May’s ‘extremism Asbos’ could lock up Muslims for thought-crime
By Nathan Dabrowski
Could Russell Brand be banned from British television under Theresa May’s new anti-terrorism powers? According to the letter of the law, he could be – which may not be such a bad thing judging by his Newsnight performance last week.
The home secretary's new 'extremism disruption orders', unveiled at the 2014 Conservative party conference, look to tackle the "full spectrum of extremism", targeting a wider group of individuals than those falling under the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act. The government will seek to censor those who not only "spread or incite hatred" but undertake "harmful activities" for the "purpose of overthrowing democracy". As Ian Dunt argues, the criteria are purposefully vague, granting the police a maximum of leeway before they "hand-pick their targets". The Socialist Workers Party could conceivably be targeted under this legislation, as could Russell Brand, whose call for Brits to stop voting and support the "rEVOLution" surely runs counter to May's idea of democracy.
Russell Brand and the Socialist Workers Party won't find themselves targeted under May's new discretionary powers, as the measures really target Islamic extremism. May made this abundantly clear in her party conference speech, where "extremism" was alternately conflated with terrorism and Isis. It also helped no-one when she stated that a "very complicated battle" for the "heart and soul" of Islam was taking place.
"It is not for Britain, or any other Western power, to try to resolve [this battle]," May stated, which seems odd next to her commitment to combating extremist Islam through censorship. Indeed, May even quoted the Koran in her address. The crux of the matter is that Britain has indeed waded into the 'battle for Islam', which, although it has a concrete military component in the form of air strikes on Isis, is above all a battle of ideas. If Isis is defeated militarily and yet nothing is done to combat the ideology underpinning its dangerous strand of violent extremism, there is little doubt that another terrorist cell will spring up in its place.
However, there are two key problems with the way May chooses to combat Islamic extremism. First, serious questions should be raised over whether censorship is ever truly effective against powerful ideas. As former attorney general Dominic Grieve warns, there is a good chance censorship will only fuel resentment of the government. Citizens may be prosecuted not for crimes they have committed but for what they think. May's powers risk undermining the very 'British values' she claims to uphold: tolerance, democracy and free speech.
Secondly, it would be foolish to think that Britain, a 'Christian country' according to the prime minister, has the legitimacy to weigh-in on matters of Islamic theology. In order to play a positive role in this battle of ideas, Britain must establish trusting relationships with recognised allies of the Muslim faith. Without these cultural gatekeepers, the government risks walking into a political and societal minefield, seeking to categorise and discern between Islamic doctrines it barely understands. For instance, many members of the political and media establishments claim that they have no qualms with 'moderate Muslims', yet the very term 'moderate' is loosely defined, and almost exclusively by non-Muslims.
A parallel can be found at the international level in the way the West treats its Muslim allies. Take the example of Qatar, by all accounts a country that could serve as an ideological example in the Arab world. Though the vast majority of Qataris abide by Wahhabism, the conservative strand of Sunni Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia, Qatar has proven that conservative Islamist views are not necessarily opposed to liberal values like the advancement of women and the separation of mosque and state. It is exactly Qatar's balance between respecting traditional Islamic teachings and maintaining an openness towards the outside world that has repeatedly allowed the small Gulf state to act as a mediator between Arab actors and the West, for instance by securing the release of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl from the Afghan Taliban in May 2014.
Rather than recognising the strategic importance of countries like Qatar in combating Islamic extremism, the reaction of many in the UK has been to lash out at any and all Muslims. It has been difficult to ignore the Telegraph's recent spate of articles accusing Qatar of financing terrorists, particularly Isis.
Qatar has hosted three major US military bases and is part of the current anti-Isis coalition, yet it seems that for some in the UK they will never be accepted as an ally until they ascribe to every tenant of UK government policy, from abandoning any Muslim beliefs Theresa May deems extremist to forsaking the Palestinian cause. Last August, Baroness Warsi resigned from the government over what she called the Foreign Office's "morally indefensible" position on Gaza. The government desperately needs to work with credible allies in the fight against Islamic extremism, lest Muslims in Britain and abroad resign themselves to living in a less inclusive society.
Nathan Dabrowski is an eastern European correspondent based in Krakow.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views.