How has UK extremism definition changed and why is it attracting criticism? | Counter-terrorism policy

The communities secretary, Michael Gove, has laid out a new definition of extremism. Here the Guardian examines what has changed and why, and the reason it is attracting criticism.

How has the definition changed?

The new definition changes the focus from action to ideology. In 2011, the government’s Prevent strategy defined extremism as the “active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

The new definition says extremism “is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 1 negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or 2 undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or 3 intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2)”.

What will it mean in practice?

Ministers and civil servants will be banned from talking to or funding organisations that are deemed to be captured by the new definition of extremism. It will only affect government. While councils will be expected to follow the government’s lead, it will not be enshrined in law, so they will not be obliged to do so and therefore it will not create criminality nor should it make any difference to policing.

Why is it being changed now?

The government said it was a response to the increased extremist threat since the 7 October Hamas terror attacks in Israel. Following up on Rishi Sunak’s impromptu speech outside Downing Street about extremism, Gove said the aim was to target “extreme rightwing and Islamist extremists who are seeking to separate Muslims from the rest of society and create division within Muslim communities”.

Which groups will it affect?

In his announcement in the House of Commons, organisations that Gove said would be assessed against the definition were the far-right groups the British National Socialist Movement and Patriotic Alternative and the Muslim groups the Muslim Association of Britain, Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) and Cage. Other organisations whose names have been leaked as potentially falling within the definition are Friends of al-Aqsa, 5Pillars and Palestine Action.

Why is it controversial?

Jonathan Hall KC, the government’s independent reviewer of state threat legislation, has described it as the labelling of people as extremists by “ministerial decree” and has said there is a lack of safeguards in the absence of an appeal body.

Unusually, there has been no consultation on the new definition.

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In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Gove singled out for criticism pro-Palestinian protesters who have been marching for a ceasefire in Gaza, focusing attention particularly on those who use the slogan “from the river to the sea”, the meaning of which is itself contested.

Only a handful of people have been arrested on the peaceful marches but senior Conservatives have criticised them, leading to fears among civil liberties groups that the new definition is a further attempt to limit protest and free speech when they do not chime with the government’s position.

Muslim groups named as at risk of being labelled extremist claim Gove has a history of associations and incidents that they deem Islamophobic, including leading the government’s role in the Trojan horse affair, when it was falsely alleged that an extremist takeover of schools in Birmingham was under way; writing a book called Celsius 7/7 in which he highlighted the “threat of Islamism”; and being a member of the Henry Jackson Society, which they say “has promoted an anti-Muslim agenda over many years”.

What reassurances has Gove given?

He told MPs the definition “will not affect gender-critical campaigners, those with conservative religious beliefs, trans activists, environmental protest groups or those exercising their proper right to free speech”. Some of these groups had feared they could be captured by the definition.

Gove drew a distinction between Islam, which he called a “great faith”, and the “totalitarian ideology” of Islamism.


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