The UK government is considering the expansion of its extremism laws in response to ongoing pro-Palestinian protests in the country, as reported by The Observer. Official documents have come to light, indicating that several Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups, including the Muslim Council of Britain, Palestine Action, and Muslim Engagement and Development, could be categorized as extremist organizations.
Government insiders have expressed concerns that this broader extremism definition might curb legitimate criticisms of the state and potentially infringe on freedom of speech. The timing of these proposals is challenging for the government, as they have supported Israel during its Gaza assault while mass pro-Palestinian demonstrations have continued for a fourth week in London and other major British cities.
The proposed measures, currently being finalized by civil servants under Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities Minister Michael Gove, follow a review of non-violent extremism in the UK launched in 2023. The official documents, marked as “official — sensitive,” define extremism as the promotion of ideologies aiming to subvert or undermine the UK’s parliamentary democracy, institutions, values, or the rights of individuals, potentially creating an environment conducive to radicalization, hate crime, and terrorism.
Furthermore, the documents suggest that “sustained support for or continued uncritical association with organizations or individuals exhibiting extremist behaviors” would fall under this new definition. The proposed definition is expected to be accompanied by public guidance to ensure its consistent application, although no public consultation has occurred thus far.
Critics, such as Akiko Hart, interim director of the human rights group Liberty, have described the proposals as “reckless and cynical.” They fear that expanding the definition beyond current guidance may deter individuals and groups from legitimately exercising their right to free speech while enabling the government to crack down on community groups, charities, or faith-based organizations with which they disagree.
Martin Bright, editor-at-large of the Index on Censorship, called this an “unwarranted attack on freedom of expression” that could potentially criminalize a broad spectrum of individuals, including student radicals and dissidents, which is contrary to traditional British values.
Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty International’s racial justice director for the UK, argued that the proposed definition, if accepted and implemented, could hinder people from organizing and mobilizing and potentially criminalize dissent.
The Prevent strategy, introduced in 2011, defines extremism as “active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
The Muslim Council of Britain urged the government to address its own extremists rather than stigmatize entire communities. Palestine Action viewed the new definition as an attempt to undermine and intimidate their movement and expressed their determination not to be deterred.
A government spokesperson emphasized the government’s commitment to countering extremism and division, suggesting that they regularly review their approach to addressing extremism to meet evolving challenges.