Nothing imbues confidence more than strong, clear policy from central government. And if anything has been strong and clear, the Conservative Party campaign against extremism certainly sounds robust. We are going to crack down on “extremism in all its forms” they cry; we will promote “British values” they proclaim; all with the tone of a shrill school-ma’am.
Of course, as has been noted here, here, here, here, here et al, the government are consistently looking for extremists in all the wrong places. They have not defined extremism (in any of its forms) and proposed the promotion of “British values” as the only counter-extremism measure, which it has similarly failed to define. These nebulous, vacuous terms have led to some preposterous circular reasoning. Extremism, inasmuch as it has been defined at all, is considered to be a failure to promote British values. Simultaneously, the government argue that promotion of British values is that which will stop the spread of extremism. All this whilst still not properly defining either term.
Given this, is it any wonder that today David Cameron is only able to claim that the Muslim Brotherhood are only “possible extremists”. The Guardian report that Cameron claimed “Parts of the Muslim Brotherhood have a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism”. As a result of such views “the government will consider taking action against the Muslim Brotherhood and could end up banning it”. One wonders how far one must endorse violent extremism, rather than holding a merely ambiguous position on the issue, before the government will consider you extremist? Surely anything short of clear denunciation of violent extremism would make one an extremist sympathiser at the very least?
Most incredibly, it seems the government pronouncement – in the clearest possible terms – that they might be, maybe, perhaps extremists has come amid pressure from the UAE. As Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, rightly pointed out: “we should decide these things based on real and credible intelligence and not pressure from Riyadh”. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood are, in actual fact, extremist or not should be determined on the basis of evidence, not as a result of threats from the UAE that they might pull out of lucrative oil and trade deals.
What is particularly galling about the whole thing is that a group who have “a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism” and whose members have “expressed support for terrorist attacks by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas” can only be described as “possible extremists”. And, to be honest, I am all for reserved language in order to protect free speech. The language employed here, of itself, is not the problem. The issue is that those who have never supported violent extremism, and who are highly unlikely to ever even sympathise with violent extremism, can be so readily called extremist.
Why can Extremism Disruption Orders be legitimately touted as reasonable for use against teachers who uphold the traditional view of marriage, branding them extremist, but the Muslim Brotherhood are only “possible extremists”? Why can evangelical street preachers be labelled extremist “hate preachers” (1), but those who sympathise with violent forms of Jihadism are only “possible extremists”? Why is a man currently in court facing charges for broadcasting “grossly offensive” remarks about Islam, when those who sympathise with the terrorist attacks of Hamas are only possible extremists worthy of a potential ban?
I am all for guarded language. I am absolutely in favour of seeking to maintain free speech and expression for all those not inciting violence. It is, therefore, incredible that case upon case gets to court where nobody is even accused of inciting any violence, only of saying something potentially offensive, whilst those who actively sympathise and (potentially) promote violence are treated with kid gloves and guarded language. All the more incredible is that nothing would have come of it at all were it not for pressure from the UAE who, themselves, are hardly a bastion of human rights. How can these things be so?
Surely such issues come from the government’s cack-handed approach to extremism to begin with. In it’s desire to avoid the label islamophobia it seeks to target all faiths in equal measure with its counter-extremism measures, irrespective of the liklihood of most faith-subscribers having any inclination toward violent extremism. Further, due to theological illiteracy or intellectual laziness, the government fails to distinguish between forms and strains of Islam. Rather than target measures towards particularly pernicious forms of Islamism, the government maintain that violent extremism has “nothing to do with Islam”. Such is a complete nonsense. That is not to say the majority of British Muslims support or sympathise with violent extremism, it is to make the rather obvious point that it is particular forms of Islam that inculcate violent extremism. It is here that counter-extremism measures ought to be targeted yet government are reluctant.
As a result, we find ourselves in the laughable position of deeming the Muslim Brotherhood merely “possible extremists” whilst an elderly septuagenarian pastor from Northern Ireland can be hauled through the courts. I suspect we have vacuous, ill-defined terms like “extremism in all its forms” and “British values” to thank for this dogs breakfast.
- This particular case has since been overturned by the Court of Appeal but it represents a worrying trend in how such things are labelled.