The UK government has published a new definition of ‘extremism.’ Critics fear it could curtail free speech

The British government has published a new definition of extremism in response to a surge in hate crimes following Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel, a move critics warn could threaten free speech.

The new “more precise” definition deems extremism to be an “ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance” that has several aims, such as to “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Groups or people who meet that definition will be prohibited from working with or receiving funding from government departments. The new definition has no legal standing and does not affect current criminal law.

The government said the new definition was necessary due to a rise in hate crimes since the October 7 attacks. A statement said there had been a 147% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK in 2023 compared to 2022, and a 335% increase in anti-Muslim hate cases in the last four months.

“The pervasiveness of extremist ideologies has become increasingly clear in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks and poses a real risk to the security of our citizens and our democracy,” Michael Gove, a senior British cabinet minister, told parliament as he unveiled the new definition.

“This is the work of extreme right-wing and Islamist extremists who are seeking to separate Muslims from the rest of society and create division within Muslim communities.”

The crisis in the Middle East and the UK’s response has led to civil and political tensions. Marches in support of Palestinians have become regular events in cities across the UK. While the vast majority of these demonstrations are peaceful, there have been examples of anti-Semitic chants, including the “from the river to the sea” chant widely used at rallies that is sometimes intended to call for the destruction of Israel.

A number of parliamentarians say they have received threats from protesters over their position on the Israel-Hamas conflict. This is of particular concern, as two British lawmakers have been murdered in recent years, one by a far-right extremist and one by an Islamist extremist.

There has also been a significant jump in far-right activity in recent months, though this is less directly related to the conflict in the Middle East. The UK’s most recent net migration figures hit a record high and reducing these numbers has become a key priority of the incumbent Conservative government.

The current climate has affected political discourse, with politicians accusing each other of being controlled by Islamists or supporting genocide.

However, it is not clear that the government’s new definition will help ease tensions and has been criticized across the political spectrum.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, warned the new definition could “vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division,” saying Muslim communities in particular were at risk.

Even the normally pro-Conservative newspaper The Daily Mail said “the best intentions can have unintended consequences,” asking if the new definition could apply to gender critical activists or anti-abortion campaigners.

No individuals or organizations have been formally defined as extremist yet, but the government is expected to release details in the coming weeks.

However, in his announcement, Gove named some Muslim and neo-Nazi groups as ones that would be assessed.

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