Fighting For the Rights Of All
Stepping Up the Criminalisation of Conscience
Home Secretary Theresa May presented the government’s Counter Terrorism and Security Bill to Parliament on Wednesday, November 26, declaring: “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a deadly terrorist ideology. These powers are essential to keep up with the very serious and rapidly changing threats we face.”
The Bill was published in the middle of “counter-terrorism awareness week”. The previous day, the Intelligence and Security Committee chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, which has been examining the actions of the intelligence agencies surrounding the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in 2013, published its report. The Bill also comes in the wake of the Birmingham schools “Trojan horse” affair.
The government is using such incidents and developments to create an image of an enemy within and “home-grown terrorism” – a notion originally promoted after the 7/7 attack – allegedly created through a process of “radicalisation”, which begins with “extremist ideologies” at odds with “British values”. On this basis, Theresa May claimed in a speech on November 24 that Britain is facing its biggest ever threat of terrorism, with such radicalisation being fostered by the Islamic State.
Amongst other measures, the Bill contains:
- The bolstering of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), which restrict a person’s movements, reinstating a previous Labour-introduced power to force a person to relocate to elsewhere in the country. The grounds to impose a TPIM will be raised from “reasonable suspicion” to “the balance of probabilities”.
- Powers for on-the-spot seizures of passports at airports for periods of up to 30 days.
- Temporary Exclusion Orders, which will allow authorities to block a British citizen from returning to the country.
- The requirement for airlines to provide information about passengers flying to Britain.
- The requirement for internet service providers to identify individual users and retain IP addresses.
- A new Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to monitor the balance between security and civil liberties.
In particular, May announced various “counter-radicalisation” measures. Schools, colleges and universities, as well as probation services and local government, will have a legal duty to actively prevent radicalisation. The Home Office will be able to issue court orders to enforce this, such as compelling a body to ban a particular speaker.
Successive governments, particularly since the declaration of the “war on terror”, have been putting forward bills and taking other measures aimed at legislating on and controlling what they refer to as “values” and in the process restricting the right to conscience. The shift in terminology from “terrorism” to “extremism” and “radicalisation” should be understood in this context.
The latest version of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy, abbreviated as CONTEST, was presented to parliament by Theresa May in July 2011. It builds upon the earlier versions introduced by previous Labour governments in 2006 and 2009.
In her foreword, May said: “As well as catching and prosecuting terrorists, we must also stop people becoming terrorists in the first place. But the Prevent programme we inherited was flawed.”
“Prevent” is the name given to one of the four components of CONTEST. She continued: “Following a comprehensive review we published a new strategy in June of this year. Greater effort will be focused on responding to the ideological challenge and the threat from those who promote it; we will also work harder to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support. We will work with a wider range of sectors where there are risks of radicalisation to achieve our aims.”
The focus on “the ideological challenge” sums up the main change brought about by the present government. It is not in itself new, in the sense that the Labour Party had previously championed the notion of “British” or “universal values” and had step-by-step criminalised dissent, conscience and national origin through a series of Terrorism Acts, while promoting the hysteria that “the rules of the game have changed”. Rather, it represents a further step and a shift in emphasis.
The most recent summary of the Prevent strategy on the Home Office website, updated in December 2012, tells us that it: “responds to the ideological challenge we face from terrorism and aspects of extremism, and the threat we face from those who promote these views”; “provides practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure they are given appropriate advice and support”; and “works with a wide range of sectors (including education, criminal justice, faith, charities, online and health) where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to deal with”. Further, it “covers all forms of terrorism, including far right extremism and some aspects of non-violent extremism”.
This shift towards “the ideological challenge” was first announced by David Cameron in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2011, a speech written with major input from the then Education Secretary Michael Gove.
He presented what has been called the “conveyor-belt” theory of the “process of radicalisation”, to explain home-grown terrorism. Mentioning in passing “dissident republicans in Northern Ireland” and “anarchist attacks” in Greece and Italy, his focus was on “Islamist terrorism”. The purpose of the theory is to highlight the supposed danger of “non-violent extremists”, whose role is to influence individuals, who then take these “radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence”.
“Whether they are violent in their means or not, we must make it impossible for the extremists to succeed,” he said. “Governments must also be shrewder in dealing with those that, while not violent, are in some cases part of the problem.”
