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Leader comment: Extremism, anyone?

08 March 2024

IT IS an odd feeling, to wake up one morning and discover that one is an extremist — not because one has espoused a new, radical cause overnight, but simply because the Government has redefined the meaning of the word “extremist”. It is hard to exaggerate just how unsettling this is. Just as people were getting used to the idea (without liking it) that views that they thought were normal, not even excessively liberal, were now routinely dismissed as “woke”, there are fears that the Government, in its efforts to stem the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamism (or Islamophobia and attacks on MPs — the trigger is a little unclear), is in danger of producing a new definition of extremism which encompasses opinions that could be randomly labelled discriminatory.

It is, of course, troubling that the global political heat has risen with the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. But the Prime Minister’s outspoken attack on extremism last Friday left many people puzzled, not least because of parliamentary manoeuvrings this week; for, just as the Government seems to be on the brink of labelling a class of people dangerous, it wishes, with equal arbitrariness, to label a foreign country over which it has no control as “safe” — not only in its present state, but for an indefinite future. Rwanda has the misfortune of having become a talisman of the Conservative Party’s ability to govern effectively, even though no one claims that it will do much to discourage asylum-seekers from attempting the Channel crossing. C of E bishops in the Lords were involved in attempts to bring some reason to the Rwanda Bill this week, but reason has never been very firmly attached to the Rwanda project, and their efforts are likely to be overturned in the Commons.

A sense of irony is redundant in the present political climate. If the definition of “extremism” currently being sought by the Communities Secretary genuinely targets an ideology that “undermines the rights or freedoms of others”, he might consider the views of members of his own party, and not just the ones who have been suspended, or the outspoken ones such as Dame Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. The very purpose of the Rwanda legislation is to undermine the rights, and certainly the freedoms, of people with a legitimate claim at least to have their asylum applications considered in a humane, timely, and respectful manner, with legal representation and a right of appeal. Since we have eschewed irony, we will not speculate on whether those who oppose expulsions to Rwanda might be labelled as extremists.

Compared with the prospects of those threatened with deportation, the fears of those who adhere to standard religious opinions that are at odds with the present consensus must be seen as relatively minor.

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