The ‘extremism asbo’: Time for clarity

Originally Published by Progress: 30 September 2014. Original linked here.

In today’s speech by home secretary Theresa May at the Conservative party conference, audiences were left with the overall sense that extremism, in its broadest sense, would be directly confronted by the Conservative government’s manifesto.Much of what May declared today should be welcomed by British audiences. However, we also need to be wary about rhetoric that remains committed to certain negative measures, such as censorship, in combating extremism. We should also be cautious as to how the government will define the complex and controversial process of labeling individuals as ‘extremists’ and at what point legal officials should intervene.

Welcoming a government approach that embraces civil society efforts

Most of May’s speech was an empowering message to rally the masses against the roots of extremism. Exclusionary extremist ideologies, whether overtly violent or non-violent, are the first step leading individuals down a path that erodes human rights values and democratic principles to the point of violent extremism. May rightfully pointed out that ‘we need to defeat the ideology that lies behind the threat’. Civil society efforts to challenge xenophobic and segregation-based ideologies should be supported whole heartedly.

May has committed her party to embracing a more robust counter-extremism strategy, coordinating counter-extremism efforts across government departments. The potential to develop a central hub of knowledge and expertise to facilitate this coordination would be a positive advance in ensuring continuity in efforts throughout the country.

Today’s discussion also addressed procedures necessary for preventing the Islamist extremist infiltration of institutions such as schools, prisons and charities. May spoke about measures to ensure that extremists are not funded or given a public platform to disseminate their ideologies through taxpayers’ money. While it is uncertain what these measures might entail we should embrace critical engagement to avoid giving undue space to exclusionary extremist ideologies.

Concerns about criminalising ‘extremism’

While much of the home secretary’s speech suggests positive steps will be taken in increasing counter-extremism and security efforts in Britain, certain aspects being discussed for inclusion in the Conservative manifesto cause concern.

New powers to ban extremist groups within the United Kingdom have been discussed in recent reports, calling for the Conservative government to curb the actions of ‘harmful’ individuals. This strong language targets growing concerns about home-grown radicalisation and the increasing impact of extremism within Britain. Stories of young Britons, and Europeans more broadly, being radicalised from comfortable family environments such that they join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, or are incentivised to carry out terrorist attacks within their own countries, have caused alarm and increased fears over security and stability.

However, policies that take legal measures against ‘extremism’ are harmful to the very threads of democracy and the freedom of expression that ‘British values’ uphold. This concern arises not least because defining ‘extremism’ remains a highly contested grey area.

Suggested measures by the Conservative government could be used to stop certain labelled individuals from speaking at public events and limit their usage of social media under what is being described as an ‘extremism asbo’. In creating policy that limits expression by those deemed as ‘extremist’ we must also question where the legislative line will be drawn. Can we expect questionable individuals coming from the English Defence League, British National party or even the United Kingdom Independence party to be silenced from the public arena? Most likely not.

As this is the case, we must question how ‘extremism disruption orders’ might work in practice, giving police officers the right to apply directly to the high court for an order to restrict extremist individuals from carrying our ‘harmful activities’ – again, terminology which begs for clarity.

Moving forward

While we speculate about how the government might clarify its terms in the finalising of the Conservative party’s manifesto we should unite behind positive measures that encourage civil society-led initiatives. We should also seek to better utilise the pre-existing laws we have to counter terrorism and violent extremism, which are already, as Theresa May pointed out in her speech, some of the most robust legal structures in Europe.

Censorship measures, whether online or offline, used in an attempt to rid Britain of unwanted ideologies will always attack a symptom rather than a cause. As history has taught us, we cannot censor an ideology. In light of this, we must instead critically engage with such ideologies, disallowing undue public space for figures disseminating xenophobic ideologies and strengthening the reasoning and support behind ideologies which teach equality and unity.

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