David Cameron’s extremism quagmire: A struggle for definitions
In 1215CE, a charter of rights entitled the Magna Carta was sealed by the king of England to safeguard individuals from abuses of power, which was commemorated last year with its 800th anniversary. Fast forward 801 years, many would argue that the spirit of justice enshrined within the charter is needed now more than ever before.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Queen unveiled the legislative programme for the new parliamentary session, where she briefly mentioned the Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill, which will include banning "extremist" organisations, gagging orders against “hate” preachers, pressuring local authorities to implement "no platform" polices on premises, and the strengthening of Ofcom to block the broadcasting of “extremist material”.
Prime Minister David Cameron briefly touched upon the Counter Extremism Bill last May, and again in July and November, but details of the proposed bill was very much limited to the public and press alike. However, what we do know is that sources within Whitehall have revealed that there has been an ongoing "to and fro" on the specific issue of legally defining "extremism".
As it stands, extremism is currently defined under the much devoured Prevent policy as:
"The 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. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas."
Welcome to David Cameron’s 1984
This ambiguous definition underpinned by a set of arbitrary "values" has been widely accepted by numerous public institutions and government regulatory bodies, more so when Prevent became statutory under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act last February.
Whilst public and charity sector staff are compelled to refer back to the above definition when they are going about their new role as 21st century Stasi, much to the dislike of the Tory government, there has been widespread opposition to Prevent from teachers throughout the country and student unions, as well as hundreds of senior academics.
The National Union of Students (NUS), the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), National Union of Teachers (NUT), mosque councils across the country, police chiefs, human rights lawyers, to Cambridge university academics and Oxford University’s vice chancellor, are amongst many who have condemned the draconian nature of Prevent in the most uncompromising of terms. Furthermore, the current definition of "extremism" under Prevent does not have a legal standing in a court of law to justify the measures within the Counter-Extremism Bill.
Therefore, the elaboration of specific measures under the proposed bill is less important at this present moment in time than analysing the legal caveat which could justify the gagging and banning orders. Understandably, with this in mind, it makes absolute sense why it has taken the government nearly a year (and still counting) to settle on a legal definition of extremism, which will not be easily challenged in court, or appealed at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
In addition, Labour sources have leaked to the press that they will not only be distancing themselves from Cameron's proposed measures, but will also be scrutinising its legal perimeters in the context of preserving basic human rights, as well as looking at more inclusive alternatives to Prevent.
Personally, I would take Labour's nuanced "promises" with caution - after all, it was Labour under Tony Blair which introduced Prevent, and it was shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper who criticised Theresa May last year for paying lip service to the very same policies and "not doing enough". Also, let's not forget that the party is in the midst of a civil war between New Labour Blairites and "regressive" Corbynites, and if the recent anti-Semitism row is anything to go by, Labour will be extra careful not to be perceived as being "soft" to their alleged "Islamist extremist" supporters.
Definition and application
That said, this still leaves the government in a quagmire of setting out a legal definition of extremism, because venue cancellations, "no platform" policies for Muslim speakers, intruding into mosques, madrassas and Islamic faith schools is happening right now in a clandestine manner under the McCarthyite implementation of Prevent.
One can only assume that Cameron would now like to raise the bar, and reassert his premiership with a bold and blanket policy of silencing political dissenters under the disguise of preventing "non-violent extremism" - by banning, gagging, and suffocating the civic space for open debate and honest dialogue. It is laughable when you imagine that these laws and measures are being churned out by a government which champions the “great” British values of mutual tolerance, individual liberty, and freedom of expression to the rest of the world.
This is why the golden key behind the Counter Extremism Bill will undoubtedly be the legal definition of extremism, which the government has been working on tirelessly. Without a coherent and watertight definition, the Bill will inevitably fall flat on its face. A successful legal case for an “extremist” in the UK or Strasbourg would be very embarrassing for the government... unless there is no recourse to the ECHR as a result of a new Orwellian Bill of Rights - a plausible nightmare to ponder on.
On a concluding note to fellow British Muslims and leaders who are either sitting on the fence as passive spectators, or persist in parroting the term "extremist", when Mr Cameron speaks of "extremism" he is not referring to the traditional Islamic concept of "ghuluw", the ideology of the Khawarij, or the methodology of ISIS. He is referring to non-violent political organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islam and Hizb ut-Tahrir which existed long before 9/11 and 7/7. He is describing Muslims who subscribe to the conservative Salafi and Deobandi movements, which existed before the war on terror. Believe it or not, I am very sure that he is even including the Barelvis who have an uncompromising stance in defending the honour of Prophet Muhammad when he is maligned.
In a nutshell, the label "extremism" has become such a wide fishing net, that it basically includes every Muslim with a remote inclination towards a holistic normative conception of Islam. I would love to be proven wrong but this is the unfortunate reality we as a community find ourselves in.
Hence, the time is nigh and the environment is ripe for people of reason belonging to all faiths, no faith, and all political persuasions to come together and collectively oppose the further securitisation of this country. Today it is the Muslims, in the coming months and years the same laws can affect socialists, liberals, environmentalists, Christians, Jews and the growing disenfranchised working-class black and white communities.
Make a stand now, as it may be too late for others to defend your faith, race or political group if the state targets you as “extremists”.
- Dilly Hussain is the deputy editor of British Muslim news site 5Pillars. He also writes for the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, and contributes to the Foreign Policy Journal and Ceasefire Magazine. He regularly appears on Islam Channel, Russia Today, and BBC TV and radio discussing Middle East and North African politics, British foreign policy, Islamophobia and the war on terror. Follow him on Twitter @dillyhussain88
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron in London on 17 May, 2016 (AFP).