HJS welcomes the government putting counter extremism efforts at the forefront of new draft legislation and its commitment to confronting Islamist ideology. The Prime Minister is due to outline the key components of the legislation before it is announced formally in the Queen’s Speech later this month and fast-tracked through Parliament.
The new counter extremism laws, which will form part of a wider strategy of security and community engagement measures, are thought to include:
- New powers to close premises where extremists are seeking to build influence, such as mosques
- Disruption orders to prevent extremists radicalising young people or airing their views in public
- Additional immigration restrictions on extremist preachers
- A larger remit awarded to the Charity Commission to seek out charities who misappropriate funds towards terrorism
- New powers awarded to Ofcom to act against broadcasters airing extremist content
All of these measures address key manifestations of radicalisation in the UK and have all been long-standing areas of concern for The Henry Jackson Society. Having consistently warned past governments about the threat from domestic extremism and called for a comprehensive approach, it is promising to see our advice reflected by the scope and depth of the proposed legislation.
The proposed legislation includes:
Disruption orders and powers to close premises
While efforts to disrupt extremist preachers, particularly when they target public institutions and premises should broadly be welcomed, the government should prioritise utilising existing legislation and regulation, which already allows for many of the powers believed to be sought.
In a landmark ruling in February 2014, Jordan Horner, a convert associate of the proscribed terrorist organisation al-Muhajiroun, was given a five-year anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) ruling preventing him from public preaching. Horner was best known for threatening and intimidating the public during so-called ‘Muslim Patrols’ in East London. In January 2015, his ASBO was extended to include prohibiting him from attending protests with 13 other named people, including al-Muhajiroun leader Anjem Choudhury.
Public service providers and/or charities – including universities, community centres and other local authority venues, as well as many mosques and student unions – already have legal duties to protect against extremism, notably a responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to provide environments free from discrimination and a requirement under charity law to protect the organisation from reputational damage.
The closure of religious premises should be a last resort. Instead, greater legal advice and financial assistance could be provided by, for example, the Charity Commission and pro-bono by law firms to help to institutions looking to challenge extremist preachers.
Challenging extremists can be expensive, with the Greenwich Islamic Centre, for example, recently spending £30,000 on legal action to exclude al-Muhajiroun associate Usman Ali, who the court heard was using the mosque to show children videos of the 9/11 attacks while chanting “God is great”.
Greater powers for regulatory bodies welcomed
New powers for bodies such as the Charity Commission and Ofcom should be welcomed as part of addressing radicalisation through effective regulation. Despite recent improvements, for example, many remain institutionally ill-equipped and politically unwilling to identify Islamism and instances of extremism.
Currently there is no legal mechanism to prevent individuals who have been convicted for terrorism-related offences or who have been excluded from the UK on terrorism-related grounds from becoming a trustee of a charity.
Indian cleric Dr. Zakir Abdul-Karim Naik, for example, was excluded from the UK in June 2010 on the grounds that some of his public comments “justif[ied] terrorist violence and foster[ed] hatred” yet continues to act as a trustee of a charity registered in the UK whose primary purpose is financial support for an international satellite TV channel which Naik hosts and which holds a UK broadcasting licence.
Need to better define extremism to protect freedom of speech
Future challenges and policy debates for counter-extremism will centre on ensuring not only accurate identification of Islamist extremism, among other forms, but also on developing appropriate and consistent responses to extremism while remaining mindful of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, association and religion. For counter-extremism measures to work effectively and be supported by the public, the government will need to better define extremism; otherwise it will likely face significant legal challenge.
Currently, the government defines extremism as “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”
This should be expanded upon in terms of what extremism promotes, for example, an ideology that advocates any form of hatred, sectarianism, segregation or discrimination for political, religious or ideological purposes.
HJS Research Fellow Hannah Stuart commented: “It is encouraging that the government has placed countering extremism at the heart of its plans for the new Parliament. They are attempting to tackle issues that have gone unaddressed for too long.
“In doing so, the government is also right to champion certain liberal values, such as freedom of speech, freedom of worship and the rule of law. Such principles are central to the society we wish to live in and it is vital that we continue to maintain the correct balance between our freedoms and national security.
“However, there does not appear to be a huge amount of new content in these proposed measures – The government already has the ability to issue extremism disruption orders, for example – and we await the draft legislation for greater details. Nevertheless, the commitment that the government has shown in wishing to mitigate the dangers posed by both violent and non-violent extremism should be welcomed.”