2024: Circling around extremism again in the UK – so what?

As talk of the UK government’s desire to ‘define’ extremism resurfaces, Arzu looks at how this may or may not impact the coming year.

I have decided to review certain of my older articles and comments for the coming year.  How much of what I thought or found still holds?  Have there been surprises, good and bad?  I start with a year in review and predictions piece I did about the UK for Middle East Eye five years ago, ‘Defining extremism: What does 2019 hold for British Muslims?’ published at the very start of that year.

It seems that there has been slow ‘progress’ towards a definition of extremism, begun in 2016 when the government of David Cameron proposed a civil order regime that would “tackle the menace of extremism”.  The government’s pursuit of legislation came a cropper over the key difficulty then and now, you would think: how is it even possible to define ‘extremism’ of the violent or non-violent variety?  Yet November 2023 saw the leak of information from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities that the Minister Michael Gove would have a working definition to announce by the end of the year along the lines of: “Extremism is the promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values.”  Who then falls into this definition?

In 2019, I discussed how the demonisation of Muslims would turn into criminalisation via the ‘power of naming’.  That power lies in the hands of media and political elites who have set about in conjunction with think tanks, the three worlds of which connect via revolving doors of personnel, to examine what and more verbosely whom, it is they believe to be extremist(s).  Of those pitching in in the interim are: the Tony Blair Institute, the Henry Jackson Society and the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism.  Meanwhile Policy Exchange lambasted advocates for the definition of Islamophobia, pulling up just short of calling them extremists but, as I wrote elsewhere at the time:

“They are labelled as pro-Palestinian; as daring to accuse pundits, politicians and the state of racism and even daring to satirise them; and as failing to accept the right to free speech.  Their calls for legislation are lambasted as revealing “in part a mechanism for leveraging them into the position of official representatives of, and gatekeepers for, Britain’s Muslim communities”.”

My point at the time, was that this exclusion of voices was to prevent a ‘nightmare’ scenario:

“The nightmare being depicted is not, then, that Muslims are doing something different; it is that they may wield power and sit atop a societal hierarchy alongside, or even instead of, Policy Exchange and its ilk.”

Power.  Who has it and who must not be allowed to wield it, is the barely spoken, but ever present, obsession of the narratives and ideologies peddled by these think tanks and their media and political bedfellows.

It has defined the suppression of pro-Palestinian voices during the latest and most extreme genocide launched by the Israelis against Gazans.  It crosses borders, and we see more aggressive and seemingly malign state victimisation and criminalisation of those who dare call for the freedom of Palestinians – including many Jewish individuals and groups – across Europe, in particular France and Germany where demonstrations have been banned and activists arrested and charged with offences that are in practice and effect the criminalisation of political and anti-racist speech.

The difference between 2019 and 2024, lies not in the changes and shifts in the attempt to define extremism.  It is coming, albeit at a more glacial pace in the UK than other parts of Western Europe, it is that the world is a very different place in January 2024.  Those of us in the erstwhile centre, even those quietly collaborating with the racist states we live in in order to protect our narrow interests and positions – even in the pro-Palestinian movement – will bear the brunt of further disempowerment and possibly even criminalisation.  Those of us demanding a better world (as I write two well-known pro-Palestinian campaigners, neither Muslim, have been arrested and charged with offences under anti-terrorism laws in the UK) will feel the mark of Muslimness, as their dissent is at best silenced and at worst imprisoned.  The difference is that the new world is rising, in pain and blood, but it is here.  Whilst anti-Palestinianism and anti-Palestinian liberation has piggy backed onto the Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism that has defined the last few decades in the Westernised world, the rest (being the majority of the world) is no longer beholden to these lies, and increasingly has agency to act without care or concern of what the West is saying or doing.  The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly calls for ceasefires in Gaza, and significantly those who oppose or abstain are now stigmatised by their approach even amongst their constituencies (see e.g. the polls in the US showing higher numbers of support amongst the populace for Palestinians than ever before).  The same in the Security Council.  Palestine at the end of 2023 has shown this in the way cross-border ummatic resistance in the form of united resistance groups in and from Palestine, South Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen have all stood against the genocidal Israeli onslaught.

