The UK government’s approach to dealing with extremism has been enormously controversial since its strategy designed to counter it was released in 2015.
After years of invoking the subjective idea that extremists oppose “fundamental British values”, the government’s current definition of extremism been decried as unfit for purpose, with some far right-wing groups even using it to their advantage.
The UK government currently defines extremism as, “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”. But this definition and its emphasis on “fundamental British values” allows the far right to lean further into nationalism and distance themselves from allegations of extremism.
Research has also shown that the definition reinforces Islamophobic tropes while drawing on the controversial positions on UK Muslim communities by previous governments. So, if the government’s definition doesn’t quite work, then what exactly will?
In recent weeks, two new interventions have attempted to address the problem. The first is a report from the Commission for Countering Extremism. The second comes in the form of proposals from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. Sadly, neither offer better ways of understanding how to define or to effectively respond to extremism. There’s even potential for one to contradict the other.
Before we can come up with more suitable alternatives, it’s worth wrapping our heads around these two approaches.
A new definition
The Commission for Countering Extremism has been critical of the government’s definition and its shortfalls. While it’s correct to point out these flaws, the commission’s own explanation of “hateful extremism” is also concerning.
Under the commission’s definition, hateful extremism includes behaviours which:
Incite and amplify hate, engage in persistent hatred, or equivocate about and make the moral case for violence
Draw on hateful, hostile or supremacist beliefs directed at groups perceived as threats to the well-being, survival or success of another group
And cause (or are likely to cause) harm to individuals, communities or wider society
Much of this is open to interpretation, which means the definition could be applied inconsistently. It could also be unfairly applied to people or organisations that the government disagrees with. And that’s without addressing the fact that many of these offending behaviours are already covered by existing legislation. The incitement of racial or religious hatred is addressed under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, the glorification of terrorist violence under the Terrorism Act 2006, and offences perceived to be motivated by hostility or prejudice are covered by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and Criminal Justice Act 2003.
The fact that the commission now wants hateful extremism to be seen as akin to hate crime is also a cause for concern. Actions it considers examples of “hateful extremism” include:
Disseminating extremist propaganda and disinformation
Radicalising, indoctrinating and recruiting others to extremist ideologies
Inciting, inspiring, encouraging, glorifying or justifying violence against certain outgroups (groups those involved don’t identify with)
These criteria have the potential to be used against innocent, or non-violent ideological or political views. Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, which faced calls to be banned by all over the world in the late 1908s, could have easily been classified as an example of “hateful extremism” at the time because of perceptions that it was inherently Islamophobic.
Questionable positions promoted by the far right could also carry more weight. Calls from the likes of Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ to ban the Qur'an in 2017, for example, could easily be parroted under the commission’s understanding of “hateful extremism”. But arguably, Wilders’ rhetoric could be seen as inciting and amplifying hate, drawing on hateful, hostile or supremacist beliefs directed at Muslims and causing potential harm to those individuals, communities or wider society.
Turning away from ‘domestic extremism’
The Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services’ intervention focuses on changing terminology and no longer using “domestic extremism”, which had long been subject to criticism for its vagueness.
As David Anderson, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said in 2017, domestic extremism was:
an amorphous concept, stretching from groups which currently pose no more than occasional public order concerns (animal rights, anti-fracking) to attack-planning by associates of the proscribed XRW (extreme right-wing) terrorist organisation National Action.
The network for police monitoring, Netpol, agrees, alleging that police forces had arbitrarily used the term to crack down on groups they appeared biased or hostile towards. Lists of domestic extremists issued by the police in the past have included non-violent groups like Animal Aid, Extinction Rebellion and the Vegan Society alongside extremely violent groups like Atomwaffen Division, National Action and Sonnenkreig Division. That the guidance was badged “counter-terrorism policing” again highlights a worrying lack of distinction between extremism and terrorism.
Though the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services’ decision to abandon the term “domestic extremism” is welcome, its intention to replace it with “aggravated activist” is a problem. Because of this unclear wording, it’s likely that non-violent groups that respect and observe human and civil rights will continue to be unfairly targeted, criminalising those who protest or hold views that go against social norms.
This, along with the recently introduced police, crime, sentencing and courts bill could also lead to more people potentially losing their right to protest. Among other things, the proposed legislation will give the police more extreme restrictions on public demonstrations.
It’s not hard to imagine how movements for social progress we now celebrate would be targeted today. If say, the suffragettes had emerged a century later than they did, it’s likely that under this criteria, they too would’ve been classed as “extremists”.
We need a new response to extremism. A good start would be to revisit the government’s confused strategy. Clearly laying out the differences between extremism and terrorism and how extremist views make people vulnerable to terrorism, if at all, is also necessary.
As the Commission and Inspectorate’s interventions show, there also needs to be much more consistency in how extremism is understood and responded to across various bodies. Until that happens, relying on adjusting definitions alone will just prolong these issues.
Chris Allen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.