Straight after the incident outside Finsbury Park Mosque in the early hours of June 19, when a man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims, Theresa May promised a crackdown on “extremism in all its forms”. The Queen’s Speech, a couple of days later, promptly pledged a Commission for Countering Extremism, which would identify and expose extremist practices and organise the defence of British values.
This all sounds like a decisive response to a sequence of terrorist outrages over the preceding months that included the Manchester bombing and the ISIS-inspired attacks on Westminster and London bridges. Sadly, it is not really the slap of firm government. Rather, it represents an unwelcome continuation of the imprecise and shiftily disingenuous Counter-Extremism Strategy May delivered back in 2015, when she was Home Secretary. Depending on who sits on this new commission, Catholics could face very serious threats to religious freedom in the years to come.
The phrase “extremism in all its forms” arose out of a debate within David Cameron’s government about how best to deal with radical Islamist terrorism. In simplified terms, the dispute ran thus: Team A argued that all efforts and resources should be concentrated on stopping acts of violent extremism – actual terrorist attacks, even if this meant making tactical alliances with theological hardliners – imams who, say, would baldly tell you that homosexuals deserve to be thrown off a cliff or apostates deserve death, but who were not actually involved with terrorist groups or supportive of their aims. If you want to recruit the Muslim community to tip you off about potential suicide bombers, Team A argued, you cannot alienate these religiously and socially conservative community leaders, however distasteful their views.
Team B, by contrast, saw the war against terror as more like the Cold War, where defeating the enemy’s ideology was a crucial part of the struggle. They wanted to supplement the security and counterterrorism effort with a cultural contest that pitted Enlightenment values against the political tenets of Islamism and against those Islamic teachings and practices that offend against Western values. The government would combat both violent and non-violent extremism.
Team B won the argument, but only on condition that the strategy be cosmetically adjusted in order to mollify the sensitivities of British Muslims, who might otherwise misread the whole thing as an Islamophobic attack by the state on their community. To make it look more even-handed and inclusive, the project was broadened to include white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
This has proved something of a stretch, as there are so few blackshirts around these days. The BNP has imploded, the EDL has split. National Action, the new kid on the block – which celebrated the murder of the MP Jo Cox before being banned by Amber Rudd – has been estimated to have only 60 members. Britain First, despite its large Facebook presence, has fewer than 40 active members, according to the Independent.
Last year, as 3,000 Islamists were being monitored by the security services and 20,000 more were listed as “subjects of interest” in counter-terrorism investigations, the police arrested only a paltry 34 far-right stormtroopers. (Jo Cox’s killer, though he may have shared opinions with some on the far right, was not affiliated to any group.) Nevertheless, to keep up the pretence, a third of those put through “Channel”, the government’s terrorism-aversion counselling programme, were fledgling neo-Nazis, real or imagined.
Oddly, nowhere in the government’s 2015 counter-extremism strategy document was there any mention of extremists from the far-left. All those Trotskyists, Stalinists, revolutionary communists and what have you have been ignored entirely, not deemed any threat at all. And this document was written some time before Jeremy Corbyn became leader and ushered the neo-Bolsheviks into Labour’s mainstream.
What, in the mind of officialdom, connects the violent jihadists, the non-violent Islamic fundamentalists and the racist thugs is “extremism”, which has become the defining concept of the state’s approach. This itself signals how cursorily this scheme has been thought through. We are all expected to assent to the proposition that “extreme” is necessarily objectionable, even though we may have friends who are extremely pious, relations who are extremely generous and a spouse who is extremely loving. Lazily using a measure of extent, the authorities are failing to define the substance of the thing to which they object. This leaves everything – including, potentially, Catholic orthodoxy – within the scope of the charge.
There also appears to be a reluctance on the part of the government to provide a definitive list of British values. We are repeatedly told that they include certain desiderata: democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, tolerance and so on. But what else might they come to include in the future? A legally enforceable right for transgendered people to be called by whatever pronouns they personally choose? (This is not far-fetched. A few weeks ago the Canadian senate passed a bill that some fear effectively criminalises using the “wrong” pronouns.)
It is easy to see where all this will inevitably lead. If we blunder on with only an amorphous definition of “extremism”, then before anyone realises what is happening any opinion that deviates from the liberal, secular consensus will be held to be extreme. A conservative view of sexual ethics, a traditional view of marriage, sexual discrimination in the recruitment of clergy, any doubt about whether gender is entirely socially constructed: all of these could be considered extreme by the phalanx of police officers tasked with patrolling Twitter and Facebook.
