David Cameron is obsessed with extremism. After his party’s surprise election victory the Home Office wasted no time drawing up a new Counter-Extremism bill; in a terrifying post-election speech he vowed to stop being ‘passively tolerant’ to those who simply obey the law; and just this week he declared extremist ideology the ‘struggle of our generation’.
Whenever politicians refer to extremism in such a way, it is invariably of the Islamist form, but the Tories’ plans to fight the rise of IS and other groups have much wider implications and will be far more damaging to Britain and our democracy.
In May, the National Security Council discussed the government’s plans to tackle extremism and reduced them to six exceptionally vague key points. These included further immigration restrictions on extremists, powers to close premises where extremists seek to influence others and the introduction of ‘Banning orders’ for organisations which seek to undermine democracy or use hate speech in public places. It’s notable that this strategy forgoes any attempt to tackle the causes of radicalisation and this week we found out why.
Speaking at a school in Birmingham, the Prime Minister rejected the notion that British foreign policy, poverty or social segregation might lead vulnerable individuals towards Islamic, or other, extremism. His naïve and stubborn narrative instead describes ‘extremist ideology itself’ as the cause of ‘the threat we face’. Quite how the new Counter-Extremism bill would deal with this is unclear; furthermore, focusing on the ideological causes of radicalisation wrongly places the burden of counter-extremism on Mosques and Muslim communities, most of which are no more responsible for the actions of IS than most Christians are for the actions of Anders Breivik or the Ku Klux Klan.
The government believes championing British values will stir the seemingly dormant patriotism in disillusioned groups of our society; but promoting freedom of speech and tolerance of other faiths is somewhat contradicted by the prospect of Banning Orders which could be imposed on individuals or groups that haven’t broken a single law. This apparent rejection of the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is what frightens most about the Tories’ approach to extremism.
Orchestrated by Theresa May, the Counter-Extremism bill will make public bodies such as schools and universities responsible for identifying extremism – which presumably means snooping on students – and will have implications far beyond combatting Islamic extremism. Back in May the National Secular Society expressed concerns about the effects of Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) on free speech, noting that the government’s plans are ‘very vague’. The Christian Institute echoed this sentiment, warning ‘there is a real risk that EDOs will be used to clamp down on legitimate expressions of dissent.’
Cameron’s speech this week will only add to such concerns. He unveiled plans for increased powers for Ofcom regarding foreign channels (despite championing freedom of the press in the same speech) and new powers to tackle ‘cult leaders’ who spread extremist messages – which would presumably include Russel Brand. Far from protecting the rights and values of British citizens, Cameron and May are cleverly exploiting fear of Islamic extremism to bring in back-door censorship and squeeze civil liberties.
This government is well rehearsed at exploiting prejudice this way. By manipulating legitimate concerns about the size of the welfare bill – supported in no small part by the media demonization of benefits ‘scroungers’ – the Tories have been able to implement vast and ideological cuts to welfare without ever addressing the cause of the problem; low pay. In much the same way, the Home Secretary is using the smokescreen of radical Islam to implement ideological and dangerous policies which also fail to address why British people are joining IS.
The anti-extremist crusade of Cameron and May is damaging the very things they claim to be protecting. No longer shackled by the Lib Dems, who fought the Counter-Extremism bill in the last parliament, the Tories are poised to suppress fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and personal privacy. With the support of the incessantly Islamophobic right-wing press and without an effective opposition in parliament, it seems this time there is nothing stopping them.