Thursday, 19 February 2009

"CONTEST 2" and ThoughtCrime

In a speech last October, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith declared her intention to "revise our own counter-terrorism strategy, known as CONTEST" in order to enable the Home Office to "be more sophisticated in how we engage openly with the public on our work to counter the threat of terrorism." The spirit of the revised strategy, she insisted, was one of "openness and accountability" in which the government would be "working with and through communities" as well as providing "safeguards" which would "provide a solid legal framework which protects civil liberties."

As ever, though, rhetoric and reality do not appear to match up. The Guardian recently revealed that the proposals contained in a leaked draft of the new "CONTEST 2" strategy would "widen the definition of extremists to those who hold views that clash with what the government defines as shared British values." More specifically, people will be considered "extremist" - and thus "sidelined and denied public funds" - if;

• They advocate a caliphate, a pan-Islamic state encompassing many countries.

• They promote Sharia law.

• They believe in jihad, or armed resistance, anywhere in the world. This would include armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military.

• They argue that Islam bans homosexuality and that it is a sin against Allah.

• They fail to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

However reasonable it may seem to some at a first glance, these proposals essentially offer the government a way to put ThoughtCrime into the legislature. These points do not cover acts of terror or attrocities, but mere thoughts and beliefs, even if not put into action. I would strongly condemn the view that homosexuality is a sin that should be banned, whether by Islamists or by the numerous Christian fundamentalists holding the same view, whom the code does not wish to take into account. I also stand in opposition to Sharia law and the idea of a pan-Islamic caliphate. However, I would suggest that if we are to fully preserve liberty it must include the right to hold and voice such views. It is dangerous to begin defining which views are acceptable and which are not, especially when it is those in positions of power who draft up those definitions.

Although The Guardian report states that "those considered extreme would not be targeted by the criminal law," there already exist precedents for doing exactly that. The case of the "lyrical terrorist" last June, though eventually overturned, demonstrates the governments willingness to lock people up for nothing more than words, whilst the "extremism toolkit" for schools which came out in October essentially advocates politicisation of education to promote government-defined "values." With the proposals presented in the new code, defined by Ms Smith's declared will to identify "radicalisation and radicalisers" and "tackle them effectively" using the "ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data," it would appear that the government is well positioned to fully realise that precedent.

The implications of such would be wide-ranging. Inayat Bunglawala, head of Engage, a charity aimed at getting Muslims to participate in politics, noted that the code "would alienate the majority of the British Muslim public" and make it easier to "class most Muslims as extremists." An article for UK Indymedia also noted that "such policy would play into the hands of the far right" because "there are no equivalent policies aimed at those who promote hatred and intolerance towards non-white people, promote virulent xenophobia, imperialism and wars to secure resources, and fail to condemn the killing of innocent people in foreign countries."

However, Muslims are not the only group who face being on the receiving end of this legislation. The notion that those "who hold views that clash with what the government defines as shared British values" could be classed as extremists means that any dissenters, but particularly the radical left, could fall victim to its remit. Not only are we to be labeled "extreme" for not sharing the views of the ruling party, we are to face the same label if we dare to support the right of self-determination and freedom from tyranny and imperialism for all peoples around the world.

The fact that, by the definitions of CONTEST 2, George Orwell - the man who popularised the notion of ThoughtCrime - would be labelled an extremist, for supporting armed resistance against Franco in Spain and against the Nazis in World War II, is a sign of just how far we have travelled down the road to totalitarianism.