Policing Palestinian Protests

By Claudia Radiven

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Blog 92

17 April 2024

On the 14th of March 2024, as part of his role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove’s new definition of extremism was released. Ostensibly the new definition is being posited as ‘guidance’ for a ‘common-sense’ approach to tackling extremism. This approach consists of three main markers of behaviour that could constitute extremism:

    1. negate or destroy fundamental rights and freedoms
    2. undermine, overturn or replace liberal democracy
    3. enabling the spread of extremism

At face value, these seem like reasonable assertions, reflecting the reasonable language of common sense that protects freedoms as well as security. However, within each of the three aims, there is further elaboration that gives substantial cause for concern and draws attention to the definition’s real aims. The two types of extremism of concern within the new definition are Neo-Nazi and Islamist groups. However, within this publication are multiple mentions and allusions to recent activities in solidarity with the people of Palestine as well as groups or individuals who would seek to disrupt the actions of the government. The crux of this is that the definition potentially facilitates the suppression of genuine political sentiments, especially those centred on dissatisfaction with the current government.

Whilst what this definition attempts to articulate is not legally binding, it devotes paragraphs to describing how its intent is towards ‘a workable use of the term in real life cases’. The implication here is that the definition will ultimately be used wherever it can be, in situations pertaining to so-called extremism. Whilst the definition has “no effect on the existing criminal law – it applies to the operations of government itself”. This becomes insidious when taking a closer look at the above aims. The statements within show some unnerving implications.

The new definition states that particular behaviours will be judged as extremism such as “Advocating that the UK’s parliamentary democracy and democratic values and rights are not compatible with their ideology, and seeking to challenge, overthrow, or change our political system outside of lawful means”. This is especially concerning in terms of criminalizing dissent or any ideology the government can deem too different to be anything but dangerous. This is a fairly loose category that can be manipulated to suit particular aims. It is expanded upon to target the recent wave of legitimate protests that have taken place every weekend since October 7th. Anyone seen to be “subverting the way public or state institutions exercise their powers, in order to further ideological goals, for example through entryism, or by misusing powers or encouraging others to do so” can be deemed extreme. We have seen in recent times how rhetoric like this has been peddled to a more mainstream audience. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s speech after the success of George Galloway in Rochdale laboured on how democracy has been targeted and “Britain’s streets had been hijacked by groups hostile to British values”, echoing the language of the Prevent policy and counter-extremism.

Whilst the new definition refers to the Prevent policy it fails to draw on the recent Shawcross review which at least brought into discussion last year’s hostilities from groups in support of the BJP and Hindutva ideology. This recent definition makes a point of citing one specific faith group, Muslims. The government’s own press release states that the “definition of extremism (has been) updated to respond to increased extremist threat since October 7 terror attacks in Israel”. It addresses efforts to “overturn the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy” and essentially bring the populace back into check. The UK government’s surprise at the intense support for Palestine and a ceasefire resulted in an equally intense response: a new definition that renegotiates the social contract between government and citizens, and attempts to prevent the pressure on government from escalating any further.

Author’s bio

Dr Claudia Radiven is the Diamond Jubilee Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.

 

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