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Archbishops warn UK extremism definition will target Muslim communities

Church of England leaders say overhaul of UK counter-extremism strategy threatens free speech, rights to worship and peaceful protest, and could 'vilify the wrong people'
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said government plans for a new definition of extremism risked causing more division (Richard Heathcote/Pool/AFP)

The head of the Anglican church in the UK has added his voice to a growing clamour of criticism over the government’s plans to launch a new definition of extremism, warning that the measure risks “disproportionately targeting Muslim communities”.

In a statement published late on Tuesday, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, warned that the new definition threatened free speech, the rights to worship and peaceful protest, and could “vilify the wrong people”.

“Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse,” said the archbishops, the two most senior clerics in the Church of England.

Warning of “growing division” between communities in the UK, in which Jewish and Muslim people had both spoken of feeling unsafe, the archbishops said the definition - part of a new counter-extremism strategy set to be launched in parliament on Thursday by Communities Secretary Michael Gove - risked making the situation worse.

“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," said the archbishops.

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"We are concerned – like so many others – by its implications for public life. We join calls for the government to reconsider its approach and instead have a broad-based conversation with all those who it will affect."

The archbishops’ intervention came after a trio of leading campaign groups – Amnesty International, Liberty and Friends of the Earth - earlier on Tuesday condemned expected details of the new counter-extremism strategy as “profoundly undemocratic”.

Reports have suggested that earlier unpublished drafts of the document suggested that the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the largest representative organisation of Muslims in the UK, could be captured by the definition.

The MCB has called the plans “offensive, ludicrous and dangerous”.

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A leaked document purported to be a draft ministerial statement seen by MEE on Wednesday included the names of a number of Muslim community advocacy organisations, but not the MCB.

The draft statement describes the groups as having an "Islamist orientation" and of being "divisive forces within Muslim communties".

It says the government will "take action as appropriate" against groups it assesses as extemist according to the new definition.

Gove and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have both suggested that the new measures could be targeted against pro-Palestinian activism and groups alleged to be proponents of Islamist ideology.

But their plans have also been criticised by three former home secretaries, Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel, who in a letter on Monday warned the government about playing politics over concerns about extremism ahead of a general election expected within months.

“In the run-up to a general election it’s particularly important that that consensus is maintained and that no political party uses the issue to seek short-term tactical advantage,” they said in a letter also signed by a former army chief, a former head of counterterrorism policing and Gove’s own social cohesion adviser, Sara Khan.

The UK’s current counter-extremism strategy, which was last updated in 2015, defines extremism as “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.”

The new definition of extremism is reported to be the “promotion or advancement of ideology based on hatred, intolerance or violence, or undermining or overturning the rights or freedoms of others, or of undermining democracy itself".

However, the government has declined to confirm this wording, telling MEE only that it will “set out further details shortly”.

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