London: The UK government is planning to widen extremism laws to punish people who “undermine” the country’s values and institutions amid massive pro-Palestinian protests across Britain, The Observer reported on Sunday.
The newspaper said it had seen official documents that could label several Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups — including the Muslim Council of Britain, Palestine Action and Muslim Engagement and Development — as extremist organizations.
It also reported that government insiders said the new definition of extremism could ban legitimate criticism of the state, with one saying: “The concern is that this is a crackdown on freedom of speech. The definition is too broad and will capture legitimate organisations and individuals.”
The news comes at a difficult moment for the government, which has backed Israel in its assault on Gaza, as mass pro-Palestinian protests continue for a fourth week on the streets of London and other major British cities.
Last week, Home Secretary Suella Braverman caused controversy when she referred to the protests, which have repeatedly drawn hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, as “hate marches.”
The proposals, being finalized by civil servants working for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Minister Michael Gove, come after a review of non-violent extremism in the UK was launched earlier in 2023.
The documents, marked “official — sensitive,” state: “Extremism is the promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values; or threaten the rights of individuals or create a permissive environment for radicalisation, hate crime and terrorism.”
Also included is the suggestion that “sustained support for, or continued uncritical association with organisations or individuals who are exhibiting extremist behaviours” would fall under the new definition, which should be supported with public guidance that enables “consistent use and application.”
The documents state that “stakeholders have thus far agreed this sets a clear threshold for identifying extremism.” So far, there has been no public consultation on the proposed definition.
Akiko Hart, interim director of human rights group Liberty, called the proposals “reckless and cynical.”
She told The Observer: “Expanding the definition so far beyond the current guidance risks further discouraging individuals and groups from legitimately exercising their right to free speech, while allowing the government to crack down on community groups, charities or faith groups they disagree with.”
She was echoed by Martin Bright, editor-at-large of the Index on Censorship, who said: “This is an unwarranted attack on freedom of expression and would potentially criminalise every student radical and revolutionary dissident. It has never been the British way to arrest people for thought crime.”
Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty International’s racial justice director for the UK, told The Observer: “This definition must not be accepted or implemented. The definition of extremism and its usage in counter-terrorism policies … is already being applied so broadly it seeks to effectively hinder people from organising and mobilising. The proposed definition takes this even further and could criminalise any dissent.”
The Prevent strategy, introduced in 2011, defines extremism as “active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
The MCB told The Observer that the government “needs to challenge its own extremists who are intent on dividing our communities.”
Palestine Action told the newspaper: “This new definition is clearly an attempt to undermine and intimidate our movement. We refuse to be deterred.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are clear there is no place for extremism, and over the last few years we have taken action to tackle hatred and those who seek to divide us.
“As you would expect, we keep our approach to tackling extremism under review to ensure it meets the evolving challenge it poses.”