One of the policy wheezes in the 2015 strategy was to bring Sunday schools and Bible study groups for youngsters under the remit of Ofsted. Inspectors would be given the power to root out “undesirable teaching” that conflicted with “fundamental British values”. Of course, the real motive for this proposal was to prevent the radicalisation of young Muslims in madrassas. But because current equalities legislation might prevent the government tackling this specific problem in a religion-specific way, the solution had to be one that was applied to all religious groups equally. Hence the problem of madrassas became one of “out-of-school settings”.
When the government consulted on this proposal, it quickly became apparent that many Christian groups did not trust Ofsted to make nuanced judgments on faith issues. The Coalition for Marriage said that “Some Ofsted inspectors equate belief in traditional marriage with opposition to British values”. Schools reported that Ofsted inspectors had on occasion demonstrated an aggressive antipathy to teachers and institutions that opposed same-sex marriage. Others recalled unpleasant scenes where young children were quizzed on their attitudes to transsexuals even before they had been told the basic facts of life.
A small but powerful lobbying operation went into action. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, spoke to senior members of the government. Caroline Spellman MP (on behalf of the CofE’s Church Commissioners) led a delegation to the Cabinet Office; while Gerald Howarth MP had quiet chats with influential figures in the media. Very quickly, and very quietly, the government dropped the idea. But that meant there was always the chance it might be revived. Now, with the re-emergence of talk about countering “extremism in all its forms”, some fear it may be brought back.
The consequences for individuals falling foul of the attitudes-inspectors could be serious. The 2015 strategy and the Ofsted plan between them envisaged preventing individuals branded extremist from being trustees of charities or governors of schools, and in some cases preventing them from working with young people at all. Sunday schools found to be teaching things incompatible with British values could be closed down. For better or for worse, the state would be taking a direct and coercive role in limiting and shaping religious instruction for all faiths and denominations.
The trend towards treating aspects of Catholic teaching as if they were unacceptably extreme is not limited to Britain. Last year a Spanish NGO and a gay rights group tried to initiate criminal charges against Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, the Archbishop of Valencia, for “hate speech” allegedly uttered in a homily. The NGO claimed that the cardinal’s offence was aggravated by nostalgia for “other times when immigrants, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and women were subjected to the dictates of a society governed by the powers of the Catholic Church”. The cardinal called on his critics to “stop harassing the Church and respect freedom of religion”. The criminal charges were thrown out by a magistrate, who said he saw no appeal to hatred in the cardinal’s homily.
An attack on the Church of this kind had been anticipated by US Senator Marco Rubio during his campaign for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential elections. “We are at the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech,” Rubio said. “The next step is to argue that … the Catechism of the Catholic Church is hate speech. That’s a real and present danger.”
In fact, even that seems quite mild compared to one of the ideas being advanced by another senator, Bernie Sanders. He has opposed the confirmation of a nominee for deputy budget director on the grounds that he prefers Christianity to Islam. Some time ago, the nominee, Russell Vought, wrote an article in which he said that Islam was a “deficient theology”. In his confirmation hearing Sanders pressed him on this, suggesting that the statement smacked of bigotry. Vought denied this, saying that as a Christian he believed in and preferred Christian principles. Sanders countered that Vought was free to practise Christianity if he wished, but should not be permitted to hold high office if he maintained that Islam was “second rate” by comparison. To hold that one faith was to be preferred to the other, it seems, is now itself “Islamophobic”.
As part of her crackdown on “extremism in all its forms” Theresa May is now putting pressure on internet and social media companies to do more to censor the internet, threatening draconian regulation if they do not comply. Yet again, what is intended is that they take down Islamist videos that glorify terrorist violence or show people being beheaded by ISIS. But what is already beginning to happen is a kind of mission creep that goes well beyond the war on radical Islamic terror and is becoming a general electronic purge of cyberspace by supposedly extremist keyword. Reportedly, even innocent terms such as “traditional” can trigger a hate enquiry or even an account closure.
Clearly, we are going to need a comprehensive guarantee of religious freedom to be part of any post-Brexit Bill of Rights. But can we trust the vicar’s daughter to provide it?
Dennis Sewell is a contributing editor of the Spectator
This article first appeared in the July 7 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here