rich white censored books 3

Back in 2008, I gave a talk at an Index on Censorship conference on ‘Extremism and the Law: Free Speech in an Age of Terror’ in which I suggested that:

One of the most significant shifts in recent years has been the mutation of the notion of ‘extremism’ from being a description of a political claim to being a quasi legal term. From the BNP to Hizb ut-Tahrir to Buju Banton’s homophobic lyrics, to label speech as extremist is to label it as a potential candidate for legal sanction. This shift has happened for two reasons. First, extremism has become a moral rather than a political issue. And second there is now a widespread acceptance that it is the job of the state, and of the criminal law, to define moral boundaries.


To label an argument or a thought as ‘extremist’ is today more than simply to locate it on the political map. It is also to make a moral judgement upon it. Something is extremist if it is beyond the boundaries of accepted reasonable debate. And once beyond the boundaries of reasonable debate, few would argue against it becoming a candidate for criminal sanction.

This week the British government published its latest ‘Counter Extremism Strategy’, which might have been written as an illustration of my point above. Among its proposals are new powers to

ban extremist organisations that promote hatred and draw people into extremism; restrict the harmful activities of the most dangerous extremist individuals; and restrict access to premises which are repeatedly used to support extremism.

The strategy document defines extremism as the ‘vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.

The government, in other words, is proposing to lock people up, not because they have committed a crime, or incited violence, but because they hold values the government abhors. And it insists that in order to defend democracy, free speech and tolerance, the government must restrict democracy, free speech and tolerance.

One might suggest that the strategy document itself  is a good example of ‘vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, etc, etc’, So, if the proposals do become law, perhaps the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary could expect a knock on the door?


The image is from Rich White’s ‘Censored books’ series.


  1. Hi Kenan, let me raise a very present concern here: isn’t it true that words can lead to violence (both intentional and unintentional) – see discussion in Germany in which the words “will you really tolerate this any longer…?” Might induce people to burn places for refugees ? Best Thomas

    • Words can certainly have consequences (there would be no point in defending free speech if words were inconsequential). But words do not possess agency. Human beings do. Between words and deeds stands a human being with a mind of his own, an ability to judge between right and wrong and a responsibility to face up to his actions. It is not words themselves that cause things to happen but our estimation of the value and truth of those words. Words have consequences only if we choose to make them consequential.

      Direct incitement to violence should be a criminal offence. But ‘indirect’ or ‘unintentional’ incitement should not. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer has said his homicidal worldview drew on the works of writers such as Melanie Phillips and Bruce Bawer. Should they be banned? Killers from Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s to Jared Lee Loughner, the man who four years ago opened fire at Democratic Party rally, killing six and injuring 14, including Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, are said to have been inspired by Neitzsche. Should we ban Nietzsche? In Myanmar, pogroms against the Rohingya are orchestrated by Buddhist monks who claim to be following the teachings of the Buddha. Should we ban the Buddha’s works? Or the Qur’an, or the Bible, both of which have inspired considerable violence? And so on. Once we start banning material for ‘indirect’ or ‘unintentional’ violence, then there won’t be much left.

      People who burn down refugee hostels are responsible for their actions. Those who directly incite such actions should also be held criminally accountable. But criticism of migrants or of refuges, however harsh or nasty, should certainly not be criminalized. Such criticism needs to be challenged morally and politically, not censored.

  2. tudoreynon

    Nothing to disagree with you yet again Kenan. Exactly what I have been arguing with Left wing fiends and progressives for more than twenty years. “Free Speech BUT…” is almost the only point one ever hears now. Not so much here in the USA where at last it is being taken seriously by a significant number?

  3. I hear a lot of complaints about the latest move on combating extremism, but no solutions from the complainants.
    It strikes me that Oswald Mosley was interned after war had started in 1940. In that case, I wonder what situation we are in now? Are we “at war” but in a very different manner?
    While everyone argues with each other about what exactly causes radicalisation, people keep on getting radicalised.
    Nothing has been done. People scratched their heads while nothing was done about “Behead those who insult Islam” banners were paraded on the streets. People wondered why, exactly, was Anjem Choudary free to preach his stuff.
    The call to “do something” has been getting louder and louder, and I wonder what would happen if we carry on with pussy-footing around, with University Islamic Societies, more and more, inviting people who advocate death for all sorts of unfortunate people, as well as the overthrow of democracy, whipping up support within certain areas.
    I like the fact that iERA and CAGE look a bit nervous about this.
    I hated the fact that CAGE got their airtime regarding the “beautiful” Mohammed Emwasi, 10 years after the London Tube had been blown up, and only a few years after Woolwich. How had they grown that confidence? Well maybe that confidence has taken a kick where it hurts. I certainly hope so.

