A Threat to Democracy

In May, David Cameron announced a new counter-terrorism bill handing powers to police and government ministers to limit the “harmful activities” of individuals and groups deemed a threat to democracy, with additional powers to close religious schools found teaching views intolerant of other religions. 

The proposals sparked concerns from academics and religious representatives worried about the potential chilling effect on free speech. Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg said:

“While the exact wording of the law remains to be seen, it is unclear why new legislation is needed. Current laws on incitement to violence and hatred can already be applied to extremist individuals or groups. New laws risk simply stifling a far broader range of speech.”

A statement from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) challenged the Prime Minister’s claims that students in Islamic supplementary schools are beaten and indoctrinated.

“It is neither Islamic, nor prevalent in madrasahs to be isolationist or to preach hate of other faiths. We would hope that these allegations can be substantiated and the evidence brought forward, so that appropriate action can be taken.”

Further initiatives preventing “hate preachers” from speaking at universities took effect in September. Downing Street laid out its agenda in a press release. Citing research conducted by the government’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), the release states that over 70 events involving speakers “known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy” were held on university campuses in 2014. 

Honouring the Prime Minister’s pledge to “name and shame” institutions that give platforms to extremist speakers, four universities are singled out for our contempt. Spokespeople for all four have since denied having hosted the speakers named in the release. Its findings were later discredited by Times Higher Education after it was discovered that the EAU lifted its most inflammatory passages, without attribution, from a misleading report by Student Rights, an arm of the Henry Jackson Society.

A Guardian article on Muhammad Umar Farooq, a post-graduate student at Staffordshire University falsely accused of being a terrorist, served only to poke holes in the theory that Britain’s universities are hotbeds of terrorist activity. The subsequent acquittal of Yousif Badri, a medical student at Aberdeen University accused of being involved in conduct “with the intention of committing acts of terrorism,” did not bode well for the cause.

Then came the news that teachers from Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham referred a ten-year-old Muslim boy to police on suspicion of harbouring terrorist tendencies after he requested the provision of a prayer room. The capper: last week, the Family Division of the Judiciary put out a memo detailing the process by which children, on suspicion of possible radicalisation, will be removed from their homes to be made wards of the state.

The Counter-Extremism Strategy

Cameron’s long-awaited Counter-Extremism Strategy – reaching into all corners of British life – was finally unveiled this month. Its proposals include:

• A full review of public institutions such as school, further and higher education colleges, local authorities, the NHS and civil service to ensure they are protected from “entryism” – or infiltration – by extremists.

• An official investigation into the application of Sharia law in the UK.

• Extremism disruption orders to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour.

• Closure orders for law enforcement and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism.

• Tougher powers for broadcasting regulator Ofcom so action can be taken against radio and television channels showing extremist content.

• Demands that internet service providers do more to remove extremist material and identify those responsible for it.

• Anyone with a conviction or civil order for extremist activity will also be automatically barred from working with children and vulnerable people.

The new law would also give parents worried that their 16 and 17-year-old children might travel to join Islamic State the power to apply to have their passports removed, while anyone with a conviction for terrorist offences or extremist activity would be banned from working with children.

The Response to the Counter-Extremism Strategy

Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg reaffirmed her view about the chilling effects the new law will have on free speech:

“We are concerned that the extremism strategy outlined this morning has the potential to massively damage the reputation of the British educational establishment – universities in particular which should be the home of debate and academic inquiry. This will have the effect of ramping up a climate of fear where both lecturers and students are afraid to speak.”

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said that the government’s enforcement of “British” values actually undermines one of the fundamental values of democracy:

“The government has created an impossible bind for itself: in the name of protecting our values, it’s now seeking to undermine the most fundamental value of all for democracy – freedom of expression. This is a deeply misguided policy that will not only stigmatise minorities, it will criminalise political speech across society and introduce a culture of caution.”

I’ll sign-off with a quote from Sir Peter Fahy, former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, who spoke out against the proposals in his last week before retiring. Via the Guardian:

“There is a concern that efforts to control extremist narratives will limit free speech and backfire if we don’t get the balance right. The efforts to control extremism and limit protest by those caught by too wide a definition may undermine the very rights and British values you seek to protect.”

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