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UK News

Archbishops of Canterbury and York express concern over new definition of extremism

by Tola Mbakwe

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have cautioned the UK Government that their proposed new definition of extremism may cause "more division."

Communities Secretary Michael Gove is due to present an official redefinition of extremism later this week. Groups falling under this definition will likely face a governmental blacklist, leading to a ban from public funding and engagement.

Mr Gove has previously suggested that "good-hearted people" participating in marches could unintentionally be supporting extremists.

This move to redefine extremism follows Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's recent speech where he warned of "extremist disruption" and domestic forces attempting to divide the nation.

The cabinet is primarily concerned about pro-Palestine protests potentially being exploited by Islamists seeking to proliferate hateful messages. The demonstrations have drawn hundreds of thousands across the UK, calling for a ceasefire since the Israel-Gaza conflict began in October.

The Church of England has voiced concerns that the impending redefinition of extremism could threaten freedoms of speech, worship, and protest.

Most Rev Justin Welby and Most Rev Stephen Cottrell issued a joint statement on Tuesday stating that the increasing division among different communities in the UK poses a threat to its "rich diversity".

The archbishops said: “In recent months, we have continued to witness growing division between different communities in this country – both in our towns and cities and online. 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.

"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.

"We are concerned – like so many others – by its implications for public life. We join calls for the Government to reconsider its approach and instead have a broad-based conversation with all those who it will affect. The Church of England would be very willing to fulfil part of its historic role by sharing in facilitating that conversation. 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.

A leading campaign group has also advised against the Government’s planned redefinition of extremism. 

The Christian Institute said that widening the current definition would lead to greater censorship that could see those with traditional views excluded from debate. 

Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute said: “Previous attempts to widen the definition of extremism have been so broad and expansive that they would have caught many ordinary people going about their daily lives, campaigners, political activists and those holding traditional beliefs”.

He continued: “There is already a vast arsenal of existing laws that can be used to arrest and prosecute those who spread hatred or promote extremist ideologies. There’s no need for this new definition of extremism.”

The Christian charity has relaunched The Little Book of Non-Violent Extremists, which showcases the way that many non-violent political campaigners such as William Wilberforce, whose campaign led to the abolition of slavery, and Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement in the US, were initially denounced as “fomenting revolution” and “dangerous”. However, now both are celebrated.

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