UK’s new definition must be turning point against all forms of extremism

UK’s new definition must be turning point against all forms of extremism

There is a new “more precise” definition of extremism tabled by UK Secretary of State for Levelling Up and Communities Michael Gove in Parliament this week.

The minister told the House of Commons: “The activities of the extreme right wing are a growing worry. The targeting of both Muslim and Jewish communities and individuals by these groups is a profound concern requiring concerted action.

“As with our definition of extremism, it is important that we be precise in our use of language when discussing Islamism. Islamism should never be confused with Islam. Islam is a great faith, a religion of peace… Islamism is a totalitarian ideology that seeks to divide, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia law, and seeks the overthrow of liberal democratic principles.”

It follows an impassioned speech by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak from 10 Downing Street earlier this month which shone the spotlight on the rising threat of domestic extremism, a threat that the country’s first British Indian leader said was “trying to tear us apart”.

Sunak used his speech to flag that both far-right and Islamist extremism “are two sides of the same extremist coin”. Conceptually, this is a sound approach. Any ideology that preaches stigmatising or attacking individuals based on their religion or skin colour should be rightly ostracised.

The arrest of three individuals in the British midlands last month for far-right extremist activities and terrorism offences underscores that the far-right threat has not disappeared, it has merely gone underground.

Global threats

And, the global nature of threats posted to social cohesion in British society was highlighted in a recent independent report commissioned by the UK government’s Commission for Countering Extremism. ‘Understanding and Responding to Blasphemy Extremism in the UK’ concluded that responses to perceived acts of blasphemy in the UK are more organised than ever and some of the most prominent voices involved have links to violent anti-blasphemy extremists in Pakistan.

Among its recommendations for the government, the report calls for a review of the charitable status of bodies and organisations linked to anti-blasphemy extremism, especially those linked to supporters of blasphemy violence abroad, such as in Pakistan.

Of course, the ongoing war in the Middle East is the trigger point for a surge in tensions here in Britain, as communities grapple with a destructive war in the aftermath of the atrocities of the 7 October 2023 terrorist attack on Israel, and emotions continue to run high on both sides of that political divide.

Irrespective of their beliefs or aims, extremists often either hold outlandish views, such as holding entire communities responsible for the actions of a few and may use extreme methods including violence to achieve what they want.

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High costs

Extremist attacks can be costly in terms of human life, with 11,526 deaths caused by terrorism in 2021, not to mention the economic consequences of successful terrorist attacks which can scare away investment, tourism and business sentiment. Terrorism cost European Union (EU) member states $28bn between 2004 and 2018, not a small amount of money. 

Today powerful ways exist for extremist materials to poison the minds of the vulnerable, the Internet being the most obvious. Britain stands at the crossroads of the confrontation between the order of a civilised society and the chaos espoused by extremists of different kinds.

Indian governments across partisan lines, both the governing BJP and Opposition Congress-led, have historically had strong complaints about Britain perceived as not taking seriously enough the threat posed by pro-Khalistan extremism. This extremist movement claimed the lives of thousands in India and is associated with the blast of an Air India airliner in the 1980s.

For years, Khalistani preachers have resided in Britain and anti-India protests outside the Indian High Commission in London by such groups have often turned violent. This has led to intense Indian diplomatic pressure on the UK to take the threat of anti-India extremism more seriously. This threat appears to be finally taken more seriously, with a very visible security presence outside India House in London.

Britain has acted against some violent anti-India extremists, including pro-Khalistan extremists, judiciously in the past. It has proscribed (banned) certain groups advocating violent separation from India. Britain also created a joint working group with India to tackle violent separatist threats in August 2023, funding the working group with GBP 95,000. That may not seem like a huge amount, but it is a good starting point. Countering extremism intelligently tends to revolve more around quiet police work, including surveillance and building a robust legal case that can remove extremists from the public eye through prosecution.

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Measured response

Militarised responses to extremist threats only inflame the threat unnecessarily by increasing tensions and also by feeding into a narrative of victimhood and oppression, which seems to be a universal theme in the philosophy of extremists globally. The US learnt this costly lesson the hard way in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, blundering around the Middle East.

Sometimes, winning hearts and minds is the better option even if it requires patience and bearing short-term costs. However, the rewards of this approach can be very substantial, as India has shown in defeating multiple insurgencies and reaping the reward with record investment and economic growth. This is a lesson that other states grappling with a long-standing extremism challenge, such as Israel, might do well to internalise.

Other counter-radicalisation measures under consideration in the UK includes potentially blocking visas of hate preachers, some of whom have previously been given free rein. Preventing charismatic but potentially destabilising individuals from entering the UK is an essential first step towards a renewed and robust response to a rising tide of extremism. Ministers already have the power to block individuals that are “non-conducive” to the public good. If the visa approval process changes go through, ministers can now block those who preach racism towards other groups.

The efficiency of the fight against extremism in Britain is further hampered by controversy over the British counter-extremism scheme, “Prevent”. It has come under scrutiny for allegedly discriminating against certain communities. Efforts are on to both make Prevent more accountable and ensure that practitioners are trained to understand what an extremist is and how to refer them to appropriate de-radicalisation programmes.

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United approach

Britain and India face a common threat in rising extremism. In recent decades, there has been greater British empathy towards the Indian position on violent extremism. This arguably stems from better British awareness that extremism is a growing and multifaceted threat that is best countered by co-operation by intelligence networks between countries and internally, which is a sensible position to take.

There is no margin for error with a threat as insidious as extremism, which undermines social cohesion. It is to be hoped that the raft of new legislative counter-extremism measures and increased cooperation with partners such as India contribute to making Britain and the world a safer place.

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Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.

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