Freedom of expression has long been extolled by those who love freedom generally. For example, attempting to capture Voltaire’s commitment to it, historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall coined the famous phrase, wrongly attributed to the French philosophe himself – ‘I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’. George Orwell also once memorably quipped: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they don’t want to hear’. And, according to the European Court of Human Rights, this includes offending, shocking and disturbing.
Spats, fall-outs, intellectual and personal feuds, have, of course, been commonplace amongst scholars since antiquity. And before the institutionalisation of the right to free speech in the west, the consequences could be much more serious than ruffled feathers. In the 16th century, for example, questioning the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – that the wine and wafers used in the Mass miraculously turn into the physical body of Christ upon consumption – could result in being burned at the stake as a heretic. In the centuries since, the west has become accustomed to vigorous, legally-protected, yet not always even-tempered academic debates. For example, arguably making a bid for the most disrespectful scholarly put-down on record, nineteenth century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, denounced his much more famous and influential contemporary, Hegel, as a ‘flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan’. (more…)
Of the four ‘Ps’ which frame the UK’s counterterrorist strategy – Pursue, Prepare, Protect and Prevent – the latter is by far the most controversial. It aims to stop people from becoming terrorists, or from supporting those who already are, by countering terrorist ideology and challenging those who promote it (‘counter-radicalization’), steering vulnerable individuals away from it (‘de-radicalization’), and working with sectors and institutions where these risks are considered high. Over 50,000 people and over 2,500 institutions – including schools, universities, mosques, and faith groups – engage with Prevent in over 40 priority areas and over a million people have received relevant training. De-radicalization is coordinated by Channel, an official multi-agency initiative offering non-compulsory, tailor-made support plans based on counselling and encouragement of approved activities, to those willing to receive them. On 22 January 2019 the security minister, Ben Wallace, announced that Prevent would be independently reviewed in accordance with an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill currently wending its way through parliament. This should be welcomed by everyone with an interest in effective, human rights-compliant counterterrorist law and policy and particularly by those, like us, who have long contested the mythology of the anti-Prevent movement. (more…)
Many, including the government, are convinced that ‘extremism’ is implicated in the current terrorist threat and in some of the challenges which arise in the promotion of integration and the maintenance of social cohesion in a society as diverse as the UK. It is, of course, undeniable that terrorism involves ‘violent extremism’. But it is less clear that there is a problem with ‘non-violent extremism’, or at least that it is of such significance that the state and society should be mobilizing to address it. Yet, it is also difficult to deny that the profile of ideas and behaviour hostile to humane values, tolerance and mutual respect has increased in recent years, particularly as a result of the internet and social media. It is against these backgrounds that an independent Commission for Countering Extremism was established by the government in March 2018. At the core of its mission lie three questions: what precisely is ‘extremism’? What kind of threats and risks does it pose? And what, if anything, should state and society do about it? This brief contribution considers the role that human rights might play in finding some answers. (more…)
Earlier this year, the Government fulfilled one of its General Election Manifesto commitments by appointing Sara Khan as the first chair of a new Commission for Countering Extremism. The Commission’s task is not an enviable one, since if not exactly an admission of failure, its establishment represents at least a significant pause for thought. Its job will be to support society in countering extremism and to advise the Government on new policies and powers. We have some idea of what it aspires to achieve, and how it will work, but as yet no concrete proposals have emerged.
The creation of the Commission is the latest stage in a fairly rapid process of policy development. In its current guise, the idea of countering extremism first emerged in the 2011 version of Prevent, the counter-terrorism strategy. Extremism was defined there 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’. It was identified as a problem because, it was claimed, extremist ideologies can lead to terrorism – the use or threat of serious violence or other damaging attacks on the public to advance a political, religious, racial or ideological cause. However, at that point the only thing the Government suggested should be done about it was ‘challenge’ – in other words the use of informal social and political pressure to reinforce liberal values in the face of illiberal ones.
In October 2015 – after the ending of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition – the Government’s counter-terrorism policy took another turn. A new counter-extremism strategy identified extremism as a harm in its own right, requiring new legal responses and new Government powers. Ever since, the Government has been trying to work out what these should be. (more…)
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (CTSA) has aroused great controversy by imposing a legal duty upon schools, universities, the NHS and other institutions to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ (the ‘Prevent duty’). However, in an article published in the current issue of the academic journal Public Law, ‘Counter-Terrorist Law in British Universities: A Review of the “Prevent” Debate’, we argue that the campaign against the Act and the duty in higher education rests largely upon myths, six of which are particularly prevalent. In this blog, we provide a summary of those myths (you can also watch a short video outlining the main arguments). (more…)