Human rights groups reject Michael Gove’s extremism definition as an attempt to incite and exploit fears against Muslims

A number of targeted human rights groups, activist organisations that have been at the forefront of campaigns to hold the government accountable for the abuse of fundamental rights, have today rejected Michael Gove’s announcement of a new definition of extremism. They have also rejected the context of listing organisations that will be effectively blacklisted from state/government financial support or engagement.

In a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up and Communities Michael Gove MP, nine key community organisations openly rejected the new definition of extremism, whose counter–extremism rationale they say:

‘serves only to strengthen the state’s coercive powers without any pretense of due process or judicial oversight’

Cage International, Palestine Action, Black Lives Matter, Sisters Uncut, Copwatch Network, London Student Action for Palestine, Netpol, Workers for a Free Palestine and No More Exclusions signed the letter. The letter pointed out that this latest attempt to define extremism is just the latest one of multiple failed attempts by former governments under the banner of the PREVENT programme.

New definition is an attempt to silence dissent and to shut down calls for a ceasefire in Gaza

The groups have clearly considered this latest move as an attempt to shut down dissent over the government’s stance on calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, as they pressed home their continuing commitment to campaign for a ceasefire in Gaza and to:

‘hold the government to account for aiding and abetting the Genocide in Gaza and weaponising ‘extremism’ to shield itself’.

The groups expressed their resolute intention to:

‘Collectively…explore all avenues, including legal, to challenge the Government’s deep dive into authoritarianism’

Michael Gove attempts to re-define extremism

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday morning, the Secretary for Levelling-Up and Communities, Michael Gove, presented his new definition of extremism. He said:

‘Extremism can lead to the radicalisation 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’

Given the controversial Islamophobic statements and racist pronouncements made in the last few weeks and months by many of Gove’s colleagues on the right of his party, there will have been some in the audience who will have reflected at whether he was referring to some of his fellow government ministers whose divisive comments have dominated the headlines.  

Crucially, Michael Gove attempted to argue that unlike previous attempts at defining extremism, ministers had on this occasion, taken measures to ‘strike a balance between protecting fundamental rights and safeguarding citizens’. He said that the government needed to be ‘clear eyed about the threat we face and precise about where the threat comes from’.

Gove avoids legal challenge by referencing Muslim organisations by name while under parliamentary privilege

He went further in listing some of the organisations, while under the protection of parliamentary privilege, which he considered ‘a cause for concern’. These included Cage International, Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) – which he referred to as ‘the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Engagement and Development NGO, MEND. He will have been fully aware that had he mentioned these organisations in an earlier press conference, he is likely to have been faced with defamation law suits.

The Muslim empowerment and engagement organisation, MEND, responded to the announcement, by posting a tweet on Twitter (X), saying:

‘Victory for resistance to Gove’s extremism, he has NOT placed MEND on an extremism list because the facts don’t allow it. Instead, he uses parliamentary privilege to slander’

Speaking on LBC Radio, on Thursday after the announcement by Gove, MEND CEO, Azhar Qayum said:

‘We’ve written to the government ourselves, we’ve given notice to the government saying that we will pursue legal action, should they include us on any such list. But they have not been in touch with us’

In his presentation, Gove additionally referenced two far right groups – the British National Socialist Movement and the Patriotic Alternative, which appeared simply to be an attempt to dress up his real target – Muslim dissenters. He then spelled out his new definition:

‘A group will now be deemed extremist if it promotes an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance which aims to negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others or undermine the UK’s system of liberal democracy and democratic rights or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve those results. Ultimately, these could lead to acts of terrorism. This is not a new legal standard, but instead a set of tests, which will be used within weeks to produce a list of groups the government sees as extreme. It would then treat them as such denying them official funding and refusing to interact with them’

He added:

‘Most extremist materials and activities are not illegal and do not lead to terrorism or national security threshold. For example, Islamist and Neo-Nazi groups in Britain are operating lawfully, but they advocate and work towards the replacement of democracy with an Islamist or Nazi society’

Gove then added a caveat, which declared that the government was not seeking to ban or restrict these organisations’, but that it would be ‘wrong to use taxpayers money’ to engage with them.

Widespread criticism of new extremism definition includes two Archbishops and former Home Secretaries

There has been widespread criticism of the move by human rights groups, who have argued that the new definition and measures will restrict freedom of expression and unfairly target Muslim groups.

Three former Conservative home secretaries were outspoken in the House of Lords this week as they warned against the dangers of politicising the debate over extremism. They were joined in their misgivings by two senior members of the Church of England have expressed serious concerns about the new extremism definition.

A joint statement was issued by two Archbishops, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, which stated that the “growing division between different communities in this country’ threatens the country’s ‘rich diversity’. The statement added:

How our leaders respond to this is far too important for a new definition of extremism to be its cure. Instead of providing clarity or striking a conciliatory tone, we think labelling a multi-faceted problem as hateful extremism may instead vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division. The new definition being proposed not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech, but also the right to worship and peaceful protest – things that have been hard won and form the fabric of a civilised society. Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse….We join calls for the Government to reconsider its approach and instead have a broad-based conversation with all those who it will affect. The UK has a proud history of welcoming people from all walks of life and celebrating diversity. We are a community of communities. Our leaders should cherish and promote that – and pursue policies that bring us together, not risk driving us apart’

Michael Gove was later asked if he felt the much spoken about chants at pro- Palestinian rallies, such as ‘from the river to the sea’ would fall foul of his definition, and he responded by saying that the phrase on its own may not, but:

‘What we’re looking at is an ideology, a pattern of behavior and a certain set of beliefs or actions’

The announcement by Michael Gove today will do little to allay fears of a government offensive to shut down legitimate debate and to seek ways to stop any form of dissent from its support of what the international Courts of Justice deemed the ‘plausibly genocidal’ actions of Israel. Concerns will be heightened over the government’s continued defense of Israel’s onslaught of the Palestinian people, at a time when the death toll in Gaza, which exceeded 31,200 as we began the Holy month of Ramadan, continues to rise. The Muslim community in particular, will likely see the new measures as a ramping up of the attack on their fundamental rights – in particular their rights to freedom of expression, to lobby parliament and their MPs, to vote for candidates who do not belong to the two main parties. One minister, when asked what he expected the impact of the new measures to be, sheepishly replied that the branding of an organisation as ‘extremist’, would lead to such organisations becoming outcasts from the wider community. it was not difficult to read between the lines, with record numbers of Muslim bank accounts having been closed without explanation under the de-risking programme adopted by the banks in the UK since the beginning of the war on terror. What is perhaps more worrying is that the ministers on the opposition benches have more or less been muted in terms of a response. There has been no real meaningful challenge to the ramped up rhetoric against all those who are challenging the failure of our government to call a ceasefire in Gaza. Instead, there has been a measured response to a vile racist and Islamophobic rhetoric which has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. After today, we can reasonably expect to see more of this. The extremism measures announced by Michael Gove represent simply the latest tool in the new war on Muslims. Some commentators actually believe that demonising Muslims is one of the only tools left in the Tory tool box in advance of an election.


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