How extreme are you?

by Jo Frost

How will Michael Gove’s new definition of extremism affect ordinary people, and should we all be concerned?

Scandals regarding racism, antisemitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric flood social media and column inches, as protests turn bloody and ripples of war reach our shores. As a result the challenge of protecting UK citizens whilst safeguarding fundamental human rights like freedom of assembly, speech and belief intensifies.

The headline

The presenting issue this week has been around the issue of extremism, as levelling up minister Michael Gove announced a new government definition of extremism designed to help government departments identify and exclude organisations that threaten the democratic stability of our country. But many people are deeply concerned about what Mr Gove is doing and the chilling effect it could have on us all.

Mr Gove has defined 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 [this]”.

A bit like the first glance of a certain family’s Mother’s Day photo; on the surface all may look fine, but as they say – the devil is in the detail.

But before we explore the potential pitfalls of Michael Gove’s latest missive, we need to understand why and how we’ve got here.

Tolerating the intolerable?

Violent extremism and the radicalisation of belief has been a concern of successive governments since the so-called ‘war on terror’ of the early noughties. Severing the progressive relationship between non-violent and violent extremism has been the white whale of many a home office incumbent. Because, whilst the dangers of radicalisation – especially online – are well known and well documented, legislating against them is fraught with difficulty.

The issue at the heart of this debate is: how can a liberal society founded on core human freedoms tolerate the intolerable whilst protecting its citizens from danger and violence? To be extreme is to fall outside of the bounds of acceptable or reasonable belief and behaviour. But when does extremism become dangerous, and what are the limits of disagreement and challenge in public, or even private, spaces?

Who gets to decide?

So, Michael Gove has stepped up to achieve what home secretaries have failed to do. He has moved on from the current definition from 2011 Prevent counter-terrorism legislation and has given “more specificity on the ideologies, behaviour and groups of concern”. He has argued that since the 7 October attack, an increasing clear and sustained challenge to our democratic values is threatening our civil society.  “This is the work of extreme right-wing and Islamist extremists,” he said in his commons address, “who are seeking to separate Muslims from the rest of society and create division within Muslim communities.”

The issue at the heart of this debate is: how can a liberal society founded on core human freedoms tolerate the intolerable whilst protecting its citizens from danger and violence?

Mr Gove’s speech rides on the coat-tails of Rishi Sunak’s impromptu podium speech outside Number 10 on 1 March, and his new definition seeks to create frameworks for government departments and public bodies to be able to “bar groups from venues or campuses and block funding if they are judged to be promoting extremist ideology that ‘undermines’ or ‘overturns’ British values.”

But just because Mr Gove made a speech in parliament last week doesn’t mean that he’s managed to overcome the difficulties faced by those who came before him. As we witnessed by the immediate questions fired at him in the chamber, namely if the views of Islamists or the far-right are extreme, why aren’t the racist and misogynistic comments of Tory party donor Frank Hester?

Mr Gove defence of Hester’s philanthropy to the chamber rang hollow; surely the aim of this new definition is to restrict access to government departments from those with extreme ideologies who hide behind their philanthropic activities? Before the definition is even in use, we see how one person’s extreme is another’s excusable misdemeanours. So, we are left to ponder, who gets to decide what is liberal diversity of opinion and what is extreme?

Unanswered questions

The concern on all sides of the political spectrum is that the required ambiguity in any definition of extremism leaves the judgement in the hands of those in power. How far can they go in limiting extremism before they stray into totalitarianism? And what happens to you if your beliefs, especially your religious beliefs, put you outside of the current prevailing acceptable norms? Were the suffragettes extreme, in their struggle for women’s votes? Were the abolitionists, or the civil rights protestors? Hindsight, not foresight, tends to be the judge of what is extreme, and history is a notoriously unreliable narrator.

As the so-called culture wars rage on and parliament leans ever more into legislative solutions for societal issues, many of us are left wondering – will I be banned? Could opposing same-sex marriage or termination of late-term pregnancies fall under extremist views? Will teaching orthodox biblical theology be accused of spreading extreme ideologies? Could churches be denied venue hire or the right to speak to their MP? The honest answer is we don’t know. And that should concern us all.

Darkness can speak, but light prevails

Ultimately, I’m left wondering if Michael Gove’s ambition is the right one; is silencing the extreme the right solution? It always puzzles me why Satan isn’t silenced. He gets to whisper his conspiracy theories in Eve’s ear, accuse Job in the throne room of heaven and tempt Jesus with power and glory. It’s uncomfortable to consider the willingness that God seems to have to let Satan speak, corrupt and turn people’s hearts and the choice God gives people to listen or resist. Human beings have always been able to choose to live up to their image-bearing nature or deny it. Human beings have consistently chosen wrong. 

And yet.

The kingdom of God prevails, and the gates of Hades will not stand against it. Violence, terror, war and destruction – these things will not last. God’s word, not Satan’s whispers, stands eternal. So, whilst politicians struggle to discern how to handle rising levels of instability in our society, maybe we should focus on doing what we have been instructed to do, to “shine like stars amidst a crooked generation as we hold fast to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15b-16a)

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