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In February 2018, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (the USCIRF) launched its report ‘Inventing Extremists’ scrutinising the Russian anti-extremism policies and their impact on the right to freedom of religion of belief.
The USCIRF report is very critical about the approach taken by the Russian government, based on overregulation and ‘fear-in-spring tactics’ as a fit-them-all response to various challenges in Russia. The USCIRF report indicated that the provisions and policies that aimed at protecting people and national security, are used to sanction people for their religious manifestation. The USCIRF report identified the focus on ‘extremism’ in the Russian law as the source of significant challenges. Indeed, the definition of extremism under the Russian law is very vague, giving the Russian authorities ‘wide latitude to interfere in peaceful religious observance and persecute believers.’ The USCIRF report identifies Muslims as the main groups targeted by the anti-extremism legislation. However, in recent years, non-Muslim religious groups have also been on the radar of the Russian anti-extremism law, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and other religious groups ‘traditionally disapproved of’ by the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to the Federal law of July 25, 2002 No. 114-FZ ‘On Combating Extremist Activity’, extremism is defined as ‘propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of a person on the basis of their religious affiliation or attitude toward religion.’ Despite the fact that the intention behind the provision was to address incitement of hatred, the law is overly broad leaving too much scope for broad interpretation that may cover virtually any activity. The USCIRF report further emphasised the dangers hidden in the laws prohibiting ‘missionary activities’ and ‘insulting the feelings of believers.’
If has to be emphasised that, although the main problems with the Russian anti-extremism law came to light over the recent years, some of the provisions have been in existence for a decade. In fact, the issue of the broad definition of extremism in the Russian law has been already addressed by the Human Rights Committee in its communications with Russia in 2009. On that occasion, the Committee recommended Russia revise its law to amend the definition of ‘extremist activity’ to make it ‘more precise so as to exclude any possibility of arbitrary application.’ Unfortunately, as the USCIRF report makes clear, Russia failed to implement the recommendations and proceeded to introduce more excessive provisions.
However, Russia is not the only country with a broad anti-extremism approach. In fact, the UK’s definition of extremism is even broader. The UK definition of extremism, although not a legal definition but instead, the government’s definition contained in its counter-extremism policy is ‘the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.’ What those fundamental values are is not clear. The suggestion that fundamental values are the so-called British values does not help either. As identified in the Casey’s report, a review into opportunity and integration, very few people know what British values actually incorporate. According to the 2015 ComRes poll, ‘equality was identified by only 23% of respondents as one of ‘the most important’ British values … ranking behind ‘a sense of humour’ (29%) and ‘politeness’ (27%).’
Nonetheless, the vague and confusing focus on extremism has gained its supporters as the argument is that the attempts to counter terrorism are not enough and more needs to be done, more needs to be done to address the root causes, radicalisation, all forms of extremism, including non-violent extremism before they transgress into violent extremism or terrorism. True. However, this approach will not work if the UK fails to address the elephant in the room, the issue of the British Daesh foreign fighters.
In October 2017, Soufan Group reported that over 850 people from the UK travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh. This number includes over 100 women and 50 children. Over 1,172 individuals from the UK were stopped in Turkey and 106 were sent back to the UK. The report suggests that over half of Daesh foreign fighters (in excess of 425) have already returned to the UK. Furthermore, as indicated in the evidence submitted by the UK to the Council of Europe, as of January 2017, only 101 individuals were convicted for their Daesh related crimes (although there is no confirmation whether the 101 convictions are all of the returnees or also of other individuals supporting Daesh activities from the UK). The Soufan Group’s report statistics refer only to the individuals travelling from the UK to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh and the issue may also pertain other Islamist terrorist groups.
The UK should address the issue of the Daesh foreign fighter returnees before it introduces vague and overly broad polices and laws affecting all. The UK approach of focusing on all forms of extremism, even if not violent or inciting violence, has an adverse effect on communities, individuals and their enjoyment of human rights. The issue of individuals known to the authorities as having traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh continues to be neglected. This is not the way forward. Currently, the UK’s approach may still be far removed from the Russian approach. However, the gap will continue to decrease when the UK plans to introduce new laws to criminalize online viewing of ‘extremist’ content and to arm the new Counter-Extremism Committee with yet to be defined powers. The situation in Russia, as explained in the USCIRF report, should be a warning to the UK government and other states on the dangers of addressing the security issues with the wrong tools and failing addressing the real problems.
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