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Redefining Extremism: A Practical Step Forward or a Political Manoeuvre?

The UK government recently issued a new definition of extremism focusing on ideologies that are deemed intolerant or which ‘undermine’ democracy. But will this change actually prove useful in practice?

Ringing the changes: police officers escort Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove, who recently announced the new definition of extremism in the UK

One month on, the controversy surrounding the release of the new definition of extremism in the UK, announced on 14 March by Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove, seems to have calmed down – at least in the short term. Debate is likely to resume once the decisions over the first wave of groups already cited as facing assessment under the new definition – namely, the British National Socialist Movement, Patriotic Alternative, the Muslim Association of Britain, Cage and MEND – are made public. The scope of the definition, focusing on ideologies based on ‘violence, hatred or intolerance’ that aim to ‘negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others’ or ‘undermine, overturn or replace’ democracy and democratic rights, is also likely to continue to spark criticism. Though the definition is not statutory, it will exclude groups or individuals from funding and top official engagement. Concerns remain that it could be aimed disproportionately at Muslim groups and increase community tensions. Others fear that the definition will not ‘tackle the real extremists’. As the dust settles, this article explores the implications of the new definition.

Working definitions of extremism that are adapted to the context in which they operate are important. At RUSI, mobilising local expertise to produce contextually sensitive definitions of extremism has proved a key step in designing and implementing preventing and countering violent extremism programmes. This helps to identify the groups or individuals that the programme aims to address or counter. Accordingly, if the context changes considerably, the definition should be adapted. Given that the last definition of extremism was written in the 2011 Prevent Strategy, it was probably time for a new definition. In 2011, the primary threat was from Al-Qa’ida, Islamic State was only just beginning to emerge, and while online radicalisation took place, the role of the internet was far less significant than it is in 2024. The nature of extremism and the terrorism threat has therefore changed. Since the fall of the Caliphate in 2019, the government recognises that there has been a shift towards self-initiated terrorists operating independently from organised groups, applying increasingly personal or ‘pick and mix’ ideologies to justify violence. This shift has likely been exacerbated by the conflict in the Middle East.

However, even if there was a need to update the definition, it was bound to be controversial. Definitions of extremism are inevitably subjective, since they are influenced by a country’s national and historical experiences. In the UK, previous efforts to counter and define extremism have also faced difficulties. In 2015, the government’s proposed Extremism Bill collapsed because it was unable to formulate a legally acceptable definition of extremism or provide clarity on the actual problem the government sought to address while also upholding the protection of civil liberties. A more recent proposal by the Counter Extremism Commission to legally define ‘hateful extremism’ failed to gain much traction in practice and also triggered opposition, despite being based on extensive consultations.

The new definition is non-statutory, which leaves the government open to legal challenges from any organisations named

Because definitions of extremism are subjective, they can be politicised. Therefore, the timing of their release is significant. The release of the latest definition as a direct reaction to the fallout from the crisis in Gaza increases the sensitivity surrounding it. The fact that it also came ahead of a General Election prompted three former home secretaries to warn Gove against politicising extremism. It is also reported that – in contrast to the definition on hateful extremism – there were no consultations on the new definition. This leaves the government open to questions about its ability to identify and assess the extremist nature of different groups impartially.

It is hard not to have sympathy for efforts to deny a platform to individuals and groups that promote abhorrent, hateful and violent ideas. It is important to acknowledge the drastic rise in hateful content seen since the 7 October attacks on Israel. Recently, the CT Internet Referral Unit reported a 12-fold increase in referrals of hateful social media. This content is largely antisemitic and being shared by young Britons not previously on the radar of police. The government also has the right to formulate boundaries on who to engage with and who to fund.

However, using the new definition may be more difficult in practice and not really needed. For example, in 2011, following the Independent Review of Prevent, the government stopped funding the Reach, Empower, and Educate Teenagers (STREET) mentoring programme in London. No official reason was provided, but the prevailing view attributed this decision to a shift in government policy towards working only with moderate actors. The Salafi orientation of many in STREET placed them at odds with core British values, rendering them unsuitable partners. The same approach can still be adopted today. Meanwhile, the new definition is non-statutory, which leaves the government open to legal challenges from any organisations named – though this would potentially involve expensive judicial reviews. Jonathan Hall, the government’s independent reviewer of state threat legislation, has therefore raised concerns about the lack of safeguards in the absence of an appeal body.

The government also says the new definition is ‘narrower and more precise’ than the 2011 Prevent definition, which defined extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to our fundamental British values’. Yet the focus on ideologies could potentially broaden the definition, and there are concerns that, despite reassurances, the definition will be used against legitimate organisations and individuals, suppressing freedom of speech. Muslim groups are also concerned that they could be unfairly targeted. Under the current guidelines, individuals or groups are only defined as extremist if they are clearly demonstrating opposition to British values. However, under the new definition, individuals or groups can be defined as extremist if they express intolerant ideologies or those that ‘undermine’ democracy. In a practical sense, what does undermine mean, and what ideologies are intolerant?

If definitions of extremism are to be useful, the priority should surely be countering extremism that will lead to violence and harm

Extremism that encourages violence and leads to acts of terrorism or violence is important to take seriously. However, the degree to which ideology precipitates radicalisation, recruitment and terrorism continues to be contested across both policy and academic circles. Ideologies such as Islamism or nationalism are often presented as the prime causes of violent extremism. Such explanations often ignore complex and variable factors and assume a simple relationship between beliefs and behaviour. Subscribing to radical ideologies is not necessarily a precondition to violence, and not all those engaged in violence are ideological fundamentalists. From a policy perspective, this is important as it highlights that both policymakers and programmers need to avoid the assumption that ideas and ideology invariably induce violent activity, and that government efforts to restrict and counter extremism will reduce the risk of violence or terrorism.

Furthermore, an ideology is usually defined as a belief system or worldview that is coherent – that is, it is comprised of ideas and beliefs which make sense as a whole – and founded on principles or fundamental assumptions. In contrast to Islamic State and Al-Qa’ida, which have a worldview and structure, the current threat landscape is ‘dominated by increasingly fragmented ideologies, self-initiated terrorism, and the reach of hateful online ideologies into the lives of the young people’. In the face of this, the new definition intends to focus on ideologies linked to Islamist and far-right fundamentalism. As a result, it risks perpetuating the significant inertia within the existing system when it comes to deviating from ‘known’ threats.

If definitions of extremism are to be useful, the priority should surely be countering extremism that will lead to violence and harm. Clearly laying out the differences between extremism and terrorism and how extremist views make people more likely to commit violence is therefore necessary. The current definition raises more questions than it answers. Not only does the government leave itself open to accusations of politicising extremism, but it could undermine the credibility of other planned counter-extremism activities.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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