Opinion: UK government’s new definition of ‘extremism’ and preserving democratic discourse

Fazal Masood Malik and Farhan Khokhar, Canada

The United Kingdom has unveiled an expansive new working definition of extremism in a bid to confront ideologies that breed violence and undermine core democratic principles. It characterises extremism as the “vocal or active opposition” to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and religious pluralism. Further, it frames extremism as “the promotion of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance” aimed at “negating the fundamental rights of others” or “undermining the UK’s liberal parliamentary democracy.” (“New extremism definition unveiled by government”, www.bbc.com)

The importance of curbing doctrines explicitly rejecting democratic norms and human rights is understandable, especially when illustrated against the dangers of such destructive ideologies. By codifying a conceptual framework, the intent is to equip law enforcement and society with robust tools for identifying and combating extremist philosophies permitting violence as a means to an end.

However, translating these guidelines into enforceable legislation is where philosophy meets pragmatism.  There is a real concern that the new definition could enable overreach, allowing subjective censorship of controversial but non-violent beliefs and opinions under the pretext of combating “intolerance.”  Without spectacular oversight, the rights of a pluralistic society, such as freedoms of speech, religion, and open governance, will become endangered. (“Why UK’s New Definition of Extremism Draws Critics”, www.bloomberg.com)

The global spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, has provided an authoritative Islamic perspective aligned with democratic norms. Expounding on the Community’s guiding principle of “Love for All, Hatred for None,” He rejects extremist narratives portraying Islam as an ideology of violence and religious compulsion, stating: “It is a great travesty to allege that there is no concept of freedom of faith and conscience in Islam.” (“Freedom of Speech and Tolerance in Islam”, www.alislam.org)

A legitimate problem for policymakers will be distinguishing between extremist ideologies explicitly condoning violence and hatred and merely provocative but non-violent beliefs or religious conservatism. However, any overly broad legislation conflating extreme hate-promoting ideologies with merely provocative viewpoints risks unleashing Pandora’s box of subjective overreach. Such imprecise laws could inadvertently curtail free speech protections, religious liberties, and the open ideological discourse crucial for democracies to thrive.

If history has illustrated anything, it is how subjective ideological litmus tests can spiral into persecution.  All too often, the initial step towards unthinkable atrocities has involved the dehumanisation of minority communities through malicious stereotyping and accusing them of being the “other.”

The tragic examples litter human history – Prophet Jesusas and his followers were persecuted as heretics and threats to the established order. Leading up to the Rwandan genocide, Tutsi minorities were dehumanised as cockroaches by Hutu extremists to legitimise mass killing. Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors could only ease their civilised consciences by declaring Native American populations “soulless” to justify their subjugation and land grabs.

In each case, language was used for the vilification and scapegoating of an outgroup as a threat, facilitating stripping them of fundamental human dignity through discriminatory policies. Once dehumanised in the public psyche, persecution became not only permissible but a moral imperative to preserve the prevailing social order.

While UK’s system of checks and balances through an independent judiciary aims to prevent such catastrophic backslides, concerns persist that new anti-extremism laws could disproportionately target Muslim minorities. History provides sobering examples of how judicial systems can become compromised – many German jurists legitimised and actively promoted the Nazis’ racial ideology (“Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich”, www.ojp.gov). More recently, Pakistan’s courts have faced criticism for judicial overreach in pursuing the state’s ideological agenda through contentious blasphemy prosecutions.

Already facing a bitter climate of Islamophobic rhetoric, the inherent ambiguity in delineating “extremist thought” provides ample cover for unconscious biases and overreach in enforcement application. Concerningly, the United Nations has documented an increase in accusations labelling Islam and Muslims as inherently extremist – underscoring how charged public discourse can enable stigmatisation of entire faith communities based on subjective perceptions around undefined “radical” ideologies. (Press Release, SG/SM/22159, press.un.org)

There are valid apprehensions that, rather than upholding its philosophical pillars of pluralism, the new policies could precipitate a vicious cycle of alienation, stereotyping and dehumanisation of Muslim minorities. Once persecuted as an ideological fifth column, history’s ugliest chapters suggest how swiftly escalating discrimination can be codified under the permissive “extraordinary circumstances” of perceived existential threats.

One solution to navigate this challenge is to forge an inclusive dialogue between diverse communities and faiths. This vision of pluralistic coexistence finds clear grounding in core Islamic teachings. The Holy Quran (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.257) upholds “no compulsion in religion,” instructing the Prophet Muhammad to proclaim: “Let him who will believe, and let him who will, disbelieve.” (Surah al-Kahf, Ch.18: V.30).

The actions of the Holy Prophetsa vividly illustrated these principles. Upon migrating to Medina, he drew up an inclusive charter with local Jewish tribes, granting them full autonomy to practice their faith and adjudicate internal affairs according to their own religious laws. Holy Prophetsa even welcomed a Christian delegation to worship in his mosque, in keeping with Islamic injunctions to protect places of worship of other faiths. 

Another prudent approach could be fostering a shared sense of common purpose transcending divisions. Uniting diverse segments around an integrated vision for their nation’s mutual progress and prosperity may serve as a centripetal force countering polarising narratives. This aligns with guidance from His Holiness, Khalifatul Masih Vaa, advocating complete patriotic loyalty by immigrants to the societies they join. He stated: 

“For me, true integration is to love the country in which you live and to be completely loyal to it. Thus, all immigrants should be loyal to their adopted nation; they should truly love it, they should honour it, they should be law-abiding and work for its prosperity and progress. This is integration.” (“‘True Integration is to love the country in which you live’ – Head of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”, www.pressahmadiyya.com)

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