Saturday, May 18, 2024

The UK Government (Finally) Distances Itself from Islamists

NewsThe UK Government (Finally) Distances Itself from Islamists

The British government has singled out three prominent Islamist groups as part of a counter-extremist campaign announced in Parliament last month. In a move that could be one of the last hurrahs for the Conservative Party before announcing an upcoming election it is expected to lose, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities of the United Kingdom, named the Muslim Association of Britain, which he called “The British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Cage International, and MEND, (AKA Muslim Engagement and Development) as possibly falling under a new definition of extremism launched in early March.

Hateful anti-British ideas that undermine our democracy, creating intimidation and fear, need ideologues to drive them.

Ian Acheson

It may all be “too little too late.” Yet the government’s moves undoubtedly reflect a growing awareness of the costs deriving from the long complacency of British institutions towards Islamism.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities of the United Kingdom. (Photo by Chris McAndrew via Wikimedia Commons)

Gove announced the new definition during a time of increased hostility toward British Jews and open threats directed at Members of Parliament that erupted in the months after the October 7 Massacre in Israel, including a 589 percent increase in antisemitic incidents documented by the Community Security Trust, a nonprofit charged with protecting Jews in the United Kingdom.

The new definition describes “extremism” as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance that aims to: negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve those results.” The new definition replaces a previous, less specific definition contained in the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy — “Prevent” — issued in 2011. 

During a March 14 debate in Parliament that followed the announcement of the definition, Gove drew a clear distinction between Islam and Islamism, declaring that “Islam is a great faith, a religion of peace that provides spiritual nourishment for millions, inspires countless acts of charity, and celebrates the virtues of generosity, compassion and kindness.” He described Islamism as “a totalitarian ideology which seeks to divide, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia law and seeks the overthrow of liberal democratic principles.” 

Gove also named the British National Socialist Movement and Patriotic Alternative as likely meeting the threshold of extremism under the definition because of their support for a neo-Nazi ideology that argues for forced repatriation, a white ethnostate, and the targeting of minority groups for intimidation. To reassure his critics, Gove stressed that the non-statutory definition would not outlaw organizations nor restrict their freedom of speech. “The intention in bringing forward this definition today is to make sure that the Government — we are talking about only the Government — work with organizations that are committed to peace and greater social cohesion,” Gove said in Parliament on March 14.

Government officials have had zero contact with any of the fringe British nationalist groups Gove mentioned in his speech. MEND, however, hosted campaign events ahead of regional and national elections and gatherings at Labour Party conferences. Moreover, its activist campaigns have previously been endorsed by politicians, including shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, former Conservative party chair Baroness Warsi, and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, while the Labour MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, served as a parliamentary officer for MEND.

Additionally, officials from the Muslim Association of Britain, MEND, and CAGE, have worked alongside police agencies and were consultees of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims which formulated the APPG’s 2018 definition of “Islamophobia.” This definition failed to distinguish between anti-Muslim hatred and opposition to Islamism, and was opposed by counter-terrorism officials, secularists, Muslim reformers, defenders of wider civil liberties, minority and women’s rights and free speech. It was still adopted by all UK political parties except the Conservatives, and dozens of local authorities including the Mayors of London and Manchester.

“As our new definition makes clear, extremism can lead to the radicalization of individuals, deny people their full rights and opportunities, suppress freedom of expression, incite hatred, weaken social cohesion, and ultimately, it can lead to acts of terrorism,” Gove said. The definition will not be used to ban offending groups, but will prevent named groups from receiving government funds or endorsement, Gove said. Groups that object to the “extremist” label will have the option of challenging a ministerial decision in the courts.

Lord Walney, Independent Adviser on Political Violence and Disruption, welcomed the definition, declaring “The threat to Britain from extremists includes those who may not use violence directly yet target our core values, so it is welcome that this updated definition includes those who seek to undermine or replace liberal democracy. Greater clarity in defining extremism can underpin a concerted approach across civil society to protect our country.”

Professor Ian Acheson, Senior Advisor, Counter Extremism Project said: “These are necessary next steps to confront and deter those who advocate for violent extremism. Hateful anti-British ideas that undermine our democracy, creating intimidation and fear, need ideologues to drive them. It is intolerable that the state underwrites people and organisations poisoning community life in one of the most successful multi-ethnic countries in the world.”

The Islamist groups named immediately accused Gove of using parliamentary privilege, under which utterances in the Houses of Parliament are not actionable, to slander them. The Muslim Association of Britain  and MEND invited him to repeat the charges against them outside parliament, so they can sue. 

The Islamist Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called the government’s proposals on extremism “undemocratic, divisive, and potentially illegal.”

CAGE called Gove’s announcement “a continuation of the decades-long strategy aimed at inciting and exploiting fears against Muslims to build an authoritarian and repressive infrastructure that suppresses any dissent that is not licensed by [the government].”

Two days prior to the announcement of the new definition, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had fretted in a joint statement that it might “vilify the wrong people” and “threaten freedom of speech…the right to worship and peaceful protest.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, who delivered the sermon at the state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, has often shared a platform with current or former officials of the Muslim Council of Britain in inter-faith circles, though the government has had zero contact with the organization since its then deputy secretary general signed the Istanbul Declaration in 2009, a document that advocated attacks on British soldiers and Jewish communities.

Despite this, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has continued to work with the MCB — the UKs largest umbrella body for Muslim organizations — founded through the collaborative efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami and Deobandi Islamists – while some of its member institutions such as East London Mosque, Finsbury Park Mosque and Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham have partnered with local councils, the police, the NHS (National Health Service) and been awarded millions in public funding for services from youth support to community healthcare, as reported by FWI. Naturally, the MCB echoed the Archbishops’ concerns about the the extremism definition the day after their statement, with Zara Mohammed, the group’s secretary general complaining about the increased use of the word “Islamist” in public discourse in Britain.

“In recent weeks, we’ve witnessed genuine extremism as leaders of the Conservative Party have smeared prominent Muslim politicians with the vague ‘Islamist’ label, perpetuating divisive narratives about Muslims purportedly plotting to seize control of the country,” Mohammed said. “The smears are coupled with a disgraceful demonisation of thousands of protestors calling for peace in Gaza. These attacks frequently surface in right-wing media outlets, fueled by divisive think tanks and wielded as weapons by government ministers.”

For all the pushback, the definition and Gove’s criticism of British Islamist groups may have had an impact. On Monday, April 1, 2024, the Labour Party announced that it will no longer have anything to do with MEND, of the groups Gove named as extremist. Labour MPs who have attended MEND gatherings have since expressed regret for having attended MEND events.

“Barry Sheerman, a fellow Labour MP, admitted he had attended a MEND event but was ‘disturbed’ to subsequently discover it allegedly hosted people with ‘deeply objectionable’ views. He said he had not since had any engagement with the group,” the Telegraph reported on April 1.

The process of disentangling national and local government from engagement with extremist groups deemed “extremist” under the definition may be fraught with legal hazard and challenge, and subject to continual derision from its critics, but the Conservative-iniated campaign is a good sign. The policy of vetting potential government partners for extremism will not easily be discarded by a future Labour government.

Hannah Baldock is a UK-based researcher on radicalization and terrorism.  

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