UK home secretary Theresa May has promised to get tough on “non-violent extremism” as well as terrorism. Unless this is narrowly defined, such measures may undermine civil liberties and do more to promote than to counter violence.
There had been calls for action after a man with a British accent was shown in a video murdering American journalist James Foley, taken captive while covering the Syrian civil war. The rise of Islamic State (sometimes known as ISIS or ISIL), a militia which uses the guise of religion in its brutal quest for power, is indeed alarming.
“The collapse of Syria, the emergence of Isil, and the territorial gains they have made in Iraq, present a significant danger not just in the Middle East but in Britain and across the West,” wrote May in the Telegraph. She pledged to do more to stop UK citizens from travelling overseas to engage in terrorism.
As well as confronting “the extremist ideology that sanctions and encourages terrorist activity”, she stated that “We have put in place measures to ensure we do not fund and do not collaborate with organisations that do not share British values. We are very clearly addressing non-violent extremism as well as ideology that justifies terrorism.”
Measures to prevent 'radicalisation' include making the Prevent programme a duty for public authorities and possibly “new banning orders for extremist groups that fall short of the legal threshold for terrorist proscription, as well as for new civil powers to target extremists who seek to radicalise others.”
Young people should indeed by discouraged from confusing piety with coercive behaviour to others, including women and gays, let alone joining ultra-violent militias. In Birmingham, problems arose in several schools, though there were concerns about the way that this was handled.
Strengthening the government’s power to punish those it regards as extremist, without proper checks and balances, may worsen alienation and damage what some might regard as 'British' (or universal) values of freedom and justice. It also fails to address key causes of sympathy for terrorism.
Discrimination on grounds of ethnicity and religion at home, and an unjust foreign policy in the Middle East based on US and UK corporate interests, create fertile ground for the spread of dubious ideologies. Observing friends and relatives being targeted despite little or no evidence of wrongdoing could make matters even worse.
In addition, if "non-violent extremism" is loosely defined, human rights could be undermined for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Civil liberties are already under attack. For instance a Lobbying Act was passed earlier in 2014 which could be used against campaigners for better public services or flood defences. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19686)
The definition of ‘terrorism’ under the Terrorism Act 2000 is already worryingly broad. It includes serious damage to property anywhere in the world aimed at influencing a government in order to advance a political or ideological cause. So if equipment used against pro-democracy protestors is damaged, those responsible can be classified as terrorists.
‘Non-violent extremism’ could include an even wider range of beliefs and activities. Non-Muslims should be alert to the fact that it is not only our neighbours who may be at risk. In 2002 the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado protested that Denver police had labelled the American Friends Service Committee, a pacifist Quaker group that once won the Nobel Peace Prize, as a “criminal extremist” organisation.
Anyone whose ultimate allegiance is not to the UK or US state, one of its current allies or global business interests could be potentially dubbed extremist. This would include many people of faith and humanists.
Principled defence of human rights for all, as well as vigilance about incitement to violence of whatever kind, would do more to counter terrorism than giving sweeping additional powers to the state.
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