The Extremism Bill seeks to extend the powers of government and law enforcement agencies to confront and neuter what they perceive to constitute ‘extremism’. One of its provisions is ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’, which are designed to prevent individuals engaging in extremist behaviour – violent or non-violent.
There have been a number of concerns raised about the rather nebulous definition of ‘non-violent extremism’; after all, wasn’t Jesus something of an extremist? Aren’t all prophets of God extremist? Aren’t all Christians called to be so? An Extremism Disruption Order which embraces non-violence would criminalise all Jains, Hindus and Buddhists who oppose animal testing in accordance with the precepts of ahimsa, should their non-harming principle be judged by the government to be ‘extremist’. They might even muzzle Dr Brian May and Ricky Gervais, for, rather like beauty, ‘non-violent extremism’ is in the eye of the beholder. What of the Islamic belief in Khilafa, or the Christian yearning to build the New Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land? One man’s pursuit of justice, peace and freedom is manifestly another man’s nutty religious extremism.
This blog has been consistent in sounding the alarm, yet each blast of the trumpet has been met with an antiphon of denials; that EDOs present no threat to the democracy-loving and law-abiding, despite Theresa May declaring: “I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay within the law but still spread poisonous hatred..”; and despite David Cameron confirming: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’..”
Obeying the law is no longer to be a guarantee of freedom from government surveillance or police harassment.
And now Conservative MP Mark Spencer has written to a constituent:
I believe that everybody in society has a right to free speech and to express their views without fear of persecution. The EDOs will not serve to limit but rather to guarantee it: it is those who seek to stop other people expressing their beliefs who will be targeted. Let me give you an example, one which lots of constituents have been writing about – talking about gay marriage in schools.
The new legislation specifically targets hate speech, so teachers will still be free to express their understanding of the term ‘marriage’, and their moral opposition to its use in some situations without breaking the new laws. The EDOs, in this case, would apply to a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong.
If that is the understanding on the backbenches of the provisions of the Extremism Bill, we should be fearful – very fearful – of the Government’s intentions. John Bingham’s Telegraph piece quotes Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute, who says:
“I am genuinely shocked that we have an MP supporting the idea of teachers being branded extremists for teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman. This is exactly the kind of thing we’ve been warning about. The Government says we’ve got nothing to worry about from their new extremism laws, but here is one of its own MPs writing to a constituent saying EDOs would stop teachers teaching mainstream Christian beliefs.. EDOs will be a gross infringement of free speech and undermine the very British values they claim to protect.”
And Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society:
“If EDOs really could be used to prevent teachers from talking about same-sex marriage, unless they are inciting violence, they are an even greater threat to freedom of expression than I had feared. To suggest that EDOs guarantee freedom of expression (as Mark Spencer suggests) is not just inaccurate, it is the opposite of the truth; they are the largest threat to freedom of expression I have ever seen in Britain.”
It is ironic that a Prime Minister who has become acutely sensitive to the outrage felt and oppression caused by Section 28 should be so keen to legislate for a Christian equivalent. If Section 28 – designed, as it was, to ban the promotion of homosexuality in schools – became a debate-stifling instrument of teacher intimidation and student stigmatisation, then by what reasoning does the Government believe that EDOs won’t have a comparable effect on Christian teachers and students? If it is to become a crime to teach that same-sex marriage is “wrong”, what debates may had about the ontology of marriage, the coherence of natural law, the virtues of divine purpose, the ethics of sexual morality or the history of religious orthodoxy? Must all teachers now qualify Aquinas with an act of Parliament? Are they obliged – on pain of EDO – to teach that the Summa is wrong about semen?
If, as has long been reported, teachers “were confused about what they could and could not say and do, and whether they could help pupils dealing with homophobic bullying and abuse”, won’t teachers be equally confused about what they can and cannot say about marriage, and whether they are able to help pupils dealing with Christianophobic bullying and abuse? To paraphrase Sir Ian McKellen: “If Extremism Disruption Orders and the attitudes behind them are established by statute, then society will come to believe that Christian teachers are extremist and that it is right that they should be treated as extremists.”
And why do you suppose this debate is being framed around specifically Christian teachers? How many Muslim teachers does Mark Spencer believe will be classed as ‘extremist’ for teaching that marriage is between one man and (at least) one woman?