The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I have read through the lengthy documents outlining the British Governments Counter Extremism Policy and related publications. Clearly there is a need for such a policy in view of the alarming number of people who have been radicalised by Islamic extremists in this country. Clearly the government has good intentions. But it is not its motives which are the concern. Rather it is the fact that it is trespassing into areas in which it is ignorant, such as theology. It is a cause of concern that already the government’s inspectors and other representatives have shown a certain amount of serious incompetence in this area. Then there is the danger of drift whereby well-intentioned legislation could drift into an abuse of people’s (especially religious people’s) human rights and freedom of speech.
The government wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention, has nothing to do with the European Union, but membership is a condition of being in the EU. It protects numerous rights including right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of assembly and association. The government wanted to replace it with our own British Bill of Rights so that they have ultimate control of decisions.
The government has published documents about its counter extremism policy which contain numerous reassuring statements. In its Counter-Extremism Strategy document it states: “All people living in Britain are free to practise a faith or to decide not to follow any faith at all” (para 2). “It is not government’s role to regulate faith leaders, but government does have a responsibility to ensure that those working in the public sector are suitably trained. The Government will therefore work in partnership with faith groups to review the training provided to those who work as faith leaders in public institutions” (para 87). “The powers will not be able to be used against privately held views or people expressing their religious beliefs. They will not curtail the democratic right to protest nor will they close down debate or limit free speech: these are rights we will always protect” (para 113).
In its Prevent Strategy document it states: “The ideology of extremism and terrorism is the problem; legitimate religious belief emphatically is not” (Foreword). “We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country” (para 3:10). Prevent “must not seem to pass judgment on faith or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 3:26). “The holding of extremist views is protected by Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights and cannot be addressed through criminal law” (para 6:18). This latter quotation is not too reassuring however in that, as we have noted, the government is seeking to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. “It must not appear to pass judgment on faith in general or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 8:1). It refers to “the difficulty of the Government taking a position on matters of theology” (para 8:36). It refers to the idea “that Government is taking upon itself the role of theological arbiter” as a misconception. It adds: “We will not want to engage in matters of theology but we recognise the imperative for theologians, academics and communities to do so. We will support their efforts by providing information on the texts which are being used to radicalise people in this country; we want to ensure that counter-narrative work is widely circulated and in a form that reaches as many people as possible” (para 8:56).
Weaknesses in the government’s position
We should take these reassurances seriously and avoid cynicism and paranoia. However we should also avoid naivety. A lot depends on how the people who activate the policy (OFSTED, police, etc) understand the policy and define extremism. We should also take seriously the growing ignorance of the Christian faith in society which could lead to fundamental beliefs coming to be regarded as extreme. In addition, whereas we shouldn’t “see demons everywhere” we would be naïve if we ignore the satanic opposition to the Christian faith. Jesus recognised this opposition and so should we. The devil won’t miss a trick in opposing the Gospel. What a great opportunity he has to use the necessary policy of counteracting actual or potential violent extremism to undermine the truth that Jesus is the only way of salvation and other religions are mistaken. Given human failings, this is no unrealistic threat.
I have been fair in quoting the government’s reassurances at some length. But there are other statements which cause concern. A lot depends on the definitions of certain key words. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document states: “there are concerns that some supplementary schools may be teaching children views which run contrary to our shared values, encouraging hatred of other religions” (para 73). But what is hatred of other religions. If a Christian believes other religions are false and influenced by satanic deceit is that hatred of other religions? Besides, it is one thing to “hate” what another person believes and quite another to hate the person themselves. A Christian may legitimately hate beliefs that undermine the Christian Gospel and hinder people coming to eternal salvation. But to hate the person who holds those beliefs is quite wrong. It is hatred of people which matters not hatred of beliefs. Here we see the government, in its ignorance, publishing confused statements.
Having said that, I add that a Christian must be careful to avoid unnecessary offence in how he speaks of such differences of belief. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document refers to a video which “shows a speaker at an anti-Muslim rally in Newcastle describing Islam as a ‘disgusting, backward, savage, barbarian, supremacist ideology masquerading as a religion’” (para 11). That sort of grossly offensive terminology should be avoided.
The document continues: “In assessing drivers of and pathways to radicalisation, the line between extremism and terrorism is often blurred. Terrorist groups of all kinds very often draw upon ideologies which have been developed, disseminated and popularised by extremist organisations that appear to be non-violent (such as groups which neither use violence nor specifically and openly endorse its use by others)” (para 5:34). In July 2015 David Cameron made a speech about countering extremism is which he said: “As we counter this ideology, a key part of our strategy must be to tackle both parts of the creed – the non-violent and violent. This means confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.” Yes, but could that be understood (or become understood) to include Christianity which does not teach violence but regards other religions to be false and influenced by satanic deceit?
Brendan O’Neill, who is an atheist, described David Cameron’s comments that the Government will “tackle” all those who “may not advocate violence” but who do promote “other parts of the extremist narrative” as a “step too far.” He said that non-violent extremism could even cover Christians who do not support same-sex marriage, because this could be seen as not having “respect for minorities”. He concluded: “What May and Cameron view as the pesky distinction between action and speech, between violent and non-violent extremism, is actually the foundation stone of all free, enlightened societies: we police criminal behaviour, but not thoughts, ideas, words.”
