not something anyone is asking for” and there has “not been a problem with it”, as the police have said the main threat in today's Britain is from the far right.

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Updated: March 12, 2024, 4:00 AM