Free expression online

Extremism Redefined: Caught in a Mouth Trap

Last month, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove MP, announced a new and expanded definition of extremism as part of the Government’s Counter Terrorism Strategy.

The announcement came after months of speculative media reports about government plans to tackle extremism and, as Gove told parliament, “grave concerns that the conflict in the Middle East is driving further polarisation”. Over the last six months, there has been a deeply worrying increase in antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks in the UK but there are also concerns that this new definition of extremism, like the previous one, is vague and broad, raising concerns about the potential abuse of power and infringement on civil liberties.

The new definition of extremism has been introduced against a backdrop of widespread protests in solidarity with people in Palestine and public anger at the government’s complicity with Israel’s actions in Gaza, which to date have killed over 33,000 civilians, including thousands of children. Despite the fact that these protests have been largely peaceful with few arrests, they have been described as “hate marches.” by the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman MP.

What’s changed?

Extremism is now defined as: “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to:

  1. Negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or
  1. Undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or
  1. Intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).”

While to some this may seem like a reasonable measure to protect against threats to democracy, the imprecise language leaves too much room for interpretation and potential misuse. The third of these – aiming to “intentionally create a permissive environment for others” is especially subjective and problematic: merely stating that legitimate grievances or drivers of extremism need to be tackled could be interpreted as falling within this definition.

It is crucial that we ask who gets to define extremism and what does this mean for human rights and free expression?

The definition also reinforces the age-old idea of a liberal nation state, which must be securitised against a threat. This threat is constructed as foreign and antithetical to “the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy.” Muslims have long been scapegoated as this outside threat to the nation state.

The scope of the guidance

The new guidance is non-statutory, meaning it will not be enshrined in law and will only affect parliamentarians and civil servants who will no longer be allowed to engage with groups that supposedly meet the new definition. The government’s independent reviewer of state threat legislation, Jonathan Hall KC, has warned that this defines people as extremists by “minsiterial decree”.

It is important to ask why the government have renewed their focus on extremism since 7 October, without proposing legislative changes and therefore denying parliamentary scrutiny. This may be because a previous attempt to redefine extremism by the Cameron government, failed to find a “legally robust” definition. However, regardless of how the new definition of extremism is applied, there will, no doubt, be a wider chilling effect on free speech.

What does the new definition of extremism mean for organisations that fall under its scope?

Gove went on to name groups which will likely fall under the new definition of extremism for holding ‘neo-nazi ideology’ or being of ‘Islamist orientation.’. The impact of this public censure is that they will be banned from meeting with parliamentarians, from receiving government funding, or from having people appointed to government boards.

It is unclear what evidence is being used to determine whether a group is “extremist” and there will be no appeals process if a group is labelled as such. Instead, they will have to challenge such decisions in the courts, with two of the named groups already challenging Gove to repeat the allegations without parliamentary privilege so that they can take legal action. The lack of right of reply for groups that fall under the new definition shows the government is using it for political point scoring and playing to the populist gallery, rather than any meaningful attempt to protect public safety.

Extremism in the context of Prevent

A key concern is that while the earlier definition of extremism focussed on action, the new definition focusses on ideology. As the previous definition was already used to surveil thousands of people, the new and expanded definition may sweep even more people under its scope. First introduced in 2005, Prevent is the Government’s flagship counter-terrorism programme with a stated aim “to identify and intervene with people at risk of committing terrorist acts.” The Prevent Duty imposes requirements on public bodies, including schools and healthcare providers, to refer individuals that they suspect are “susceptible to radicalisation”. Rather than functioning as a safeguarding tool, Prevent has facilitated mass data-collection and the wholesale surveillance of those referred to it.

A wide cross-section of civil society organisations have raised concerns over human and digital rights implications with Prevent. In Open Rights Group’s report Prevent and the Pre-Crime State: How unaccountable data practices are harming a generation’, we found that the data of people who are referred to Prevent is being widely shared and retained for years, even when referrals are marked ‘no further action’.  Other civil society organisations, such as Prevent Watch and Amnesty UK, have highlighted how Prevent disproportionately harms marginalised communities, including neurodiverse people and Muslims.

With the Government’s renewed focus on so-called “extremist beliefs,” we must be wary of how many more people may face surveillance under Prevent, despite posing no terrorist risk. Liberty has warned that “It is unclear at this stage how this new definition will be adapted and applied in the context of identifying individuals for Prevent; however… it will create confusion among public bodies who may use the new and broader definition.”

It has been reported that schools and other educational institutions are discouraging free expression for fear of falling foul of the new guidance. What’s more, some people may be inclined to self-censor the expression of their beliefs to avoid the risk of state intervention. Just last week the National Education Union (NEU) reported that the number of Prevent referrals for pupils “showing solidarity with Palestine” has risen. This again raises the question of who gets to define extremism. Does it make one an extremist to express solidarity with people who are being killed and to call for an end to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza? In making it difficult for people to speak freely about the shocking events and images reaching us, government policy and practice is suppressing legitimate dissent.

Sowing division at a time of crisis

Ultimately, the Government’s expanded definition of extremism must be understood as part of a wider move to narrow the parameters of political acceptability. In recent years, we have seen new restrictions on the right to protest, sweeping new powers for the police, as well as new censorship of online expression. It is necessary to ask: whose free speech is protected and who is obliged to keep quiet under the threat of being labelled an extremist? Paradoxically, in its supposed attempt to bring about social cohesion, the Government is weaponising the new definition of extremism for political point scoring, while sowing division at a time of crisis. In exploring this question, we can see the government’s new and expanded definition of extremism in a wider context of successive lurches towards authoritarianism.