The Prevent Strategy document quotes the Public Order Act 1986 which “makes it an offence, amongst other things, to say or do something or to possess or display written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting and which is intended to stir up racial hatred or make it likely that racial hatred will be stirred up.” It also quotes the Public Order Act 1986 (amended in 2006 and 2008) which “makes it an offence to use threatening words or behaviour, or to display any written material which is threatening, if it is intended to encourage religious hatred ….” In the past such legislation would not have seemed relevant to orthodox Christianity. Admittedly both quotations refer to the intention to stir up racial or religious hatred. But experience teaches that such intention can easily be assumed (for example, it tends to be assumed that holding traditional views of sexuality is to be antagonistic to homosexuals). I certainly don’t favour “roasting people over Hell” but could a sensitive and compassionate reference to the reality of judgment and hell come to be regarded as “threatening”?
The document continues that independent schools must “promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions” (para 10:14). It continues: “There is further evidence that some schools – and some supplementary schools – have used teaching materials which may encourage intolerance” (para 10:44). But what is the definition of tolerance and harmony? Does it require a view that all religions are legitimate ways to God – a view I believe to be incompatible with Christianity?
In 2015 it was revealed that the government intended to “require all faiths to maintain a national register of faith leaders” and that the Government would “set out the minimum level for training and checks” before faith leaders could go on the register. Haras Rafiq, director of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, described the proposal as “Orwellian and totalitarian.” Fortunately, the government appears to have gone back on this policy. However it shows the extremes to which the government was prepared to go.
Jonathan Dimbleby gave the 2015 Prix Italia lecture in Turin in September. He criticised the Public Order Act which criminalised using threatening or abusive language with the intention of causing “alarm or distress” or inciting “hatred.” He pointed out the crucial distinction between causing “distress” which may be a crime and causing “offence” which may not. He commented: “The distinction is not easy for the layman to define, and the two are only too easy to elide.”
He went on to quote Salman Rushdie as saying the law meant that, instead of being supported over The Satanic Verses he would have been accused of “insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” He added: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”
Dimbleby went on to express dismay that the Home Secretary had been considering “pre-transmission regulatory regime” for radio and television which he believed would muzzle them in the hope of stamping out extremism.
Whilst avoiding paranoia these facts are a cause of real concern. At the very least, the questions I have raised need to be borne in mind because. As I said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
It was interesting to read a recent article by Sandi Dunn who claimed she was radicalised at her Catholic school. She quoted Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, who said his inspectors have found “appalling misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semite teaching material” in textbooks being used by unqualified teachers in private schools. Now I’m certainly against misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes. But how does OFSTED define them? Do they regard someone who opposes the appointment of women priests misogynistic? Do they regard someone upholding traditional views of sexuality homophobic (which is normally defined as against homosexuals themselves)? If so, they are mistaken. Such views can be held without any wrong attitudes to people.
Dunn went on the say that the school’s teaching about Hell meant she was radicalised. She added: “Abrahamic faiths in particular hold that women are inferior, teach homophobia, and often discourage marrying out of the community or ‘mixing’ in their most conservative forms. This anti-‘mixing’ ideology has to be seen for what it is: institutional racism.” That sweeping statement is based upon ignorance and prejudice. True Christianity does not teach women are inferior or legitimise antagonism to homosexuals or discourage mixing with non-Christians. The issue of a committed Christian marrying a non-Christian is a more complex issue. It means the couple cannot share in the most fundamental aspects of the life of the Christian partner, which is not good for the marriage.
Dunn goes on to say that she aims to petition UNICEF: “for a rethink of their Convention of the Rights of the Child (ratified by 194 countries). My request will be that all children, up to the age of 18, should have the right not to be given religious instruction under any guise, including in the home. The indoctrination of young minds, driven by the fear of Hell, is something that has to be cut off at the source if we want to avoid further radicalisation. Religious teaching is not proper education – it’s old-fashioned brainwashing. And having been exposed to that myself, I know how important it is to root it out and stop it becoming extremism before it’s too late.”
Dunn may seem extreme at present but recent developments in our increasingly secularised society suggest her views may not remain so. Things which at one time would have seemed impossible now happen.
For example, at one time it would have been unthinkable that a Christian bakery which refused to bake a cake which included captions promoting gay marriage would be successfully sued. But it has happened. This is an example of the increasing radicalisation of our secularised society. The judge said: “The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination. This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.” A YouGov poll in November 2014 found 56% of people thought the bakery was justified. 65% disapproved of legal action being taken against them.
Similarly, it would have been unthinkable that cinema chains would ban a Christmas church advert containing the Lord’s Prayer. It shows that the danger of our society oppressing Christians needs to be taken seriously. Even Richard Dawkins condemned this action: “I … strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, said he was “flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief”.
Fortunately the banning will be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The chief executive said: “We strongly disagree with the decision not to show the adverts on the grounds they might ‘offend’ people. There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and this is a slippery slope towards increasing censorship. We also understand why people were confused that a commercial Christmas can be advertised but the central Christian prayer cannot. We will therefore examine the issues raised by this case as part of our major review into the law protecting freedom of religion or belief, and publish our findings in the new year.”
Should we trust the government?
The Rev Dr Mike Ovey is a theologian and former lawyer. He was a parliamentary draftsman in the 1980s when anti-terror legislation to deal with the IRA threat was being framed. He expressed deep concern over the government’s anti-terror policy and said it would be easy to argue that there was a “clear trajectory” between, for example, teaching mainstream Christian ideas about subjects such as abortion and the actions of violent anti-abortion groups. He added: “They are going to say this is far-fetched and will never happen. That is essentially a government saying trust us with your civil liberties. I would say frankly human experience tells us the last thing you ever want to do is trust a government with your civil liberties. The Government is going around saying it is all a time of national emergency. I think I want to say we have been there before and got the T-shirt. It doesn’t work.”