Why the new Counter-Terrorism Bill should worry us all

Author: Revd Dr Richard Sudworth

Date: 29 May 2015

Rev Dr Richard Sudworth, who is Tutor in Anglican Theology at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, and a member of the P&E task group, recently wrote a comment piece for the Church Times on the new Counter-Terror legislation. We reproduce it here with his permission.

When Theresa May was defending her proposed Counter Terrorism Bill on Radio 4’s Today programme last week, she invoked the spectre of groups seeking a ‘them and us’ mentality which would divide the nation. The solution, she argues, is for a law that gives greater powers to the state in outlawing assembly and free speech for those regarded as ‘extremist’. And there is the rub! Who is extremist? A Muslim friend of mine, a scholar who has been at the forefront of Christian-Muslim relations and work for dialogue and collaboration teasingly describes his faith as extremist: ‘I’m extremist in my love of Allah!’

The Church of England sits in an uncomfortably ambivalent place with regard to so-called ‘British Values’ and what are loosely described as ‘democratic values’ in the words of Theresa May. Our established status inclines us to an inheritance that is essentially conservative but we would be betraying our founder (and I’m not thinking of Henry VIII here) if our default position could never be described as radical.

What, dare we ask, is Christian about ‘British values’? A sober assessment of the cause of gender equality, for example, a contemporary British value perhaps, might wake us up to the realisation that Christians have often been lagging behind the rest of society. Sometimes, non-Christians teach us truths that bring us back to who we are meant to be because we live in a world graced in God’s presence. The glorious problem that we have is the very diversity of influences shaping life as it is today. So many of our communities are circumscribed by values from ‘elsewhere’. For Christians, the ultimate horizon is the kingdom of God; not a mythic vision of warm beer, cricket and Evensong. Admitting anything else drives us towards the sort of privatised religion that is good for no one. We live in porous, messy societies so that across Britain people will be influenced by texts and sources that have the origin from Arabia to Hollywood, Google to Oxford.

The pragmatic plurality of British society surely behoves us to a hospitable view of establishment that can speak with and for the freedoms of other faiths. This is not to dismiss concerns about specific practices or laws that may inhibit freedoms. Nor is it necessary to be so apologetic that the Church’s positive impact on freedoms in the UK is overlooked. However, presenting a pristine vision of so-called British values as a counterpoint to extremism risks a willful ignorance of our diverse heritage. It also corrals all communities of faith, including Christians, into the category of ‘them’.

This bill is being presented at a time when the new government is threatening to repeal the UK’s implementation of the European Human Rights Act. These two trajectories are at risk of giving unprecedented powers to the government that may be used to curtail genuine religious freedoms. The paradox that Ms May failed to notice is that in shoring up national unity in the name of a fight against extremism, the government is in danger of exacerbating divisions in society. She referred to  the ‘Trojan Horse’ controversy here in Birmingham as exactly the sort of thing targeted by the bill. Whilst the government may have forgotten that the issue was primarily about religious conservatism and bad governance, and not extremism, many of my Muslims neighbours here in Birmingham have not forgotten the scaremongering they were subjected to.

Our criminal laws already give the police powers to tackle those that are intent on conspiracy to violence. Unpalatable or irrational views are held by people of all faiths and none but education and social and economic integration are the tools to address these issues, not the criminal law. Am I at risk of surveillance from MI5 by suggesting that these measures expose two classic drawbacks to the democratic system as we know it: the inability to see beyond the term of an election and the tendency of politicians to over-estimate their power to bring transformation?

Extremisim will be with us for a while yet and requires of all communities the ability to listen patiently and seek the flourishing of everyone. I think of the charity ‘The Feast’ that started in Birmingham and is now represented in Luton, Bradford and London. It seeks to gather Christian and Muslim young people together in a shared exploration of their faiths in the ‘dialogue of life’, building friendships. The activities are small-scale, they are not big events that make the headlines, but they are opportunities for trust to be built up and difference celebrated rather than avoided. Friendship rather than fear will be the best inhibition to extremism.

Looking at the political map of Britain after last week’s election, it seems that our nation is already looking like ‘them-and-us’. From here in Birmingham, issues like employment and child poverty, benefit sanctions and food-banks have coloured the city ‘red’ and suggest a divide the government would be wise to pay more attention to.