September 6, 2017
“Keep calm and carry on” is something of the British mantra when in crisis. The current threat level for international terrorism in the UK is severe. An attack is highly likely. Following the Manchester bombings, it was raised to its highest level – “critical” – something that had not been done since June 2007. Terror attacks are imminent, every single day. And what is the government’s response?
Recently, Theresa May announced plans to introduce new anti-extremism laws, in a four-point plan to defeat the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism” by promoting “superior” British values. May is working on international agreements to deny extremism the online “safe space” to develop, looking to break up segregation in society, and promises to advance a new counter-terror strategy “to make sure the police and security services have all the powers they need.”
Unfortunately, the proposals and strategies all miss the mark in one major respect setting them on a failing trajectory. There is no clear definition of extremism. Attempts to-date appear to rest on the similarly undefined concept of “fundamental British values.” This lack of a clear definition was the very reason why the government’s previous counter-terrorism proposals were sent back to the drawing board after a damning review by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in July 2016.
And yet the government presses on. It pledged to introduce a new counter-extremism bill in both the 2015 and 2016 Queen’s Speeches. Despite still being unable to define it, the Conservative manifesto contained a dedicated section on the government’s commitment to “defeating extremism”, and May boasts of her proposed stringent counter-terror package, including tougher TPIMs, more deportations, and extensive new surveillance powers.
The government has it’s citizens’ security at heart. At a time when threats loom large, it is compelling to give the authorities the powers to protect. It is incontestable that the government needs to provide security for citizens to enjoy their rights. But should even the most well-meaning government restrict people’s rights in the name of security? We mustn’t overlook the very essence of what we are fighting for, our fundamental freedom. It would be a pity to play into the hands of terrorists by enabling them to shape our laws in a way that undermines the bedrock of our democracy. Although the emergency measures may keep us safe and afloat for a while, they have the dangerous potential to wreck the lives of innocent members of society.
May’s threats of derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights, should ring alarm bells. When referring to ways to increase controls on extremists, May affirmed that if human rights got in the way she would simply change those laws. As a result of the government’s efforts to safeguard Britain against another attack, most of the rights the British take for granted, including the rights to free speech or a fair trial are being seriously threatened.
Unless the criteria are tightly defined, the measures could be used against almost anyone. Similarly to Russia’s anti-terror legislation aimed at countering the evil of ISIS, the effect could be chilling on religious communities. In Russia, there have been reports of Adventists, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas and Jehovah’s Witnesses being charged, and even convicted under the new law. The Russian Supreme Court went as far as to outlaw the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country, classifying the non-violent group “extremist.” We have been warned, the slope is slippery, and even the basic tenets of Islam, Judaism or Christianity could be deemed offensive, and branded un-British.
There is something calming about the British catch phrase “keep calm and carry on.” An injunction to continue acting as you have always acted. To continue minding your own business. An implied reassurance that things are under control. But in today’s most troubled period of peacetime, the government is no longer in tune with its nation.
In light of the government’s recent announcement of its plans to establish a commission to crack down on extremism, a nationwide representative poll was commissioned by ADF International, the Evangelical Alliance, and other human rights organizations. The results of the survey are clear: more than half of the population believe that “extreme” is not a helpful term when discussing social or political opinions.
Promising greater security, the authorities might end up criminalizing everyone. If ISIS was looking to destabilize our fundamental values, they might well be succeeding.ADF International