Extremism disruption orders (EDOs) are not a new thing in Britain. The orders are meant to do what the name implies: disrupt extremist behavior through legal action in order to tamper down on those who promote hatred or violence. The concept was introduced as a means of combating religious extremists, primarily by going after Islamic extremists in a climate where terrorism has people whipped into a state of near constant fear about Muslims.
But Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (below) continues to push the envelope.
On extremism he said children in Britain were having their minds filled with ‘poison’ and their ‘hearts filled with hate’ in Islamic religious schools.
He said: “Where an institution is teaching children intensively, then whatever its religion, we will, like any other school, make it register so it can be inspected.
“And be in no doubt: if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down.”
On the face of it, it might be tempting to laud such measures, especially when the measures are presented as something like “intolerance of intolerance.” But as Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, reminds us, these orders have great potential to abuse freedom of speech. He explains:
[T]hey are the largest threat to freedom of expression I have ever seen in Britain. The spreading of hatred is far too vague a concept to be the basis of legal sanctions, and would be worryingly open to misuse, particularly by ideological opponents.
He’s got a point. Yes, there’s some edification in seeing of some of the potential targets of EDOs — like Christians preaching against same-sex marriage, for instance — but it’s not just religious extremists in the cross-hairs. These orders can be applied to anyone who potentially presents a threat to democracy… which is really just code for a threat to the status quo. Not all of those threats are a bad thing; sometimes the status quo needs to be threatened.
The existing framework for EDOs casts far too wide a net; the national extremism database already includes folks who organize meetings about environmental issues.
Historically, these sorts of actions aren’t all that effective anyway (see: Margaret Thatcher‘s broadcast ban on Gerry Adams), but the impact of codified free speech limits reaches far beyond legal consequences. It also encourages a culture where deviations from mainstream expression are to be curtailed at all costs, making it very difficult to encourage the social shifts necessary to make a real dent in extremism. That’s not a theoretical problem. Just look at the barring of former Muslim and secular activist Maryam Namazie from speaking about her experiences at Warwick University on the grounds that it might “incite hatred” of Muslim students.
We’re talking about a world where criticism of abusive practices is barred because it might cause people to see them as abusive. It’s one thing to reject exclusionary rhetoric. It’s quite another to reject speech that indicts exclusionary rhetoric. The culture encouraged by EDOs makes no such distinction and provides cover to those too lazy to pursue it.
Intolerance is bad, but criticism is not the same thing as persecution, and EDOs do not and cannot draw that line with any amount of accuracy. Extremists should be put in their place, but this is not the way to do it.