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New extremism definition could drive communities apart, Archbishops warn Gove

12 March 2024


The Secretary of State for Levelling Up and Communities, Michael Gove, in the rain after leaving the Cabinet Office on Monday

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up and Communities, Michael Gove, in the rain after leaving the Cabinet Office on Monday

THE Government’s new definition of extremism is likely to “vilify the wrong people” by threatening freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have warned.

In a joint statement published on Tuesday afternoon, Archbishops Welby and Cottrell said that the plan also “risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse”.

Their statement pre-empts an announcement, expected on Thursday, in which the Communities Secretary, Michael Gove, plans to broaden the official definition of extremism to include individuals and groups who “undermine the UK’s system of liberal democracy” — and ban them from public life.

The move, first leaked to The Observer last November, has been fiercely opposed by counter-terror and extremism experts, including three former Conservative Home Secretaries: Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, and Amber Rudd. They are among the signatories of a joint statement, released over the weekend, which warns the Government not to politicise extremism.

Other signatories include Brendan Cox, the widower of Jo Cox MP; Neil Basu, a former head of counter-terrorism policing; and Lord Dannatt, a former Chief of the General Staff in the British Army.

Archbishop of YorkArchbishop Cottrell and his wife, Rebecca, along with senior police officers, visit York Mosque on Monday evening, where they shared an Iftar meal

The weekend statement says: “In the run-up to a General Election, it’s particularly important that that consensus is maintained and that no political party uses the issue to seek short-term tactical advantage. We urge the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to work together to build a shared understanding of extremism and a strategy to prevent it that can stand the test of time, no matter which party wins an election.”

In their own statement, the Archbishops refer to “growing division” between communities in the UK, including among the faiths. “Many of our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters have spoken about feeling unsafe while simply walking down the street, or attending their places of work and worship. These depressing developments not only undermine the cohesion of our society, but also threaten our country’s rich diversity that should be so highly prized in 21st-century Britain.”

They continue: “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.”

Archbishops Welby and Cottrell also express concern for public life, calling on the Government to reconsider its approach, “and instead have a broad-based conversation with all those who it will affect”. The Church was willing to facilitate that conversation, they write.

“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.”

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