British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new strategy on Monday aimed at combating extremism, saying this "battle [was] perhaps the "defining one of this century" — but his proposals were condemned by Muslim representatives as "McCarthyist" and misguided.
The Counter-Extremism Strategy has been promised by Cameron's government for months, designed primarily to counter the ideology promoted by Islamic State militants, al Qaeda and other Islamists which the authorities say are radicalizing many young Britons into a life of violence.
"Subversive, well-organised and sophisticated in their methods, Islamist extremists don't just threaten our security, they jeopardise all that we've built together — our successful multi-racial, multi-faith democracy," Cameron wrote on his Facebook page. "So we have to confront them wherever we find them."
Meanwhile, British Home Secretary Theresa May stated non-violent extremism must not go "uncontested" as this could have significant consequences for women's rights, encourage the spread of intolerance and bigotry, and lead to some communities being separated "from the mainstream."
Under the wide-ranging new proposals, groups deemed extremist by promoting hatred will be banned; places where radicals thrive including mosques could be closed and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom will get tougher powers to address television and radio channels airing extremist material.
A full review of public institutions will be conducted, including schools, local authorities, further and higher education colleges, the civil service, and the National Health Service to ensure they are protected from infiltration or "entryism" by extremists.
The new law would also give parents worried that their 16 and 17-year-old children might travel to join Islamic State the power to apply to have their passports removed, while anyone with a conviction for terrorism offenses or extremist activity would be banned from working with children.
The plans are designed to target all hate groups, including far-right organisations, but they were met with immediate opposition from Islamic groups who variously described it as "war on Muslims" or containing "McCarthyist" undertones.
"We understand that the Counter-Extremism Strategy will single out and 'close mosques where extremist meetings have taken place'," said Shuja Shafi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the country's largest umbrella Islamic organisation. "Do such mosques really exist and by whose definition are they deemed to be extremist? We cannot help also detect the McCarthyist undertones in the proposal to create blacklists and exclude and ban people deemed to be extremist."
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the country's largest umbrella Islamic organisation, said that while terrorism was a real threat, the government's strategy was based on poor analysis and risked alienating those whose support it needed.
"Whether it is in mosques, education or charities, the strategy will reinforce perceptions that all aspects of Muslim life must undergo a 'compliance' test to prove our loyalty to this country," said Shafi. "[The strategy] continues down a flawed path, focusing on Muslims in particular (...) It risks being counter-productive by alienating the very people needed to confront Al-Qaeda or Daesh-related terrorism: British Muslim communities."
Muslim groups are not alone in their scepticism. Some lawmakers in Cameron's own party are uneasy at the measures, while counter-extremism experts say the message of militants should be challenged not banned.
David Anderson, the independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation, has warned that any wrong decisions risk provoking a backlash in Muslim communities and driving people towards extremism and terrorism.
British police arrested a record number of people last year on suspicion of terrorism offences, and say they have thwarted a growing number of plots hatched by young Britons, some of whom had been radicalised in just weeks via the Internet.
Earlier this month, a 15-year-old boy was sentenced to life imprisonment for inciting an attack on a World War One commemorative event in Australia from his bedroom in northern England.
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