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The UK Is Using a New Definition of “Extremism” to Repress Palestine Solidarity

Amid widespread British support for ceasefire, the Conservative government declared civil society groups “extremist.”

Supporters of London for a Free Palestine occupy the foyer of the Department of Business and Trade in protest over the granting of export licenses to arms companies supplying the Israeli military on March 28, 2024, in London, England.

This month the beleaguered Conservative government in Britain announced a new initiative to broaden its official definition of political extremism. As of March 14, extremism is now defined by the United Kingdom as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy.”

At first reading, the definition sounds anodyne. Isn’t everyone against, violence, hatred and intolerance? If there really are people trying to overurn parliamentary democracy, don’t they deserve everything bad that is coming to them?

But when this government says it needs powers to make hatred illegal, it doesn’t mean all or most hatred. While the new definition does target far right neo-Nazi groups including the British National Socialist Movement and Patriotic Alternative, the new approach not only fails to address actors on the mainstream political right who continue to directly target vulnerable groups — it also sweeps up groups who aren’t engaged in hatred at all.

Take the problem of anti-transgender violence in Britain, for example. On February 11, 2023, trans teenager Brianna Ghey was murdered in Cheshire. Her killing received national attention partly because she was a popular TikToker with tens of thousands of followers. On Februrary 7, Ghey’s mother attended the House of Commons to meet members of Parliament. Knowing that Esther Ghey would be there, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sought to use the occasion to embarrass the Labour Party, which has tried to play a difficult and unprincipled game of simultaneously supporting the government when it seeks to strip away trans rights and also trying to be seen as progressive by LGBTQ+ voters.

Prime Minister Sunak joked that the Labour Party was incapable of “defining a woman.” His predecessor, Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss, then followed up Sunak’s jibe by introducing a bill that would prevent trans people from competing in sports and criminalize medical practitioners who prescribe puberty blocking medication to anyone below the age of 18. If there is anyone in British politics who has been seeking to destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, it is Sunak, Truss and the Conservative Party. But when ministers talk of “extremism,” they don’t mean themselves.

Rather, what the government has in mind is a particular set of ideological enemies. The “organisations with ‘Islamist orientation and beliefs’” that Communities Secretary Michael Gove is targeting for a ban include the Muslim Association of Britain; CAGE International, a Muslim advocacy network whose activists include former Guantánamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg; and Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). Begg has long been a target of the security state, having survived three years in U.S. detention and publishing a best-selling memoir.

All these groups have campaigned in solidarity with the population of Gaza since Israeli’s incursion last October. Muslim Engagement and Development has been training student activists in solidarity work. CAGE International is one of the few organizations in Britain to have publicized the fact that several hundred campaigners have been threatened with losing their jobs for pro-Palestinian speech. The Muslim Association of Britain — alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Stop the War Campaign, and others — has been one of the six organizations that have been organizing Britain’s national antiwar marches, which have taken place every three weeks or so since the Israeli attack began. (Other organizers of these marches have allied with the Muslim Association of Britain in opposing the government’s new definition of political extremism.)

Seen from this perspective, it feels like the government’s attack on “extremist” groups is just the latest stage in what has been a longrunning attempt to delegitimize pro-Palestinian protests. Government ministers have attacked antiwar marches and have called on police to ban them, claiming they are “hate marches” out of step with public opinion.

The difficulty for the government is that when you ask British people what they think about Palestine, a majority respond that they favor an immediate ceasefire. In November 2023, the pollster YouGov asked voters whether they thought Israel should continue to take military action, or call a ceasefire. At that time, voters supported a ceasefire in a ratio of three to one. By February, the gap of opinion was even starker, with those who called for a ceasefire outnumbering advocates of military action by five to one. (Sixty-six percent of people supported a ceasefire, just 13 percent were opposed to that measure.) Another poll found that 76 percent of people in Britain supported a ceasefire — a majority of Britons are aligned with the persepective of the so-called “extremists” Communities Secretary Gove wants to ban.

Over the past decade Conservative governments have constructed a shared state infrastructure under which members of what in the United States would be called “alt-light” groups are given positions as well-paid advisers to ministers. They lobby for the security state to adopt their preferred measures of harassing racial minorities, LGBTQ people and leftists.

Allied policy initiatives such as Prevent, the government’s campaign to require public sector bodies to monitor extremism, already require lecturers, teachers, doctors, and others to monitor and report to the state activies which could result in support for violence. Among such partially criminalized opinions are support for “communism,” “anti-fascism” and even democratic “socialism,” despite socialism still being the official ideology of the British Labour Party, whose leading representatives are preparing to serve their turn in government later this year.

Will Labour unravel these right-wing laws? Probably not. Labour Party members responded to the Conservative announcement by offering to work together with the government to implement its proposed definition of extremism. Labour did not criticize ministers either for proposing to criminalize the left, or for giving jobs to advisers who idealize former President Donald Trump. No points of criticism were raised, save only for delay, with Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner asking only, “Why has it taken the government 13 years to address this?”

Beyond the orbit of Britain’s members of Parliament, politics is more hopeful. There have been seven national marches for Gaza since October. Demonstrators have turned out for them in huge numbers, with around 150,000 attending the smallest of the protests and 500,000 at the largest. New generations of people are being brought into the movement. Viable candidates capable of challenging not just the Conservatives but also Labour in our coming election are emerging. The movement has been too large and popular for the police to confront directly. The Conservative government is trying to make it difficult for our protests to continue, but the movement is still gaining momentum.

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