The government may have changed its mind about creating a national register of faith leaders, but there are still concerns about its anti-extremism measures.
In October, the government admitted it no longer had plans to create a national watch list of religious leaders as part of its measures to tackle extremism in the UK. The statement came as a relief to religious groups across the country, who had been in uproar over the draconian proposals.
On 13 September, The Sunday Telegraph claimed to have received a leaked draft document showing details of the government’s counter-extremism strategy. As part of this strategy, the names of every imam in the country were to have been documented and kept on a secret database at the Home Office.
Yet while the rhetoric of the government’s anti-extremist measures points largely at the radical elements of Islam, all leaders of other religious organisations — pastors and teachers of all faiths — were to have been included on this register.
Under the leaked proposals, faith leaders would have had to apply to the Home Office for special licences, training and security vetting. Registration would have been compulsory for those working with the public sector, including schools, universities and government agencies.
Although the idea behind this was to curb the negative influence of radicalised Islamist groups in the UK, the plan would have had immense ramifications for all faiths and all belief groups.
Writing in The Telegraph, Andrew Gilligan called the proposal ‘highly controversial’, and said the move ‘marked a significant deepening of the state’s involvement in religion and is likely to be resisted by many religious representatives’.
The revelations also provoked a strong backlash among free speech groups and specialist media. Quoted in the Jewish News, Rabbi Neil Janes of West London Synagogue, said, ‘This sounds unworkable and reads like too strong state intervention’. There followed a campaign of prayer and letter-writing initiated by the Christian Institute and fellow organisations.
According to Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, the appeals had some success. Conservative MPs, including Mike Penning, MP for Hemel Hempstead and Minister of State at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, responded to the letters, claiming that the government was not planning to introduce such a measure.
Mr Hart said, ‘Evidently, the government had plans, but no longer has such plans. We give thanks to God for intervening to preserve the freedom of pastors and elders. A church minister taking a school assembly, leading a university CU mission or serving as a hospital chaplain faced being vetted first for their compliance with the “British values” agenda’.
Mr Hart said that, while the Institute supported the government’s efforts to tackle terrorism and the ideologies that support it, creating a secret database of religious leaders would have been ‘completely over the top’.
He added, ‘It is shocking that civil servants would even consider the idea. This proposal represented the greatest political attack on religious freedom, which has been a hallmark of the British way of life, since the seventeenth century’.
It’s not only the proposed register that worried critics; recent measures just imposed on universities have also rung some alarm bells.
Prime Minister David Cameron has openly accused King’s College London, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Queen Mary University of ‘being havens for Islamist fanatics’, after he unveiled a new legal duty for colleges to stop extremists targeting students on campus.
He claimed that some 70 events involving Islamist preachers were held on campuses last year and no more debates or events would be allowed at universities. Yet, while the government clearly has a duty to prevent any incitement to violence against individuals or the state, a liberal democracy still requires open debate and disagreement.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned that such proposals — part of the Conservative government’s so-called ‘one nation’ strategy — would ‘curtail academic freedom and create an uneasy relationship of mistrust between students and lecturers’.
She said, ‘Our universities and colleges arecentres for debate and open discussion, where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas put forward in the spirit of academic endeavour. The best response to acts of terror is to retain our universities and colleges as open democratic spaces’.
In addition, the government is still pressing ahead with Home Secretary Theresa May’s strong counter-extremism agenda.
Her Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) are still set to go ahead, despite organisation such as the Christian Institute describing them as a ‘gagging order for saying anything which is deemed to breach the tenets of the Equality Act. This could include taking a stance against same-sex marriage’.
It is clear the government must crack down hard on terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. Such violence is labelled (rightly or wrongly) as Fundamentalist Islam. But then what comes next? Fundamentalist Christianity?
We must take a stand against any measures that threaten freedom of speech and freedom of religion in our country, no matter how it is dressed up. One is reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s short poem, written in a Nazi concentration camp:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.