New Extremism Definition Under Fire from Greenpeace UK

Greenpeace UK warns against the British government’s proposed expansion of extremism definitions, fearing it may stifle peaceful protests and inadvertently fuel the very extremism it seeks to curb. Here’s the full story.

Mistrust and Caution

The British government’s recent foray into expanding the definition of extremism has been met with deep mistrust and profound caution by many who view the definition as overly vague. 

The government has invoked the well-worn trope of “British values” as something that extremism opposes, but the term is not well-defined and means different things to each person who hears it. 

Are British values tolerance, a willingness to support people in need, and politeness to a fault? Or are they a stiff upper lip, keeping calm, carrying on, and obeying the rules? 

Cautionary Statement

As Michael Gove, the columnist turned politician turned levelling-up secretary, stands in parliament to announce to the country the government’s new definition of extremism, such is the level of mistrust from activist organizations of all political backgrounds that Greenpeace UK has issued a cautionary statement against the move. 

Greenpeace UK’s joint executive director, Areeba Hamid, said in an interview with the Guardian, “Cracking down on peaceful protest won’t help combat extremism, but risks fueling it instead. The right to protest is the safety valve of a healthy democracy – it allows people to express their dissent peacefully. 

She continued, “When you make peaceful, legal protest off limits, you exclude peaceful, law-abiding protesters from the conversation, and give their space to people who are less concerned about peacefulness and legality.”

Words to Ideology

The government’s proposed shift in focus from actions and words to ideology raises alarms from activist groups of all stripes, from those advocating for Muslim rights to environmental causes. 

While the government aims to target groups perceived to undermine British democracy, serious concerns linger about the potential broad application of such vague terminology. 

After all, groups pushing for proportional representation or abolishing the monarchy could be considered undermining British democracy, making a case as they do for changing our political system. 

The Real Target

Despite these concerns, it is suspected by many that Muslim groups protesting against the UK’s steadfast support of Israel’s war in Gaza are the real target of the new extremism definition. However, many environmental and other activist groups fear that the catch-all term of extremism may find them trapped in the government’s net.

Former Labour MP turned crossbench peer John Woodcock is set to lead a review on “political violence and disruption.” His proposal includes banning engagement with groups employing disruptive protest tactics, which by definition include almost all forms of protest. Ministers are reportedly considering this measure. 

Additionally, under the new criteria, Gove is expected to advise against government engagement or funding for any group classified as extremist.

Authoritarian Tendencies

Will McCallum, co-director of Greenpeace UK, warned against the government giving in to their more authoritarian tendencies. McCallum stated, “All they are trying to do right now is a cynical move to stifle the voices they don’t want to listen to. And that is why we’re worried, because the moment you go down that route, where you get to label anything you don’t like as extremist, then you are following in the footsteps of autocracies around the world.”

Greenpeace co-director Hamid, who had been part of protests by Greenpeace in India when the Modi government instituted a crackdown, underscored the worrying trend of governments broadening extremism definitions for political expediency. 

Hamid stated, “I vividly remember what it felt like to be the target of a deliberate government effort to demonize and silence civil society organizations. This is not the situation in the UK right now, but stretching the definition of extremism to score political points is a slippery slope and the government should step nowhere near it.”

Extensive Powers

Civil liberties campaigners have criticized recent laws which grant extensive powers to the police to crack down on protests and introduced new protest-related offences. 

Despite these measures giving unprecedented powers to the police to stifle protests, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has drummed up fear of protests and protesters by likening the current situation of citizens using their right to assemble and speak freely as “mob rule.”

McCallum argues that a crackdown on protesters and protests fails to address the underlying issues driving the activism the government is so afraid of. 

McCallum said of the protests, “They’ve become more disruptive because the situation we’re in has become more dire. People would not be gathering in greater numbers, they would not be undertaking greater disruption, if they weren’t opening the newspaper every day and seeing a planet on fire, people having to flee their homes right the way across the world.”

He continued: “So before looking at should we be controlling the protests, why are people showing up? People don’t put themselves into inconvenience, they don’t get arrested, they don’t go to prison because they like it. They are going there because something is going wrong in society.”

Long Fought For Freedoms

As the British government prepares to grant itself sweeping powers to decide what is and what is not extremist, UK citizens must be wary of the limits of state intervention in democratic processes to ensure rights and freedoms long fought for are not taken piecemeal without their notice. 

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