Church leaders warn new definition of extremism 'risks vilifying the wrong people'

Archbishops of Canterbury and York say labelling 'multi-faceted problem as hateful extremism' risks creating 'more division'

Justin Welby, the Archbishop Of Canterbury, has criticised a planned new government definition of extremism, warning it 'risks vilifying the wrong people'. Getty Images
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The two most senior clerics in the Church of England have criticised a planned new government definition of extremism, warning it “risks vilifying the wrong people”.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and Stephen Cotterell, said “labelling a multifaceted problem as hateful extremism” also risks creating “more division”.

Extremism is currently defined 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 beliefs”.

But the government is preparing to set out a new definition on Thursday which it will use to blacklist any groups which have breached it.

The decision comes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier this month used an address to the nation outside Downing Street to warn of “extremist disruption” and “forces here at home trying to tear us apart”.

Mr Sunak and his administration have been concerned about pro-Palestine protests – predominantly peaceful demonstrations, attended by hundreds of thousands of people across the UK since the Israel-Gaza conflict started in October, to call for a ceasefire – being hijacked by Islamists who want to spread messages of hate.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove said recently that some pro-Palestinian events “have been organised by extremist organisations”.

He said that “good-hearted people” who have taken part in marches should be aware they could be “lending credence” to extremists.

Mr Welby and Mr Cotterell, who attended an iftar at the York Mosque and Islamic Centre on Monday evening, said: “Instead of providing clarity or striking a conciliatory tone, we think labelling a multifaceted problem as hateful extremism may instead vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division.

“The new definition being proposed not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech, but also the right to worship and peaceful protest – things that have been hard won and form the fabric of a civilised society.

“Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse.”

They said the “growing division between different communities in this country” was a threat to the country's “rich diversity”.

The archbishops continued: “The UK has a proud history of welcoming people from all walks of life and celebrating diversity. We are a community of communities.

“Our leaders should cherish and promote that – and pursue policies that bring us together, not risk driving us apart.”

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, Mr Welby said extremism is a “shape-shifter” and “a very dangerous problem indeed”.

Pro-Palestinian protests in London – in pictures

He said: “I entirely agree that the problem has to be addressed. We see the fear of many, particularly Jewish groups and again Muslim groups, at the upsurge in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic behaviour.

“The role of government is essential to preserve security, but there are different ways of getting to an understanding of what we mean by extremism, and it being decided by government without drawing in the groups and networks across the country is where the mistake lies.”

He added: “There are limits to freedom of speech, but we’ve established those in this country over the centuries by consultation and emerging of what we think the limits are, rather than diktat.”

It comes as a group of senior figures, including three Conservative former home secretaries, warned that tackling extremism must not become a political football in the lead-up to the general election.

Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd are among signatories to a statement calling for “as broad a consensus as possible”, urging Labour and the Tories to “work together to build a shared understanding” of the problem.

Other signatories include former head of counter-terrorism policing Neil Basu, ex-head of the army Gen Lord Dannatt, the government's adviser on political violence Lord Walney and anti-Semitism adviser Lord Mann.

The statement said: “Keeping citizens safe is the first responsibility of government. So dealing with extremism is essential given the real threats from Islamist extremists, far-right extremists and others.

“It requires as broad a consensus as possible if we are to be successful in marginalising and defeating it.

It added: “Our country is most effective in tackling extremism when it does it together.”

Updated: March 14, 2024, 6:41 AM