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UK poll: “anti-extremism” proposals threaten free speech

Representative survey shows there is no common understanding of “extremism”; Human rights groups warn of counter-terrorism proposals in the UK

LONDON – This week, the Evangelical Alliance, ADF International, and other human rights groups presented the first nationwide representative poll* on the concept “extremism”. It comes after the government announced plans to establish a commission to crack down on “extreme” worldviews in the UK. The results of the survey were clear: more than half of the population believe that “extreme” is not a helpful term when discussing social or political opinions. They also reveal what divisions might ensue when trying to define “extremism” in law.

We should not allow the fear of terror to dictate our lives and readily give up our precious freedoms

“The Government clearly has to respond to the recent terror attacks in the UK, but fighting terrorism by focusing on wide-ranging and vague definitions of ‘extremism’ is doomed to fail. ‘Hate speech’ laws create a ‘you-can’t-say-that’ mindset, which silences debate and have a chilling effect on society. The recent poll shows that there is a great deal of disagreement within our society about what might be considered ‘extremism.’ In a free society, ideas should be countered with ideas, not criminal sanction. We should not allow the fear of terror to dictate our lives and readily give up our precious freedoms by introducing legal norms that could eradicate free speech,” said Laurence Wilkinson, Legal Counsel for ADF International based in London.

‘In Russia, authorities use so-called “anti-terror” laws to throw members of religious minorities in jail and severely curb freedom of religion and belief. If the UK follows this model and introduces far-reaching and vague anti-extremism laws, the terrorists have achieved what they were aiming for: to undermine the basis of a free and democratic society.”

Russian anti-terror laws and their UK counterparts

The case of Baptist minister Don Ossewaarde illustrates the abuse of “anti-terror” legislation in Russia. Since their introduction in July 2016, Russian officials have used them to justify their crackdowns on Jehovah’s Witnesses, churches and other religious minorities. Mr. Ossewaarde had held weekly Bible meetings at his home in the Russian city of Oryol, 300 kilometres south of Moscow, for many years before being found guilty of conducting “illegal missionary activities” by a local court. He had to leave the country, and has filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights with the support of ADF International.

“Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. Despite the Russian Constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion, Donald Ossewaarde was charged with a criminal offence for holding a peaceful Church service in his own home. His conviction remains a hugely concerning development for religious freedom in Russia, and Europe in general,” added Laurence Wilkinson.

“The UK’s proposed ‘counter-terror’ strategy is not dissimilar to the Russian approach. This poses a serious question: what path do we want to follow? Do we want a culture of free speech with a robust market place of ideas or a culture of censorship?”

* The polling was conducted by ComRes who interviewed 2,004 adults online between 7-9 July 2017. Full data tables are available online.

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Faith-based legal advocacy organization that protects fundamental freedoms and promotes the inherent dignity of all people.