Cameron laid out a set of criteria to judge whether a Muslim organisation represents an officially acceptable Islam or something extreme. Questions such as “do they believe in democracy?” or “do they encourage integration or separation?” are posed. Those that fail the test are deemed extreme and must be stopped “from reaching people in publicly-funded institutions like universities”.
The criteria are the set of officially-defined values. This is related to his second point about building “stronger identities at home”. He called for “less passive tolerance”, which “stands neutral between different values”, and advocated “a much more active, muscular liberalism”. In essence converting liberalism into fascism, he declared that “a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them”. Such a society tells its citizens that “to belong here is to believe in these things”.
Since 2011, the Prevent strategy contains the government’s definition of “extremism” consistent with these notions: “Extremism is 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.”
In 2013, following the killing of Lee Rigby, the government launched an Extremism Task Force based around this definition and the Prevent strategy. Its report in December that year contains proposals to “make delivery of Prevent a legal requirement” for local authorities “in those areas of the country where extremism is of particular concern”.
In this context, the Birmingham schools “Trojan horse” affair occurred in March this year, which had all the hallmarks of a state and media-organised attack on minorities based on fabricated evidence. This affair and the creation of suspicion brought out all of the above developing trends, particularly the claimed danger of a conveyor-belt of radicalisation.
In the end, the affair led to Gove’s replacement as Education Secretary, though the ground had been prepared for Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in September. In her rendering: “… to live in a modern liberal state is not to live in a moral vacuum. We have to stand up for our values as a nation. … And not all extremists are violent. But the damage extremists cause to our society is reason enough to act. And there is, undoubtedly, a thread that binds the kind of extremism that promotes intolerance, hatred and a sense of superiority over others to the actions of those who want to impose their values on us through violence.”
She then stated the intent to go further, particularly on the front of “extremists who stay just within the law”: “Soon, we will make Prevent a statutory duty for all public sector organisations. I want to see new banning orders for extremist groups that fall short of the existing laws relating to terrorism. I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred. So both policies – Banning Orders and Extremism Disruption Orders – will be in the next Conservative manifesto.”
But then she took a step beyond the point reached so far: “As part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent has only ever been focused on the hard end of the extremism spectrum. So the Home Office will soon, for the first time, assume responsibility for a new counter-extremism strategy that goes beyond terrorism.
“This strategy will be devised and overseen by the Home Office, but its implementation will be the responsibility of the whole of government, the rest of the public sector, and wider civil society. It will aim to undermine and eliminate extremism in all its forms – neo-Nazism and other forms of extremism as well as Islamist extremism – and it will aim to build up society to identify extremism, confront it, challenge it and defeat it.”
The latest Bill has been put forward in this context, though even in announcing the legislation, May warned that the measures do not go far enough, speaking of the need for increased powers to monitor people’s online communications.
Indeed, the Rifkind report is itself a political intervention designed to further push legislation in this direction. They state that internet and other communications service providers are unintentionally “providing a safe haven for terrorists” as they do not “proactively monitor and review suspicious content on their systems”, and “none of the major US companies we approached … regard themselves as compelled to comply with UK warrants … This is of very serious concern: the capability of the Agencies to access the communications of their targets is essential to their ability to detect and prevent terrorist threats in the UK.”
Furthermore, the report declares: “We have seen in recent months the numbers of young British men and women who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to engage in terrorism. The scale of the problem indicates that the Government’s counter-terrorism programmes are not working. Successfully diverting individuals from the radicalisation path is essential, yet Prevent programmes have not been given sufficient priority. We strongly urge our colleagues on the Home Affairs or Communities Select Committees to consider this issue as a matter of urgency, given the threat our country currently faces.”
The present Bill and the hinted further measures represent a significant stepping-up of the criminalisation of conscience and the arbitrariness of the state and are a serious attack on the rights of all. They do not begin with a definition of what constitutes terrorism that is based on upholding the rights of all, so that the authorities can be held to account. Indeed, as pointed out by director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, “… every government proposal of the last so many years has been about blanket surveillance of the entire population. The Snowden revelations demonstrate that they were even prepared to act outside the law and without parliamentary consent.”
Rather, a climate of terror is fostered and used to justify such arbitrary powers. To define extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values” is both implicitly racist and a direct attack on the right to conscience. It is not for nothing that various opponents have drawn parallels with McCarthyism. This “muscular liberalism” is itself profoundly anti-democratic and cannot be allowed not pass.