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Rishi Sunak launches plans to refer those who 'vilify Britain' to Prevent 

Tory leadership candidate announces raft of pledges to tackle 'Islamist extremism', failing to mention threat of the far right
Conservative MP Rishi Sunak gestures during a visit to Teesside Freeport in Redcar, north East England on 16 July 2022 (AFP)
Conservative MP Rishi Sunak at Teesside Freeport in Redcar, northeast England, on 16 July 2022 (AFP)
By Rayhan Uddin in London

Rishi Sunak has announced plans to treat those who "vilify Britain" as extremists to be referred to the government’s controversial Prevent programme, if he becomes the UK’s next prime minister. 

The Conservative Party leadership candidate will widen the definition of extremism to include those who are “vocal in their hatred of our country”, he pledged on Tuesday evening. 

“There is no more important duty for a prime minister than keeping our country and our people safe,” Sunak said. “Whether redoubling our efforts to tackle Islamist extremism or rooting out those who are vocal in their hatred of our country, I will do whatever it takes to fulfil that duty.”

The former UK chancellor claimed that Islamist extremism was “the single largest threat to the UK’s national security”, and added that the Prevent strategy was failing to address it.

He vowed to segregate imprisoned extremists from other inmates, in an attempt to stem the spread of Islamist ideology, and audit publicly funded charities and organisations to weed out those promoting extremism.

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Sunak is competing against Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to become the UK's next premier, following Boris Johnson's resignation last month. 

Far-right extremism 'downplayed'

Maria W Norris, a researcher on terrorism and security at Coventry University, cast doubt on the accuracy of Sunak’s assessment of the threat from "Islamist extremism". 

“It is difficult to ascertain which threat is the most significant, because this is a judgment call,” she told Middle East Eye. “But for years now, the police, experts and even those engaged with Prevent have been saying the threat from far-right extremism is as significant as that from Islamic extremism.” 

Sunak failed to mention far-right extremism in his pledge, which the UK parliament's intelligence and security committee warned last month was on “an upward trajectory”. 

“Sunak’s proposals reveal the inherent flaws in the Prevent strategy: that it is in essence a political football designed to appease divisive ideologues rather than combat terrorism,” a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) told MEE. 

'Sunak’s proposals reveal the inherent flaws in the Prevent strategy: that it is in essence a political football designed to appease divisive ideologues' 

- MCB spokesperson 

“Will it include those who vilify footballers playing for our country while they speak out against racism? Will it include those very loud voices in the mainstream press who vilify our country by frequently railing against minorities?” 

Norris accused the leadership candidate of feeding into “a systematic move to downplay the threat from the far right” - citing a leak from a widely criticised review of Prevent which claimed that mainstream rightwing views were being unfairly punished by the programme. 

Leading human rights and civil liberties organisations in the UK have boycotted the long-delayed review, authored by William Shawcross, accusing the government of using the process to try to “whitewash” its counterterrorism strategy.

Several people took to social media to accuse Sunak of seeking to punish people for “thought crimes” and impinge upon free speech. 

His campaign team told The Telegraph that the policy would not include criticism of the government and was not legally binding. 

“Prevent has targeted Muslims from the start, and that is by design,” said Norris. “But this also will target dissent more generally, and even those who are campaigning for Scottish independence, for example.” 

The MCB echoed those sentiments, stating that the new policy would not only impact British Muslims, but society at large. 

“Everyone will be affected. Our fundamental civil rights, including that to freedom of expression and protest, for example, face grave risk when the state gains more power to police what we are allowed to say.”

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