May says Islamophobia is a form of extremism, marking shift in rhetoric

Theresa May’s Downing Street declaration that the Finsbury Park terrorist attack was “every bit as sickening” as Manchester and London Bridge and description of Islamophobia as another form of extremism marks a distinct and important change in rhetoric from the prime minister.

The Queen’s speech on Wednesday will include flagship legislation to “confront the menace of extremism, especially Islamist extremism, including a statutory commission to identify and expose examples.

May, throughout the election campaign and in her post-election speech on the steps of Downing Street a fortnight ago, made clear that the focus of her “drive against extremism” was aimed at radical Islamist ideology.

But her statement in the wake of the Finsbury Park attack appears to mark a significant reset of that “one-eyed” approach. She said it was “a reminder that terrorism, extremism and hatred take many forms; and our determination to tackle them must be the same whoever is responsible. As I said here two weeks ago, there has been far too much tolerance of extremism in our country over many years – and that means extremism of any kind, including Islamophobia.”

May reaffirmed the review of official counter-terrorism strategy including the possibility of new criminal offences to deny “safe spaces” to extremists, both online and in the real world.

The prime minister also reiterated her proposal for an anti-extremism commission, comparing its role to that of the Commission for Racial Equality which fought racism in the 1970s and 1980s: “Because this extremism is every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life and we will stop at nothing to defeat it.”

But as Dr Chris Allen of Birmingham University has pointed out, Islamophobia is more akin to everyday racism or homophobia perpetrated by ordinary people rather than the exclusive reserve of a terrorist ideology.

A year after the terrorist murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a man the judge described as a “violent white supremacist and exclusive nationalist”, the far right in Britain have expounded a more populist, explicitly anti-Muslim agenda. Allen told the BBC that the far right has become much more aggressive in targeting the development and building of new mosques and mounting aggressive protests against them.

The rhetoric of ministers about the government’s counter-extremism strategy has given every appearance of focusing on radical Islamist extremism at the expense of the work against the far right. It is true that the police and security services have continued below the radar to tackle both.

As the former official reviewer of terrorism laws, David Anderson QC, has pointed out, one in four of those referred to the government’s Prevent anti-radicalisation programme are now far-right radicals. The security minister, Ben Wallace, said last October that in some parts of the country, far-right extremists outnumbered Islamist extremist suspects. Anderson warned in February that far-right extremism in Britain could be “as murderous as its Islamist equivalent”.

The prime minister’s change in rhetoric is welcome but the real test will be whether her new legislation is recalibrated to tackle far-right ideology just as vigorously as that of radical Islamists.