This last sentence and similar ones in the past have brough the ire of some of the think tanks averred to above upon me.  Going forward they may bring the ire of the state.  In the meantime the British state has been reported to the United Nations (alongside France and Germany) for its violations of fundamental rights in the last three months vis its clampdowns on pro-Palestinian demonstrations and support.  Should its ‘definition’ of extremism come to life and a ‘new control order regime’ be implemented of the back of it, it is worth noting what this may look like.

In its previous iteration of 2015, the government proposed the following control order regime (widely criticised, including by the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Human Rights):

  • Banning Orders: a new power for the Home Secretary to ban extremist groups;
  • Extremism Disruption Orders: a new power for law enforcement to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour;
  • Closure Orders: a new power for law enforcement and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism

As the UK already has had various iterations of control order regimes vis a vis (but not solely) terrorism that have seen British and foreign nationals kept under house arrest, had finances curtailed and / or property confiscated and so on, through secret hearings where the accused and their representatives are denied access to key pieces of ‘evidence’ used against them (see this critique of SIAC and the control order regime on pages 36 – 46 in Fahad Ansari’s report ‘British Anti-Terrorism: A Modern Day Witch-hunt’), the thought of yet another regime, this time targeting ‘non-violent extremism’ was alarming to say the least.  The government in 2016 was said to have rowed back from the specifics of the control order regime quoted above.  The question remains since then, what will those measures entail once this process of ‘defining’ extremism comes to a head?

The Joint Select Committee on Human Rights – a voice from within the establishment – articulated a devastating critique from within the establishment’s own rules:

“By contrast to the incitement of clear-cut criminal offences, it would be deeply concerning to allow any Government the power to effectively ban speech which merely has the potential to lead to harmful activity, by way of a civil order. Such orders could be used in a profoundly illiberal way. The obvious concern is that such orders could be used as a means to avoid having to make a criminal case to the requisite standard of proof. In evidence, Professor Rivers argued that:

“There again, there are quite considerable human rights concerns about using civil standards of proof in contexts that are quasi-criminal. You might have quite a serious impact on a person’s life by subjecting them to a disruption order or a banning order against civil standards, which is very similar to a criminal conviction.””


So, we can be looking at orders that prevent people and possibly organisations from commenting on certain issues, organisations being banned (the idea of government blacklisting has already been mooted separately), but also internment on the basis of flimsy if any proof, or evidence that does not, by the state’s own standards, meet the threshold for criminal conviction the likes of which would carry carceral sentences.  In the meantime the power of naming – via think tank reports and leaked ministerial memos, has resulted in the shrinking of civil society space, particularly but not solely, for Muslims.

So, I ask again for 2024 vis the UK: who falls under this possible new definition of extremism? Possibly almost all politicians and political activists whether sincere or cynical, and a good number of dissenters of (m)any persuasion(s).  Yet, as we know, it will for the foreseeable future be Muslims who will bear the brunt of targeting by any new legal regime of this type.  The difference between 2019 and 2024 is that in former years this silencing and criminalisation was devastating.  Today, it can be seen to be the last desperate attempts of a crumbling world order to hold onto its last vestiges of power.

Mass mobilisation around the world in the wake of the ongoing genocide on Gaza, whether by boycotts, protests, direct action or even the heightened regional military resistance are now applauded by the world.  As I write, South Africa has announced it is taking Israel to the International Court of Justice, an idea mooted by Professor Francis Boyle in 1997, when even South Lebanon was under the military cosh of the Israelis and the Israeli military had committed untold crimes against humanity during operation Grapes of Wrath with little or no international care or protest the year before.  Those the Israeli regime targeted were deemed terrorist.  In the intervening 27 years much has changed.  The Israeli regime of terror in South Lebanon collapsed and they literally ran from it in 2000.  They lost a war against Hizbullah in 2006.  Today they are unable to militarily defeat the Palestinian resistance and face resistance from South Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.  Perhaps more importantly, they have lost not only their myth of invincibility, but their claim to have the moral upper hand.

The power of naming and framing thus far held by governments like the UK or regimes like Israel is fast losing its hold on those of us uninterested in these definitions of the future.

Find out more about Arzu Merali on this site.

Photo from Policy Exchange CC 2.0