Prevent, an anti-extremist program which the British government sold to voters as a solution to Islamic terrorism, may have gone too far. A growing number of people claim that it is also being used to silence critics of same-sex marriage and abortion.
The Prevent strategy was published by the Coalition government in 2011, as part of a broader counter-terrorism plan known as CONTEST. The strategy responds to the ideology of terrorism and its promoters, prevents people from being sucked into terrorism, and works with sectors and institutions to address the risk of radicalisation.
Prevent defines “extremism” as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
But it’s important to examine the fine print. While most people think that extremism necessarily implies violence, the government doesn’t. There can be “non-violent extremism”.
The problem is that a crack-down on violent actions is being used to crack down on non-violent ideas. At its worst, a program which is supposed to stop Islamic indoctrination in violence is being exploited to stop Christian education in the Beatitudes.
Being British, said Cameron when he introduced the program, meant promoting values like democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, the rule of law – and “equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality”. He concluded: “We must say to our citizens: this is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things.”
Adherence to “fundamental British values” is now the litmus test of whether an individual or a group is on a path toward extremism and terrorism. It’s not enough to obey the law – you have to be a card-carrying Cameronian Brit.
Home Secretary Theresa May gave more details: “We will introduce legislation to combat groups and individuals who reject our values and promote messages of hate. We will empower institutions to stand up against the extremists and challenge bigotry and ignorance.”
And in another speech, she added: “This strategy aims to tackle the whole spectrum of extremism, violent and non-violent, ideological and non-ideological. Where extremism takes root the consequences are clear. Women’s rights are eroded. There is discrimination on the basis of race and sexuality.”
So it is not just Muslims who have reason to fear Prevent.
Campaign groups like the Family Education Trust (FET) believe that the ambiguous language will capture groups the government considers a threat to LGBT, feminist and secularist interests. FET director Norman Wells argues that Prevent will endanger opponents with unpopular ideas.
Evangelical street preachers, orthodox Jews, Catholic schools and priests, home-schoolers, free speech campaigners, opponents of abortion or same-sex marriage, and anti-Islamification groups like Pegida, could easily find themselves labelled as extremist.
We can’t say that we weren’t warned. Last year Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, indicated that children who speak out in class against homosexuality could be regarded as potential extremists:
“It could trigger a thought; it would depend very much on the context in which that was being discussed. But teachers would discuss it as they do already when they are concerned about children who are at risk of perhaps being drawn into a gang or being exploited or being neglected at home. This is a safeguarding issue.”
At least one MP has called for extremism disruption orders [EDOs] to be used against teachers who express opposition to same-sex marriage in the classroom. In a letter to a constituent, Mark Spencer wrote:
“The new legislation specifically targets hate speech, so teachers will still be free to express their understanding of the term ‘marriage,’ and their moral opposition to its use in some situations without breaking the new laws. The EDOs, in this case, would apply to a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong.”
Over the past couple of years, some Catholic, Jewish, and Anglican schools have been closed down, placed on special measures, taken over by third parties, and had their reputations ruined. Government education inspectors (Ofsted) claimed that they were not promoting “British values” and had failed to instil tolerance of other religions and sexual behaviours. We now have the absurdity of education authorities trying to stamp out Islamic extremism by demanding that Jewish children learn more about Islam. But this isn’t political correctness, say the authorities reassuringly. It’s being “realistic about the diverse society we now live in”.
Most recently the government has moved to control home-schooling families and private tuition colleges. It wants settings which provide “intensive tuition, training or instruction to children” to register with local authorities so that they can be inspected by Ofsted.
During a debate in Parliament in January, politicians from across the political spectrum objected. Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh asked:
“Why does tackling abuse and radicalisation in a very tiny number of madrassas mean that every voluntary group in England that instructs children for six or more hours a week has to register with the state? A system based on ‘British values’ and ‘undesirable’ teaching is ripe for subjective, exaggerated and politically-motivated complaints, especially against religious groups. This will generate false flags and waste time. Finding extremists is already like finding a needle in a haystack. This system will just make the haystack much bigger.”
Home-schoolers are also worried, as these alternative settings are regularly used by parents to supplement the education a child receives at home. They are also worried that home-schoolers will be formally restricted, with the government planning to investigate the details of exactly how many children are home-schooled. There is talk of a formal register.
The invention of “fundamental British values” has proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is being wielded to tame new and alien values inspired by Islam. On the other, it is being used to force historic British values to bend the knee to contemporary secularism.
To borrow an idea from philosopher Alasdair Macintyre: even in government circles there remain the disjointed fragments of traditional culture. But these memories are fading with each generation. Notions of truth, goodness, state, society, family, justice, and patriotism linger on, but increasingly with new meanings. Our leaders traffic in values and political correctness rather than principles, truths, and virtues.
Yes, the government should tackle violent extremism – no one wants to live in a world where religiously-motivated suicide bombings, mass executions, slavery, and appalling cruelty towards minorities are part of daily life. But this must not be used to impose Mr Cameron’s idiosyncratic interpretation of British values on the rest of us.
Daniel Blackman is a theology and ethics post-graduate. Since 2010 he has been working in education, research, and campaigning on family issues. He is published in journals, papers, and magazines in the UK and US.