Reports of Theresa May’s speech at the Tory Party Conference are beginning to cause some concern. For while the British people are united behind efforts to counter violent terrorism, some commentators identity an important shift in the Home Secretary’s thinking. The words “terrorist” and “extremist” are often used in the same sentence, and certainly “terrorists” are “extremists” who use violence to bring about political change and to enforce their views on others. But some are taking this identification further insisting that non-violent extremism, though not illegal, is a ‘social ill that British society should be intolerant of.’ (from an internet blog)
But how do we define “extremism” and, if we are to be “intolerant” of views which are not our own, then what happens to the cherished British notion of “free speech”? I have the privilege of saying Mass for a group of (mainly) young people who provide a counselling service for women considering abortion. Since they are Catholics they hope to persuade women to embrace a solution which does not involve terminating the pregnancy. Their work includes prayer vigils outside abortion clinics. There are people in our society now who regard abortion as a women’s “right” and become angry and vociferous at any attempt to curtail this “right”. They have ample space in the media (listen for example to “Woman’s Hour”) to expound their views. To be anti-abortion is presented as “unacceptable”, hostile to women, and indeed a form of “violence”.
But this manipulation of language must be challenged. It is not “violent” to express views different from the mainstream (and indeed minority views may well become mainstream in 20 or 30 years time. If anyone had suggested thirty years ago that it would be possible for two men to “marry” his views would have been described as “extremist”, and “unacceptable” to the huge majority, including many gay men and women.)
Moreover, it is offensive to talk about religious extremism when our problem is violent Islamic terrorism. It is as silly as talking about “sport hooliganism” when we actually mean “football hooliganism”. We do not have to spend millions policing bowls matches, and as yet Centre Court at Wimbledon has not been invaded by rival fans wearing steel-capped plimsolls. Christians may well ask why it was so easy to talk about going to the help of Bosnian Muslims (and thank God we did) but much more of a problem talking about (let alone rescuing) the Christians of Syria.
Finally, the secular establishment in the UK needs to be much more open in acknowledging where our tradition of tolerance, free-speech, exchange of ideas, welcome and protection of minorities, actually comes from. It is not from secular atheism which has only Soviet Russia and Communist China to hold up as examples. Central to our way of life today is the conversion of this country to Christianity, a religion which has the image of the God-Man, broken, rejected and dying on the cross, at its heart. In the recovery and renewal of this faith lies our hope of freedom and of peace – and with it hearts captured by divine love and so able to reject extremist violence.