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Wednesday 8 October 2014

Extremist Disruption Orders and ill-judged legislation

Forcing through ill-judged legislation to solve a particular mischief seems to be an unfortunate recurring theme for governments of all stripes. We have already endured a raft of New Labour anti-terror legislation that, whilst primarily aimed at those who espouse violent extremism, was so haphazardly applied (or, mischievously, depending on your predilection) that "extremism" and "hate crimes" were interpreted to include anyone proclaiming anything other than banal, state-approved views. Nonetheless, though over zealously applied, it is probably fair to say the central mischief in mind was genuinely the primary target of the proposed law.

This is what makes the new Extremist Disruption Orders posited by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, so concerning. Not only have past lessons of anti-terror efforts not been heeded, May now goes one step further. In her conference speech, she states outright: 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. There will, I know, be some who say that what I describe as extremism is merely social conservatism. But if others described a woman’s intellect as “deficient”, denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or rejected the democratic process, we would quite rightly condemn their bigotry. And there will be others who say I am wrong to link these kinds of beliefs with the violent extremism we agree we must confront. To them I say, yes, not all extremism leads to violence. 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.
And there we have it. Not only "extremism" that leads to violence but "extremism" of all forms. And how do we define such a nebulous term? Though evidently not an exhaustive list, the Home Secretary considers those who believe women to be intellectually "deficient" and those who "denounce" others on the basis of their religious beliefs should be included. Is it offensive to state such things? Almost certainly. Are such views worthy of police intervention? Almost certainly not. More to the point, are those who face the force of the law likely to have done either of those things? In many cases, probably not.

As the Cranmer blog rightly points out "the policy is reasoned and moderate in expression, but the legislation will be almost Marxist in its application as it is wilfully misinterpreted and misapplied to Evangelical Christians (ie those who publicly proclaim the Good News) in exactly the same manner as anti-terror legislation has been invoked to eject a disgruntled pensioner from a Labour Party conference".

The central problem with outlawing "extremism in all its forms" (as the Home Secretary went on to promise) is that such a vacuous subjective term is patently open to abuse. It simply ought not to be illegal to voice an opinion or view that may be deemed "extremist" based upon some undisclosed, subjective assessment. The sad truth is, there are an inordinate number of pressure groups and hyper-sensitive people just waiting to be offended. Worse, they use such attacks on their sensibilities, now bolstered by this egregious law, to see the miscreant removed from the public square for their, often unintentionally, offensive statement. It has also been known for some to actively elicit "offensive" comments (suggesting the view cannot be so unpalatable if questions are being asked for the purpose of obtaining the comment itself) simply so they can involve police in a matter they shouldn't even entertain. As Cranmer correctly states, "For the secular state to seek to define “extremist views” reduces freedom of speech and freedom of religion to the lawful expression of culturally orthodox utterances".

Many Evangelical Christians may think this is an abstract problem that doesn't affect most of us. Surely it only affects street preachers with "offensive" views, those passing out irrelevant literature and others engaged in dated modes of evangelism. But even the central target of this legislation, so-called Islamist "hate preachers", are predominantly not addressing people out in town but inside mosques. They are not ramming their views down people's throats out on the street, they are stating their views on the internet for those who care to listen. That is not to say such views - if they are genuinely those that cause and incite violence - shouldn't be addressed. It is simply to say that such views are being addressed without being in the public domain in the way a street preacher or literature distributor happens to be.

If Evangelicalism is now lumped into the same category as Radical Islamism in the minds of many (not least, the UK government), the idea that only those engaged in active, public evangelism will be affected is cloud-cuckoo land. Most evangelicals still hold views that may be deemed "offensive" by some, state them inside their church buildings and put them up on websites for those who care to listen. Though the clampdown on nebulous "extremist" views begins with Islam, we can be in little doubt that it will extend to Christianity and will not only include those public enough to do their evangelism outside their building. For, if an offensive or "extremist" view in the mosque can lead to legislation and police action, the church is unlikely to fare any better.

The reality is there is no universal human right against being offended. As Cranmer correctly notes, "Extremist opinion that does not involve a call to arms or incite people to acts of terrorism ought to be tolerated by the liberal democratic state. Otherwise those who seek to undermine our liberty and overthrow democracy have won". One can only hope the divergent, yet unerringly consistent, voices of David Davies, Peter Tatchell and many others are finally heeded on this matter.

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