New UK extremism definition could drive communities apart, Anglican archbishops warn

(Photo: REUTERS / Stefan Wermuth)Muslims attend Friday prayers in the courtyard of a housing estate next to the small BBC community center and mosque in east London March 28, 2014

The UK 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, the country's two senior Anglican clerics, have warned.

Archbishops Justine Welby, the Anglican leader and Stephen Cottrell issued a joint statement.

In it, they said that the new plan also "risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse," The Guardian newspaper reported on March 9.

Their statement pre-empts an announcement, expected on March 14, in which the UK's Communities Secretary, Michael Gove, plans to broaden the official definition of extremism.

It will 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 newspaper in 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 slain lawmaker Jo Cox, Neil Basu, a former head of counter-terrorism policing; and Lord Dannatt, a former Chief of the General Staff in the British Army.


A government 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 (opposition) Labour Party and the (governing) 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 a joint 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 say: "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 labeling 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 civilized society. Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse."

The two archbishops also express concern for public life, calling on the UK 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."

According to the CIA Factbook Christians make up 59.5 percent of Britain's 68 million population, while Muslim account for 4.4 percent, and Hindus 1.3 percent.


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