Beware the Extremists

Conor Gearty

In October 1988 the Conservative student association at Liverpool University invited a diplomat from the South African embassy to speak at one of its events. In those Cold War days Nelson Mandela was still a terrorist and defenders of apartheid were heroes to some on the hard right. But protests seemed likely and the university authorities felt compelled to withdraw permission for the meeting. When a few weeks later a meeting with the diplomat was once again set up and shortly afterwards cancelled the Tory students went to court, citing the right to freedom of speech on campus. In the High Court they got the declaration they wanted: there was a duty on the university, the court said, ‘to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that those whom it may control, that is to say its members, students and employees, do not prevent the exercise of freedom of speech within the law by other members, students and employees and by visiting speakers’. This wasn’t so much a moral duty as a legal obligation that had been imposed on universities by section 43(1) of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, a measure introduced because Mrs Thatcher had been worried about the regularity with which her timid education secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, was being pelted with eggs on his visits to universities.

Section 43(1) is still good law, but if the present government has its way the university authorities will somehow or other have to reconcile it with the duty ‘to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’, which will apply when the current Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill becomes law. This statutory development is the latest in a long line of efforts by successive administrations to tackle the issue of violent extremism, starting under Labour with a short policy document, Contest (short for ‘counter-terrorism strategy’), in 2006. The Cameron government’s version of the policy has expanded to include not just ‘violent extremism’ but ‘extremism’ as such. Having an inclination to or propensity for violence is no longer required. Being an ‘extremist’ is enough to warrant the close attention of the authorities, since (as the government’s consultation paper on implementing the statutory duty puts it) such people ‘can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit’.

So what, then, is an extremist? The term isn’t defined in the statute, but the government tells us in its Prevent strategy (the four elements of Contest are Prevent, Pursue, Prepare and Protect) that extremism means ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. It goes on: ‘We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces.’ There are two interesting things about this statement. One is the resilience of Britain’s imperial delusions: universal values are really British values. Second, free speech is so important that we need to stop any speech that challenges this assumption. McCarthyism worked on the same premise.

A truer British value would be hypocrisy. Thatcher was protecting Keith Joseph’s free speech while simultaneously making CND, Irish Republican and trade union protest next to impossible, through a mixture of specific laws, repressive courts and police action. In the early 1930s the police carefully guarded Oswald Mosley while breaking up the marches and meetings of the organised left. In the 1920s, the home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks justified the prosecution for sedition of Communist Party members by explaining that they had not been engaged in ‘the right type of freedom of speech’ – by which, he told the House of Commons, he meant ‘the right to a full propagation of your opinion, provided you do not try to damage the constitution’. This kind of unconscious bias was probably the reason A.V. Dicey could celebrate the civil libertarian spirit of the common law in 19th-century Britain while glossing over its capacity to crush Irish nationalist dissidence.

With this new statutory duty on public authorities in place, and against the background of the Paris killings, this kind of assertion of ‘our’ values against outsiders – i.e. Britain’s Muslims – is likely to become increasingly difficult to resist. We are told in the consultation on the Counter-Terrorism Bill that ‘the most significant of these threats is currently from al-Qaida-associated groups and from other terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq’ as well as parts of Africa. ‘Islamist extremists’ create ‘a narrative of “them” and “us”’ which includes ‘the uncompromising belief that people cannot be both Muslim and British, and that Muslims living here should not participate in our democracy’. If there had been any doubt about the true targets of the policy, the recent letter sent by Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for communities and local government, to British Muslim leaders telling them that they had ‘an important responsibility in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity’ surely put them to rest.

The act envisages that all relevant public authorities will be required to ‘demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the risk of radicalisation in their area, institution or body’. Systems will need to be put in place, information shared, training agreed. The Home Office will monitor and oversee. There will be inspections. Universities and colleges of higher education get the most attention: more than a quarter of the consultation paper is devoted to them. As the government sees it, free speech has become ‘a platform for drawing people into terrorism’. The answer is for the universities ‘to exclude those promoting extremist views that support or are conducive to terrorism’. Detailed orders are handed down with regard to the organising of events. The coalition that began life as the destroyer of quangos has become a deeply bureaucratic Big Brother.

In the Terrorism Act 2000 terrorism is defined in a way that goes beyond actual violence to embrace what can be construed as direct action in pursuit of a political cause. But this latest law doesn’t even require a threat of terrorism: an attack on ‘British values’ will in itself be interpreted as extremism. Of course this doesn’t mean that all sociology lectures will have to be reported to the authorities. Traditional critics will be fine: free speech will work for us. It is Muslims the document is after, and in particular those who seek to understand the impact of the colonial and post-colonial powers on Muslim people around the world. Is it ‘extreme’ to point to the hypocrisy of a country that engages in illegal wars against defenceless people around the world while insisting on the importance of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance’? Or to follow the logic of the postwar anti-colonial movement and say that the killing of occupying forces is sometimes necessary. I will be able to go on saying things like this. But if what were proposed was an account of Isis by a visiting imam, or an event attacking Israel’s occupation of Palestine, there would be nervous shifting of feet, visits from Special Branch, strong representations from foreign governments. The event would probably never take place: the new committee of the university would turn such a speaker down as not worth the flak such a visit would inevitably entail. This is a new Cold War.

The universities have been making a fuss, but the government has other, less well-defended targets: local authorities, schools, doctors, hospitals, the prison and probation services are all included, even after-school clubs. In the government’s view, the smallest Muslim child needs to be watched for signs of extremism. There was always a risk that identity politics would be turned into a cultural war, the majority versus the rest. We don’t hurl racist abuse anymore, not in public. We say ‘extremist’.