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21 October 2015

Concern over government’s strategy on counter-extremism

Concern over government’s strategy on counter-extremism

This week, David Cameron released the government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy which aims to tackle violent and/or ‘non-violent extremism’. The Evangelical Alliance recognises the government has a role to ensure the safety of individuals and communities while upholding our fundamental freedoms and welcomes the prime minister’s decision to address extremism.

However the Alliance is concerned about the strategy’s definition of ‘extremism’ and in particular ‘non-violent extremism’.  According to the government, extremism is:

 “...the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist”. 

The definition is so broad and ambiguous that it could result in limiting fundamental freedoms such as freedom of thought, conscience and religion. A recent poll by the Alliance revealed that 81% of evangelicals were concerned that policies designed to counter extremism may actually make it harder for Christians to express their faith in public, with 75% agreeing that freedom of speech needs greater protection in the UK.

This concern is shared by many beyond the faith community. Amnesty International, remarked that the government’s terminology “creates a risk that the authorities could curtail freedom of speech, association and assembly in this country”. While the BBC’s Dominic Casciani predicted “serious legal fireworks in Parliament and in the courts for years to come”.

A further concern is that the Strategy seems to switch between the need to protect ‘fundamental’ values (which have ‘evolved’ over centuries), ‘shared’ values (supported and shared by the ‘overwhelming majority’ of the population) and ‘national’ values – all of which are notable by the absence of any clear reference to the historic Judaeo-Christian influence upon our legal framework.

Some would argue that this ambiguity makes for flexible law. However it will undoubtedly create uncertainty about the scope of our legal freedoms.

The Counter-Extremism Strategy contains repeated and explicit references to Islam. However religious liberty is for all. Without clear and unequivocal explanations of what does and does not constitute extremism, many Christians who hold and express traditional biblical views may feel threatened by the prospect of falling foul of the law.

We are disappointed the government has not consulted with faith groups and the wider community on this important issue prior to publication.

Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance said: “I am encouraged by the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that the state cannot tackle these ideologies without the help of faith communities. However, the Counter-Extremism Strategy simply does not provide for sufficient consultation with established faith communities about vital definitions of ‘extremism’”.

Dr Landrum went on to say: “Evangelicals continue to make a huge contribution to our national life in the UK. We are committed to supporting the government in addressing the scourge of groups encouraging violence in our towns and cities – and abroad.

“To ensure that the hard-won freedoms to fully practise and express our faith are secure, I call upon the government to: formally engage with faith communities in formulating legislation arising from this strategy; and to clearly define what is meant by ‘extremism’”.