Sunak's extremism definition risks 'more division,' Archbishop of Canterbury warns

Rishi Sunak faced MPs at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. Credit: PA

Rishi Sunak faced pressure from both sides of the floor at PMQs on Wednesday over his new definition of extremism, after the Archbishop of Canterbury warned it risked creating "more division".

In a joint letter Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, and Justin Welby warned: "The government's new definition of extremism not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech but also the right to worship, and risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities.""Labelling a multi-faceted problem as hateful extremism may vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division in our nation," the senior clerics said.

At PMQs both Labour and Conservative MPs criticised the government over its focus on a new extremism definition.

Labour MP Azfal Khan said: "Despite serious opposition from the Archbishop of Canterbury, three former home secretaries, and three government advisors on antisemitism, social cohesion and political violence, the levelling up secretary is due to widen the definition of extremism tomorrow.

"Shouldn't the prime minister be focused on getting his own house in order and stamping out extremism, racism and Islamophobia from within his party?" he asked.

Mr Khan accused the Conservatives of "peddling far-right conspiracy theories about Islamists and Muslims taking over Britain".

Former Tory MP Lee Anderson was suspended last month after refusing to apologise for claiming “Islamists” had “got control” of London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Right-wing Tory MP Miriam Cates said reports about the new extremism definition are "concerning", and "could have a chilling effect on free speech".

"In separating the definition of extremism from actual violence and harm, we may criminalise people with a wide range of legitimate views," she said.

A number of Tory MPs had expressed concern that the new definition could encompass gender-critical feminists or devout religious groups.

Extremism is currently defined as "vocal or active opposition to British values".

The updated definition is expected to enable the government and other public bodies to ban funding and engagement with Islamist and far-right groups.

In a joint statement, the Most Reverend Justin Welby and the Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell said the “growing division between different communities in this country” is a threat to the country’s “rich diversity”.

They said: “How our leaders respond to this is far too important for a new definition of extremism to be its cure.

“Instead of providing clarity or striking a conciliatory tone, we think labelling a multi-faceted problem as hateful extremism may instead vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division.

“The new definition being proposed not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech, but also the right to worship and peaceful protest – things that have been hard won and form the fabric of a civilised society.

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“Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse.”

The archbishops continued: “We are concerned – like so many others – by its implications for public life.

“We join calls for the government to reconsider its approach and instead have a broad-based conversation with all those who it will affect.

The prime minister gave a surprise speech on extremism outside Downing Street earlier this month, warning that “there are forces here at home trying to tear us apart” and that "democracy itself is a threat".

The PM said "what started as protests on our streets has descended into intimidation, threats, and planned acts of violence", referring to pro-Palestine protests.

Mr Sunak and his administration have been concerned about pro-Palestine protests – peaceful demonstrations, attended by hundreds of thousands of people across the UK since the Israel-Gaza conflict started in October, to call for a ceasefire – being hijacked by Islamists who want to spread messages of hate.

Mr Sunak announced vague details of a plan to tackle extremism in his speech on March 1, revealing that "if those here on visas choose to spew hate on protests, or seek to intimidate people" the government will "remove their right to be here".

He also announced the government will "redouble" support for the Prevent programme, "demand universities stop extremist activity on campuses", and "act to prevent people entering this country whose aim it is to undermine its values".

PMQs was dominated by calls on the prime minister to return £10 million given to the Conservatives by donor Frank Hester, after it was reported he made "racist" comments about MP Diane Abbott.

Tory donor Frank Hester is alleged to have said in 2019 that Ms Abbott, Britain’s longest-serving black MP, made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

Sir Keir Starmer began Prime Minister's Questions by asking the prime minister if he was "proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynist language?".

Mr Sunak replied saying "the alleged comments were wrong, they are racist, he has rightly apologised for them and that should be accepted".

The Tory donor said he is "deeply sorry" for being "rude" to Ms Abbott, but has not apologised for being "racist".

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