    • I hear a lot of complaints about the latest move on combating extremism, but no solutions from the complainants.

      There is an assumption here that ‘the latest move on combating extremism’ is a ’solution’. Yes, there are louder and louder class to ‘do something’. But ‘doing something’ is not the same as ‘doing something useful or effective’. Banning organizations and censoring speech is the reflexive response of all authorities. It never works. But what it does do is to create a far more censorious climate for all. As I observed in my original talk, ‘hand-in-hand with the criminalising of Islamic dissent has come the criminalising of criticism of Islam’. That’s why it should not be just iERA and CAGE who should be ‘nervous’. So should you be. Again from that original talk: ‘We cannot have it both ways. If we invite the state to define the boundaries of acceptable speech, we cannot complain if it is not just speech to which we object that gets curtailed.’

      • Anna Bryson Gustova

        I wouldn’t say that banning organisations and censoring speech “never works” (define “works”, time period etc etc.). However, it is fair to say, at least in relatively free societies, that the biggest mechanism for the prevention of the spread of “extremist” views (extreme relative to the mainstream, of course, and perceived as posing a genuine threat to the rights of society and individuals), as of encouraging liberal views (e.g. the decline of the acceptability of various forms of racism), is social rather than purely a matter of political state action.
        What decreases people’s willingness to express and endorse views publicly (rather than just share them in private with the like-minded), and actually tends to change views, is social pressure – not the fear of plod or beak, but the fear of embarrassment, ridicule, disapproval , cold-shouldering etc etc from immediate and wider social and professional circles. In socially very authoritarian cultures, this has even more strangling an effect on freedom than police measures, but it must be admitted that it is a feature of even pretty free and tolerant societies with regard even to values of freedom and tolerance and there could be no other way.
        I would argue that we find itself in a certain amount of crisis now, because the trend has been – socially – to actually switch off these social pressures at face-to-face level in important areas. You Kennan have done excellent work tracing and criticising the destructive effects of some aspects of multiculturalism…one aspect of this whole set of developments has been – via the development of parallel societies – to cause this switch-off, and indeed, a great deal of the agenda of Islamic integrism (the Islamicisation of Muslim minorities), which is broader than actual violent or militant “extremism” but its essential background, has been directed to ensuring the switch-off. Muslims can reasonably complain of sometimes being demonised in the media, but everyday pressure on some quite prevalent anti-liberal attitudes among Muslims has been itself somewhat demonised….both by militant interests and establishment progressives. Hence, for example, we have a strange situation in which Muslim illiberal views are treated very politely and gently by non-Muslims, compared with how they would react to equivalent, or even lesser illiberal views in own people….
        The dislocations caused by this then in my view lead to a hapless referral of the problem to the state. E.g. a child
        who pipes up with quite mainstream (but to Western liberals outrageous) Muslim views on homosexuality, cannot be shamed by non-Muslims (except in extremely tactful careful ways), so from his or his parents point of view he is in a way encouraged to hold on to these views as of right and view non-Muslim disapproval of them as trivial and eminently ignorable…
        Yet at the same time, because of the social block, this “evidence” of illiberalism is referred to the state and its potentially much clumsier and often quite inappropriately swingeing methods as a specifically “political extremism” problem…

  4. Baklan

    No quarrel with your main thrust, but can non-criminal extremists really be locked up under this policy? It’s often claimed, but I’m not sure I see it in the policy – unless as a consequence of banning an organisation?

      • Baklan

        Agreed, but, in saying the Government is “proposing” to lock such people up, I think the piece assumes what the legislation will say, rather as many are saying it will criminalise normal religious practice or even belief. Those fears may turn out to be justified (what with May and Cameron appearing increasingly unhinged), but they may not, and I think it’s important, while we’re waiting, to avoid nourishing the more lurid fantasies that are flying about.

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