UK Christians: Dangerous anti-extremism measures ‘threaten Christian freedom’

(COMMENTARY) British evangelicals have mounted a protest against “extremism” policies they claim are “a real threat to gospel freedom”.

Religious liberty organizations are rallying dissent via a government consultation exercise that closes Thursday (Jan. 31).

The respected Christian Institute based in Newcastle in the northeast of UK believe “extremism” is so vague a term it could “impact freedom to proclaim Christ as the only means of salvation”, or “to call people to repent of sin” – and they have mailed their 29,000 supporters to contribute to the government survey before the 31 January deadline.

Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the Institute says that, “Simply holding traditional moral beliefs may identify someone as a potential extremist”.

The Commission for Countering Extremism, which is behind the call for evidence, is itself concerned about defining extremism.  “There are a wide number of different definitions used across government and academia, indicating differences of views,” it said.  

The problem for the one-million-strong Evangelical Alliance, who have campaigned on the issue for two years, is that uncoupling “extremism” from violence is a device that renders the word effectively meaningless, their lawyers believe.

Advocacy Director David Landrum, who commissioned a YOUGov poll on use of the word “extremism” in 2017 said the government had failed to define it, and people’s resulting confusion would harm civil society.

“Detached from terrorism and incitement to violence, extremism does not work as a litmus test for judging peaceful beliefs and opinions. Indeed, the government has tried and failed over the last two years to define extremism with any precision, and this poll shows that the public share that confusion.”

Others believe that current definitions of extremism would have outlawed the founders of Protestantism who died at the stake rather than renounce their passion to read the Bible in English.  It would also have shackled most social reformers, including suffragettes who campaigned, often in extreme ways, for work and votes for women.


The government has been seeking ways of preventing radicalization of Islamist religious believers who go on to commit atrocities. 

But they have constantly fought shy of singling out any particular religion for censure, and have instead adopted an inclusive approach that tends to end up fruitlessly pitting all religion against an ideological secularism it implicitly but covertly believes is the right path.

One problem with that is that civil society groups who adopt extreme tactics in pursuit of environmental and animal rights agendas would also be caught in measures that fail to discriminate between valid dissent, and a form of subversion that aims at the overthrow of society, an aim that Islamist groups as well as some anti-capitalist groups overtly espouse. 

The so-called Trojan Horse scandal which witnessed the subversion of several governing bodies of northern schools by pious Deobandi Muslims triggered an array of measures by an alarmed government.  The whistle blower was a Christian, who, as a missionary and evangelical, could have himself fallen foul of government strictures against extremism.

Said Mr. Calvert:  “Christians must make their views heard.  It is crucial to warn about the dangers of a vague approach to counter-extremism.  The focus of tackling extremism should be on violence and terrorism, not unpopular beliefs.”

Confusion at the heart of government over “inclusive” policies that fail to pinpoint what is actually wrong was best illustrated by the Home Secretary in 2005.  Labour’s David Blunkett said that a new law to criminalize the inciting of religious hatred would apply to far-Right evangelicals as much as to Islamist extremists who preached violence against other religions.

He said that society needed to take on those who "would take our lives because they would reject our faith".

Evangelicals hit back against what they described as a “slur” and “an outrage”.

But of even more concern to foreign policy think tanks is the example being set by government and copied by oppressive régimes abroad.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has cited “relevant practices” in the UK, France and the US to justify draconian repression measures against Uighur Muslims in the far northwestern province of China, which include corralling vast numbers of people in camps, and coerced re-education.

In Bulgaria the passing of an “inclusive” law to control all international donations to religious minorities, as well as training and clergy activities in an attempt to prevent terrorism provoked outrage across the religious spectrum.

And in the Gulf States, the UK definition of “non-violent extremism” is being used against human rights activists, according to a report in 2016 by Chatham House.

Secularist society

It is unlikely that any overseas government anti-extremism policy would comply with the Foreign Office’s human rights mandate – even while the government is ignoring the subtle consequences of its policies in its own back yard.

Christian lawyers believe that Sara Khan, new head of the Counter Extremism Commission, on an annual salary of £140,000, higher than the Prime Minister, would do better to seek integration that meets the FCO’s own human rights standards, rather than courting secularist lobbies whose anti-Christian stance has already worried Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Yet Khan is set to appear at their Reclaiming Religious Freedom conference on 18 May  2019.

The JCHR said in its report in 2016:  “The Government gave us no impression of having a coherent or sufficiently precise definition of either ‘non-violent extremism’ or ‘British values’. There needs to be certainty in the law so that those who are asked to comply with and enforce the law know what behavior is and is not lawful. We are concerned that any legislation is likely either: (a) to focus on Muslim communities in a discriminatory fashion (which could actually increase suspicion and even opposition to the Prevent agenda); or (b) could be used indiscriminately against groups who espouse conservative religious views (including evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and others), who do not encourage any form of violence” (Paragraph 108).

Khan has acknowledged concerns that domestic policies succor oppressive regimes abroad, but her appearance on a virulently anti-Christian NSS platform in Britain gives no cause for optimism that she is ready to do anything to stop it. 

Photo by Keith Williams.