Government counter-extremism plans risk doing serious damage, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said at a lecture last night.
Cardinal Nichols was responding to a question from the former Business Secretary Sir Vince Cable, who asked whether the cardinal thought the government’s Prevent strategy went too far in addressing “non-violent extremism”.
Cardinal Nichols said: “There is no doubt that the threat of active terror is real… But my impression is that we are at a very delicate point at which the defining of extremism could go quite seriously wrong.”
The cardinal was speaking last night at the Benedict XVI Lecture at Archbishop’s House in London. He was joined by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the leading Islamic scholar, Maulana Sayed Ali Raza Rizvi, to discuss “Living as a Creative Minority in the UK”.
Cardinal Nichols said that the current definition of extremism could become “far too embracing of simply the current social consensus.” The definition of “British values” needs to go much deeper, he said.
The cardinal added that the Prevent strategy may alienate those who come under suspicion. He gave the example of teachers contacting police about pupils suspected of extremism. This “can do immense damage” to levels of trust, he said.
In January, Cardinal Nichols told Catholic teachers that “One month is all it takes to transform a dissatisfied and disorientated teenager into a terrorist.”
The government has spoken repeatedly about the “British values” which define the country’s ethos. The Home Secretary Theresa May has listed these values as “regard for the rule of law, participation in and acceptance of democracy, equality, free speech and respect for minorities” and has said that rejection of these values amounts to “extremism”.
In his presentation, Cardinal Nichols suggested that “British values” should be placed on a deeper foundation of values such as the inherent dignity of the human person, building a better society, and “the openness to the spiritual and the transcendental”.
The Prevent strategy has been criticised for the way it requires authorities, including teachers, to report suspected extremism. In one case, a 14-year-old boy was reported after using the phrase “eco-terrorism” in connection with environmentalist campaigners. He was taken out of class and asked whether he was affiliated with Isis.
The Conservative MP Mark Spencer said that one part of the strategy, Extremism Disruption Orders, could be used against teachers who opposed gay marriage.
Speaking at the lecture, Cardinal Nichols also warned listeners about an intolerant secularism which seeks “to clean the streets of religion”.
He said: “A society which privatises religion and says it ‘doesn’t do God’ is weakening itself.” A country which marginalises faith, the cardinal added, will lose some of its most generous and creative resources.
Earlier in the evening, the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said that minorities should support sports teams from their adopted country – the “Norman Tebbit test”.
After discussing the need for minorities to “integrate but not assimilate”, Rabbi Mirvis said (audio here at 11.42): “Minorities are responsible to maintain their own traditions, to be proud of their background, loyal to their faiths, and at the same time to be proud members of their countries.
“In a nutshell, minorities need to pass the Norman Tebbit test. This is something which, thankfully, Jewish communities across the globe have almost always done, and we’re proud of the fact that we can pass that test within British society today.”
Rabbi Mirvis was referring to the so-called “cricket test”, a phrase introduced by the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit in a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test,” Tebbit said. “Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”
The annual Benedict XVI Lecture, which is held in partnership with St Mary’s University, usually explores themes around religion and the common good. It commemorates the Pope Emeritus’s meeting with members of other religions during his visit to the UK in 2010.