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I sued the government over 'extremism' and I know the game Gove is playing

The British public should realise that Muslim scapegoats today, much like the Jewish, Irish or Black scapegoats used by demagogues yesterday, are not their enemies
Britain's Levelling Up, Communities and Housing Secretary Michael Gove addresses the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester, northern England, on 3 October 2023 (AFP)

On Thursday, Michael Gove, UK's secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, revealed a new definition of extremism - despite criticisms from rights groups, senior Tory party members, Church of England leaders and even his own legal advisors.

What caught my eye in particular prior to the release of the government's new definition was the three former home secretaries who signed a letter warning against the politicising of anti-extremism; not least because they have all been, at one point, defendants in a case I brought against the government. 

In 2015, I was defamed as a so-called "extremist" in a 10 Downing Street press release, over which I took the government to court. As well as a case for libel, our legal challenge also included a public law case arguing that the government has been acting unlawfully in its measures to counter so-called "extremism"; for which we currently await our day at the European Court of Human Rights. 

One of the many lessons I learned throughout this whole ordeal was just how meaningless "extremism" is.

Indeed, at the high court our barrister, Paul Bowen KC, masterfully laid out before the judge a list of people who would be deemed "extremist" according to the government today - from Aristotle, to Voltaire, to Jesus Christ himself.

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That is why, before finally apologising for the libellous press release in 2021, the government’s five-year-long defence was not that I am in fact an extremist, but the defence of honest opinion; that extremism itself is a subjective value judgement not based on anything concrete and hence not liable to objective truth or falsehood.

That is probably why the government’s legal advisors have not been very happy with Gove’s maverick attitude towards throwing around the label.

More arbitrary powers 

Unlike popular political and social discourse, people who transact in the tedium of precision and facts - jurists, academics, and so on - look past the cartoon villains used to sell counter-extremism policies and convince citizens to part with their hard-won rights.

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The problem is that defamation is a millionaire’s sport, and we don’t have a functioning enough mainstream press to hold demagogues to account, let alone adequately convey the consensus among academic researchers of the empirically determined causes of terrorism and political violence (spoiler alert: ideology isn’t one of them; it is incidental, not causative).

As a result, it’s easy for us citizens to get swept up in the national security fervour and acquiesce in giving the political classes more and more arbitrary powers to restrict our activities. But remember this: extremism is NOT about terrorists, murderers, or other bogeymen used to sell a policy. 

When someone carries out an act of terrorism or political violence, when someone murders, destroys public property, or even engages in hate speech, they are not prosecuted under any anti-extremism (or even anti-terrorism) legislation. They are prosecuted under existing (sometimes centuries-old) legislation.

That is why the likes of even the government’s appointed independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Max Hill KC, suggested that terrorism legislation ought to be scrapped.

So why are we still talking about it?

I asked one of our legal counsels how something so vacuous and toxic as the failed Prevent policy and the extremism discourse it is built upon had gotten so far. The veteran in taking governments to court taught me a valuable lesson: "Governments don’t tend to do things based on evidence and empirical research, they do things to be seen to be doing something."

Dog whistle politics

This government has made it clear that it is using Muslims as a political football in a race to the bottom to appeal to the worst xenophobic sentiments and racist myths using dog-whistle politics.

Gove is no stranger to this tactic considering his role in what many call the "Trojan Hoax" scandal that dragged Britain’s social cohesion back decades whilst simultaneously destroying the otherwise "outstanding" educational prospects of generations of inner-city Birmingham children.

This government is using Muslims as a political football in a race to the bottom to appeal to the worst xenophobic sentiments and racist myths using dog whistle politics

It’s no coincidence that a former party leader, Liz Truss, has been hobnobbing with the infamous Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former adviser, nodding along approvingly as he hails the likes of Tommy Robinson as a hero and bewails the imaginary "no-go zones" across Britain run by Muslims; prompting a reaction from her reminiscent of the lettuce that outlasted her premiership.

But there is a more sinister dimension to today’s events that was revealed in our legal challenge.

During our legal challenge we uncovered a previously secretive department within the Home Office, eerily called "Extremism Analysis Unit" (EAU), that employs advanced digital tools to monitor citizens’ public and social media lives whilst making determinations on who is and is not an "extremist".

Seeing as the definition of extremism they were given was "vocal or active opposition to British values", this presented a chilling echo of McCarthyism in 21st century Britain, with a committee effectively monitoring Un-British Activities.

We made thousands of pages of documents available to the public and, since then, journalists, academics and NGOs have been able to push back against this likely breach of our rights to privacy and freedom of thought.

However, the rabbit hole went deeper. We also uncovered that this shady unit was regularly receiving - and uncritically reproducing - briefings from none other than members of the Henry Jackson Society, a controversial neoconservative think tank.

That’s right, a group whose associate director Douglas Murray appealed to Dutch lawmakers in 2006 that "Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board", whose foreign funders and associates include a veritable who’s who of anti-Muslim hatred, was telling this shady government department which Muslims are "extremist" and therefore should have their rights curtailed under the toxic Prevent programme. And they were listening.

It might be worth mentioning that Gove has served as one of the Henry Jackson Society’s directors in the past.

A dark path

I’ve always said that Muslims are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to British civil liberties.

Many of us warned at the start of this "anti-extremism" business that if authorities get the taste of arbitrarily restricting lawful speech, thoughts and behaviour they do not like, it is only a matter of time before that circle of inexpressible opinion becomes wider and wider.

I hate to say I told you so, but since then we have seen the tentacles of this discourse apply to climate change activism, animal rights demonstrators, anti-fracking demonstrators, and now of course Palestinian rights marches. 

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Racist dog-whistle tactics may work in the short term but at the cost of long-term harm to civil society at large. (Not to mention beyond our borders, as the sordid anti-extremism industry has been seen exported to the likes of China and India that are terrorising their own Muslim populations.) 

Not only is our resistance to so-called "anti-extremism" discourse good for all of our civil liberties, but researchers routinely warn us that the presence of so-called non-violent "extremism" also makes us safer. However much we dislike deplorable opinions, we are all better off when they stay as speech and opinions that can be openly discussed, argued and rebutted. 

History shows us that if you want to reduce the likelihood of some overzealous fanatics turning to violence, you need to give them a non-violent outlet. It is precisely when so-called "radical" or "extreme" groups experience state suppression that some voices from within them succeed in convincing people to choose the bullet over the ballot box.

In other words, if you want to stop violence, the worst thing you can do is ban non-violence. The cure to bad speech is more speech not less.

It is heartening that there has been so much condemnation and rebuke of the likes of Gove and his neocon chums trying to take us down this dark path. Those whom the dog whistles appeal to would do well to realise that the Muslim scapegoats used to distract them today are not their enemies, much like the Jewish, Irish or Black scapegoats used by demagogues yesterday.

Muslims, with all our quirks, are part and parcel of the British landscape now, and our interests align with the vast majority. The sooner we all realise that the better.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Salman Butt is a Muslim public intellectual and Islamic affairs commentator. He is the head of Islamic Thought at Islam21c. He holds a PhD in chemical biology from Imperial College London.
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