Hedayah template for UK centre of counter-extremism excellence

After Israel-Gaza protests, British government will announce new definition of extremism on Thursday

Police cordon pro-Palestinian protesters at Parliament in London, on January 6. Getty Images
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A UAE counter-extremism agency could be used as a template for a British centre of excellence as the UK government announces a new definition of extremism and how to tackle its threats.

The new definition comes into force on Thursday and Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, is expected to make a statement to Parliament outlining which community groups and people government bodies can fund and engage with.

Mr Gove is also expected to name far-right and Islamist extremist groups and the government is expected to publish a list of organisations covered by the definition in the coming weeks.

Groups on the list will only be able to appeal against their inclusion by launching a judicial review in the High Court.

Mr Gove said the new definition would “ensure that government does not inadvertently provide a platform to those setting out to subvert democracy and deny other people’s fundamental rights”.

“This is the work of extreme right-wing and Islamist extremists who are seeking to separate Muslims from the rest of society and create division within Muslim communities,” he said.

Britain will also set up a new counter-extremism “centre of excellence” that will, among other tasks, name groups and people who fit the new definition.

Prominent experts said the UAE's Hedayah centre for counter-extremism could provide an excellent template for the new British centre.

The UK unit will be set up in the Communities Department where counter-extremism academics will work with government officials to identify extremist elements.

The new definition says that “extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance”, which aimed to “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” or “undermine, overturn or replace” British democracy.

It concluded that extremism was also to “intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results” in the above two situations.

But if the definition is deemed to lack clarity, then it could backfire with certain groups being wrongly painted as extremist.

Announcing the new criteria, Mr Gove said it was necessary for Britain “to protect our democratic values” and to be “precise in identifying the dangers posed by extremism”.

Extremist ideologies had become more entrenched since the Israel-Gaza conflict began posing “a real risk to the security of our citizens and our democracy”.

The extremists wanted to radicalise people and “incite hatred”, Mr Gove said.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters march in London – video

Watch: Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters march in London

Watch: Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters march in London

Centre of excellence

The government's new centre of excellence might take lessons from the UAE’s Hedayah centre, which over the past decade has been successful in countering violent extremism with evidence-based programmes and strategic communications.

“As a global leader within the countering extremism and violent extremism community, we effectively build the capacity of communities and governments to promote tolerance, stability and security,” the Hedayah centre states as its main mission.

The UK move has been prompted by the Israel-Gaza war creating an intense atmosphere in Britain, with concern over the rise of radicalism among the hard-right and in pro-Palestinian marchers.

Protest outside UK Parliament calls for Gaza ceasefire – in pictures

UAE template

Dr Alan Mendoza, director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, suggested that the UAE could provide a “template” for the new centre

“Anywhere that's got a successful, evidence-based centre, such as the UAE or other countries, that can be transferred easily would be very useful template, but there are of course differences between countries and systems,” he told The National.

Thomas Carter, an extremism specialist at the Sibylline intelligence company, said a centre similar to the UAE’s could “address the underlying issues of extremism and that could be helpful”.

“Whether that's through education, increased dialogue or appropriate internet reforms to reduce the exposure of young individuals, ultimately that will be a good thing,” Mr Carter said.

Mr Gove is understood to want the UK centre, which will also train civil servants, to become a global authority on how to best tackle extremism.

It will also possibly gather intelligence among Muslim communities to observe emerging extremist threats.

Backfire danger

While the centre has been largely welcomed there is greater concern over what Mr Gove’s definition of extremism might be, with fears that it could increase tension.

“There is always a danger that one government might interpret it a certain way, then a subsequent government might decide something different, based on an amorphous definition,” said Dr Mendoza.

“People who this government intended not to be caught as extremists might get caught in a later government as the danger is it could become a hostage to political force.”

He said it was even possible that Mr Gove could be called an extremist by a future, far-left government.

The problem with a political definition, said Mr Carter, was that it would “ultimately have political consequences” which could see Britain witness the violence seen in Sweden and Denmark over people burning the Quran in alleged expressions of free speech.

Definition dilemma

The move has been propelled after the mass pro-Palestinian rallies that followed Israel’s intervention in Gaza. The rallies saw chants such as “From the river to the sea”, which is said to suggest the eradication of Israel and some have said is extremist.

This is a definition that Mr Gove might address in Parliament, although analysts point out that many of the protesters are anti-war activists rather than extremists.

Mr Gove insisted that while some groups are of concern, there had been no decision taken over which organisations may fall foul of the new definition. He suggested the single use of an offensive phrase would not be considered enough, but instead, it would be about a pattern of behaviour, ideology and actions.

Mr Carter said: “There's a danger of classifying legitimate organisations as extremists when they might not be. When does an extremist become an extremist is a million dollar question.”

Dr Mendoza said a clearer definition would be to include groups that “incite or advocate violence or seek to overthrow core institutions of the British state”, which could include Islamist extremists and the far-right.

“I hope the definition is going to be along those lines, clear and easy to understand, where there'll be minimum quibbling,” he said.

It is also understood that Mr Gove might use parliamentary privilege, which gives MPs legal immunity, in naming certain Muslim groups.

But his definition will allow the government, as well as institutions such as universities and councils, to ban engagement with Islamist extremist and far-right groups.

The definition will not come into law or give police greater powers as it is non-statutory but it will provide clarity on how the British government defines extremism.

Updated: March 14, 2024, 1:44 PM