Over 400 UK imams reject new extremism definition targeting Muslim groups

Religious scholars accuse government of ‘divisive tactics’ and attempting to crack down on groups opposed to Israeli actions against Palestinians

MEE staff

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (C) is pictured in the prayer hall during a visit to the London Central Mosque on 11 March 2024 (AFP/Daniel Leal)
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (C) is pictured in the prayer hall during a visit to the London Central Mosque on 11 March 2024 (AFP/Daniel Leal)

Over 400 British imams and religious scholars have signed a letter rejecting a new UK government definition of extremism that targeted several British Muslim organisations. 

Last week, Communities Secretary Michael Gove announced a contentious new definition of extremism, though the government conceded that the wording was “non-statutory” and created no new legal powers. 

Gove identified a number of Muslim organisations, including the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and Cage, which he said the government planned to “hold to account” using the new definition because of their “Islamist orientation”.

In an earlier statement, Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the definition had been updated to respond to an “increased extremist threat since October 7 terror attacks in Israel“, citing a rise in reported antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

The letter published by imams on Friday strongly condemned the move. 

“We note that the discourse of ‘extremism’ relies on the faulty and academically baseless neoconservative notion that ideology is a cause of political violence,” it said. “We observe that Mr Gove has a history of targeting Islam and Muslims under the label of ‘Islamism’.”

The letter stated that the motivation behind the announcement was driven by pro-Israeli figures within the UK government seeking to crack down on “legitimate activism” opposing Israeli actions against Palestinians. 

“The hypocrisy of Mr Gove et al, who coercively apply ‘British values,’ which includes democracy, whilst simultaneously suppressing democratic participation that opposes their agenda, is glaringly obvious,” the imams said. 

“Despite the prime minister’s purported commitment to bridging gaps with the Muslim community, his government’s actions suggest a preference for divisive tactics over genuine dialogue and engagement.”

Last week, Gove’s department said a new definition would be used by government departments and officials to help them decide which groups they should engage with and fund, and to identify “extremist organisations, individuals and behaviours”.

But it said: “This definition is not statutory and has no effect on the existing criminal law – it applies to the operations of Government itself.”

MAB, Cage and Mend: Who are the Muslim groups Michael Gove accuses of extremism?

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The new definition was condemned by a number of Muslim organisations, including the MCB, and equality and rights campaigners, including The Runnymede Trust and Amnesty International.

Speaking in parliament last week, Gove took aim at groups that he described as having “Islamist” and “neo-Nazi” ideologies, and named several organisations as examples.

“Islamist and neo-Nazi groups in Britain are operating lawfully, but they advocate and work towards the replacement of democracy with an Islamist or Nazi society,” he said.

Gove described Islamism as a “totalitarian ideology” that called for the establishment of an Islamic state under sharia law and sought to overthrow “liberal democratic principles”.

He said it was an ideology rooted in the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders and scholars Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and the South Asian Jamaat-e-Islami movement.

“Organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain, which is the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other groups such as Cage and Mend, give rise to concern for their Islamist orientation and views,” Gove said.

“We will be holding these and other organisations to account to assess if they meet our definition of extremism and we will take action as appropriate.”

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