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Contrived moral panic about Muslims: Tories' tool-kit for UK's authoritarian shift

March 13, 2024 at 8:17 pm

London’s famous Coventry Street is decorated with Ramadan ornaments, upcoming the Muslims’ holy month Ramadan in London, United Kingdom on March 07, 2024. [Raşid Necati Aslım – Anadolu Agency]

The UK is about to take another step towards authoritarianism, cloaked in the guise of safeguarding “British Values”.  A new, insidious definition of extremism is set to be unveiled, carrying with it the potential to erode the very foundations of freedom and tolerance that lie at the heart of the British society. This alarming development is not born out of a genuine desire to protect “British Values”, but, rather, as the brainchild of a cabal of right-wing ministers who have long traded in the currency of fear and division, designed to silence critics and opponents of the government.

For decades, these same right-wing politicians have honed their skills in peddling Islamophobic conspiracy theories, stoking the flames of prejudice by conjuring up nightmarish visions of a Muslim takeover of the country. They have exploited the power of moral panic, preying upon the anxieties of the public to further their own agendas.

By presenting the Muslim community as a looming threat to the very fabric of British society, these ministers have created a climate of fear that serves to justify the erosion of civil liberties. It is against this backdrop of manufactured crisis that the new definition of extremism is being introduced. It is a cynical ploy to silence dissent and stifle the voices of those who dare to challenge the status quo. A status quo which is dangerously losing touch with reality.

The new definition is expected to be unveiled tomorrow by Communities Secretary, Michael Gove. Palestine Action, a group committed to closing down Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, is among the organisations that could be affected by the new definition. Gove was a leading architect of the so called Trojan horse hoax in 2014, and has been accused of a witch-hunt against Muslims and of leading a McCarthyite charge to blacklist Muslim organisations in Britain.

Gove’s new “witch-hunting unit” even has the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, worried. “The Government’s new definition of extremism not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech but also the right to worship, and risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities,” warned Welby writing on X. “Labelling a multi-faceted problem as hateful extremism may vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division in our nation.”

In a separate statement, Welby and the Archbishop of York warned the Government that its new extremism definition risks “disproportionately targeting Muslim communities” and “driving us apart”. Both leaders called on the government to “reconsider its approach and, instead, have a broad-based conversation with all those who it will affect.”

The new definition, according to The Times, will ban groups or individuals who promote an ideology based on intolerance, hatred or violence that aims to undermine or overturn the rights and freedoms of others; undermines the UK’s liberal system of democracy, or intentionally creates a permissive environment for others to do so.

A new unit will be set up within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to oversee the new definition. Counter-extremism academics will be recruited to work alongside the department’s officials and will identify groups or individuals that meet the new definition of extremism. The unit will be tasked with identifying and addressing gaps in the government’s oversight of extremism. It will also gather intelligence in communities to spot emerging and evolving new extremist threats.

READ: Islamophobia spike, mosque break-ins: London Muslims start Ramadan fearing for their safety

Gove’s plan comes as the ruling Conservative Party is mired in a row over Islamophobia and fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment. Under any normal situation, that would disqualify the likes of Gove from preaching about tolerance. This, however, is no normal situation and, in this parallel universe where those aiding and abetting genocide are the moderates, and those calling for peace and ceasefire in Gaza are the extremists, Gove’s long-held fantasy of “draining the swamp and not wait for the crocodile to reach the boat,” is being played out.

The Tories – who increasingly appear as though they are the British arm of European fascism – are in no position to preach to others about extremism. The role of the Conservative in facilitating the rise of Europe’s far-right is well documented. An investigative report commissioned by Tell MAMA, for example, exposed the Conservative party’s aiding and abetting of German fascists with Nazi roots. The report shed light on the Tory’s troubling alliances with far-right political parties across Europe, particularly through its leadership of the European Conservatives and Reformist Group (ECR) in the European Parliament. The Tories were found to have played a significant role in the resurgence of traditional far-right groups, some with neo-Nazi sympathies, by granting them legitimacy and access to EU infrastructure and funding.

Since the May 2014 elections, the Tory-dominated ECR became the third-largest force in the EU Parliament, with several far-right groups alongside the Tories. The report highlights that the ECR “made a major shift towards the far right” by accepting “decidedly right-wing populist parties”, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Danish Freedom Party (DF), the True Finns (PS) and the Independent Greeks (ANEL). Despite concerns raised about the AfD’s extreme nationalist agenda, two Tory MEPs defied David Cameron’s opposition to the party’s entry into the ECR in June 2014.

The AfD’s Nazi roots and Neo-Nazi sympathies are widely known. The report exposed AfD’s barely concealed neo-Nazi policy agenda and the historical associations of its party leaders with the late Alfred Dregger, a former Nazi military veteran who became a senior politician in Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

The AfD has also openly flaunted its informal alliance with the far-right street-protest Pegida movement, which has increasingly merged with neo-Nazi groups. Despite these alarming developments, the Tory-led ECR took no action to expel the AfD from the group until March 2016, when public outrage over controversial statements by AfD leaders forced their hand. The report concludes that the acquiescence of the Tory Party, as the leader of the ECR, in the AfD’s membership played a pivotal role in permitting the German neo-Nazi party to expand its reach and cement its domestic position, ultimately becoming the third most popular political force in Germany.

The reality is that “making life hard for Muslims” is a long-held goal of right-wing Tory politicians and public figures like Douglas Murray. Over the years, the Conservative party has looked more and more like a vehicle for implementing the agenda of far-right ideologues and less like a party representing “British Values” serving in the interest of the British public.

Gove’s plan must be seen within the broader context of the role played by the Tory party in mainstreaming far-right anti-Muslim sentiments. He moved one step closer to this plan with the review of the governments counter-extremism strategy known as “Prevent”. The current developments are simply the implementation of recommendations made by William Shawcross in his February 2023 review of “Prevent”. The Shawcross review recommended that “Prevent” should shift its focus away from far-right extremism and towards ‘Islamist’ extremism, as well as disengage from civil society groups deemed extremist or critical of “Prevent”. This approach effectively targets lawful activities and ideas that the state finds unsavoury.

The UK government’s plan to introduce a new definition of extremism is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to silence dissent and stifle free speech, particularly targeting Muslim communities and other voices critical of those in power. By exploiting a manufactured moral panic and presenting certain groups as a threat to “British Values”, right-wing politicians are cynically working to implement a far-right agenda that erodes civil liberties and pushes the UK one step closer to authoritarianism.

READ: UK govt to target pro-Palestine groups with proposal to tackle ‘extremism’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.