[This is the second in a short series of posts about the UK Government’s counter extremism strategy, called “Prevent”]
In the run up to the general election in spring 2015, a new tougher rhetoric began to be heard from the Conservative party leadership. It seemed they were realizing that the “Prevent” strategy was not proving terribly effective. An almost endless stream of Islam-related bad news stories kept appearing in the press. A clearly not very de-radicalized individual nicknamed as “Jihadi John” (because of his English accent) kept appearing in online videos which showed him hacking the heads off people including an aid worker and a journalist. A lot of other UK citizens were also believed to have gone to join the Islamic State.
In a speech in autumn 2014, the home secretary Theresa May announced:
And I want to tell you about another change we intend to make. As part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent has only ever been focused on the hard end of the extremism spectrum. So the Home Office will soon, for the first time, assume responsibility for a new counter-extremism strategy that goes beyond terrorism.
Was she just talking about Islamic extremism here? Was she just talking more generally about the sort of extremism that directly incited violence perhaps? It soon became clear that she was referring to all sorts of other kinds of “extremism” as well:
And our policy doesn’t just focus on violent extremism, it deals with non-violent extremism too.
So what, exactly, constitutes non-violent extremism? She listed a number of Islamic hate preachers that she had “kicked out” of the country. She did not mention the fact that she had also barred two well known critics of Islam (Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller) from entering the UK to speak on Islam at an EDL rally in 2013.
Other phrases such as “extremism in all its forms” were repeatedly heard in speeches by the Tory leadership from this time onward. She also said in the same speech that free speech was an important British value. So where exactly was the line going to be drawn between extremism and free speech? It was not at all clear. She concluded the speech with this:
We must confront segregation and sectarianism. We must face down extremism in all its forms. We must stand up for our values. Because, in the end, as they have done before, those values, our British values, will win the day, and we will prevail.
It became no clearer at all where the line would be drawn when she tried to clarify this in July 2015:
We’re not talking about curbing free speech. We recognize that free speech is one of our values. But we have to look at the impact some people have in terms of the poisonous ideology they plant in people’s minds that will lead them to challenge, lead them to undermine the values we share as a country.
So how exactly were the prime minister and home secretary going to confront “non-violent extremism”?. It was clear from the speech that they intended to introduce new legislation, Orwellian measures called “Extremist Banning and Disruption Orders”. I will examine these in detail in the next post.