[This is the third in a short series of posts about the UK Government’s counter extremism strategy, called “Prevent”]
In the autumn of 2014, the Conservative government announced a truly Orwellian plan to deal with “extremism” using new legislation. The proposals they described are not yet law, but will probably soon be put before parliament. Here is an extract from Theresa May’s speech at the 2014 Conservative party conference, when this plan was first mentioned:
I want to see new banning orders for extremist groups that fall short of the existing laws relating to terrorism. I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred. So both policies – Banning Orders and Extremism Disruption Orders – will be in the next Conservative manifesto.
Note especially the phrase “extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred”. Since it is already illegal to incite violence, this was a curious choice of phrase. What sort of “extremism” might this include? The proposals were indeed included in the manifesto, albeit vaguely. In October 2015 the government published a draft “Counter-Extremism Strategy” which can be found here:
In this document they gave some examples of the kinds of extremism that they intended to target with the orders, here is one of the examples of extreme speech that they gave (chapter 1, page 11, section 11, 4th bullet point):
- describing Islam as a “disgusting, backward, savage, barbarian, supremacist ideology masquerading as a religion.”
So, if you describe the Islamic religion in these terms you are, according to the government, an extremist. But there are also Islamic extremists apparently as well, this is an example they give of Islamic extremist speech:
- unbelievers (or ‘Kufaar’) are “not worth anything, less than an ant, less than an insect, less than a dog. A dog has more honour than a Kafir and at least the dog he’s loyal to you.”
However surely the speaker here is just elaborating on this Koranic verse:
Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve, then they would not believe.
So, on this page of the document the government have both described a critic of Islam as an extremist but also (probably unwittingly) criticized the Islamic religion themselves. It almost seems to me the UK government is coming dangerously close to implicitly accusing itself of “extremism” here.
Worse still, no clear definition of extremism was even given in the document. The word is in any case very subjective. Not deterred by the difficulty of defining a clear legal definition they again announce:
Disrupting extremists – We will create new targeted powers, flexible enough to cover the full range of extremist behaviour, including where extremists sow division in our communities and seek to undermine the rule of law.
As I mentioned in the first post on the “Prevent” strategy, the government have themselves already been accused of sowing division by prominent Muslims, a type of “extremist” behaviour defined here. Is the government itself an extremist organization according to their own vague definition?
What other kinds of “extremism” might be targeted by the orders? One Conservative MP suggested that school teachers who argue against gay marriage should be subjected to the orders:
In short, it seems that just about anything the government doesn’t agree with then might be targeted. Perhaps global warming skeptics might be next? Opponents of mass immigration? Where might it end? There was a suggestion that environmental activists might be subjected to the orders in one speech I read about.
How would these orders work in practice? This is what I have gleaned so far:
If the police (or the home secretary? I’ve read different reports) feel that an individual is an extremist they will apply to the High Court for an Extremist Banning or Disruption Order against them. Apparently the criteria would be as vague as someone saying something in public that was likely to cause “alarm and distress”. Note here that many Muslims claimed to be alarmed and distressed by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Whilst they are subjected to the order, all public speaking or publishing that they do will have to be vetted by the police and approved before they can go public with it. (How long the orders would remain in force or what conditions would lead to them being lifted has not been revealed yet). If they bypass this process and go public without checking with the police beforehand, they will be in breach of the order and will have committed a criminal offence for which there will be a prison sentence. If this sounds like something out of the Soviet Union or George Orwell then that’s because it is like that. This is the thought police telling people what they can think and what they can’t.
One really big issue I have with these orders is that they would be directed at individuals rather than particular opinions. The incitement to violence law by contrast was aimed at a specific thing a person had said. Once subjected to one of the orders, journalists and commentators on current affairs could be effectively put out of business because absolutely every time they wanted to make a public statement they would have to submit it first to the police and then wait for approval. Even if the police allowed most things they wanted to say, the simple process of waiting for approval could hamper the person to the point where they were commenting on yesterday’s news always a day or more behind the rest – especially at weekends probably when the police were not on duty.
The stigma associated could also encourage people reading the person’s opinion to dismiss their views more readily, as the government would have tarred them with the brush and they could be dismissed as just that “extremist”, no need to listen to him/her. Of course this could also work in the opposite direction and encourage other people to read their views more intently, if they were generally suspicious of the government. Either reaction is bad though, because in the first reaction the government is successfully interfering with free speech, and in the second distrust of the government is increased which is also bad for democracy. Different people would react in different ways and so these are not contradictory objections.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, the government could even use the orders to silence their political opponents.
Crucially, will the public be kept informed about who the orders have been used against, and how? If so, then that revelation could undermine the very point of the orders, because the very opinion that the authorities are trying to suppress will be so publicized and will be much discussed in the media. If not, then it would seem to me that the thought police state has become a reality, because opinions will be being suppressed, and we won’t know whose opinions or why.