The UK government is inciting a "McCarthyite" witch hunt against Muslims, a prominent group of more than 100 Islamic scholars and activists has said.
Leading figures from Britain's Muslim community signed an open letter released on Wednesday which accuses the government of the "criminalization of Islam." They claimed that officials were using terms such as "radicalization" and "extremism" to silence voices of dissent, saying this could "be dangerous and leave the community unguided."
The statement also accuses the government of using the specter of terrorism to divert the British public's attention from "disastrous foreign policies" and for political gain.
The signatories — who include Anjum Amwar, the chair of NGO Women's Voice, the former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, and journalist Yvonne Ridley, but no representative of umbrella group the Muslim Council of Britain — released the letter after plans for further measures against extremism were leaked by the Telegraph at the weekend. The draft document outlines a "more assertive" approach to promoting British values and "challenging the extremists who fundamentally oppose them."
Under the proposals, individuals who have expressed extreme views could be banned from working with children unsupervised and will require job center staff to report claimants who they consider may be vulnerable to radicalization.
Headed by Home Secretary Theresa May, the crackdown would introduce tougher regulations around citizenship and travel, including tougher measures to prevent extremists from traveling to conflict zones. Immigrants who do not learn English could see their welfare payments cut, as part of a push to encourage integration, while citizenship would only be granted to those who embrace "British values."
The strategy aims to tackle ideas and behaviors which, while are "often legal," are said to cause "very significant damage" and potentially lead to radicalization, such as speeches by extremist preachers. Sharia courts and councils are also marked out as a cause for "concern" in some parts of the country.
Arzu Merali, a signatory and one of the founders of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, told VICE News that this clampdown has been happening for the last ten years, and the new bill will only "accelerate what is already happening" in creating a climate of fear and pushing extremists underground. She described the legislation as part of an agenda which at first "demonized but now criminalizes" certain issues.
The online statement — which had more than 60 signatories when it was released on Wednesday but hours later had gathered at least 40 more — says that labeling "normative Islamic opinions" as extremist "criminalizes legitimate political discourse."
A Home Office spokesperson said it was "utterly absurd to suggest there is any criminalization of British Muslims."
In a statement to VICE News, the spokesperson said: "Everybody is equal in Britain — equality is a fundamental British value and one that we are proud to uphold. Instead of making unfounded statements the signatories should work with us to defeat extremism and terrorism and stand up to those whose twisted ideology subverts the peaceful religion of Islam."
The controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security (CTS) Bill was passed last month, under which teacher and universities are legally obliged to "prevent people from being drawn to terrorism." The bill has been criticized by over 500 professors as being a threat to freedom of speech. In the new plans, universities will be refused visa permits for speakers with extremist views. Merali said of such measures that "the overwhelming effect on most people, is not to turn them into violent so and sos, but create a complete disempowerment and state of fear, and of subjugation". This could have a "self-fulfilling" effect where people felt compelled to leave Britain and find spaces they could express their views, potentially drawing them into situations where they might commit atrocities, she added.
Britain's security services have drawn criticism after it emerged that Mohamed Emwazi, the Londoner named as Islamic State executioner Jihadi John, and three schoolgirls who disappeared from the capital in February, all managed to leave United Kingdom to join the Islamic State in Syria despite being on the authorities' radar.
Advocacy groups who have been campaigning to stop the CTS Bill, have also criticized the tactics of intelligence agency MI5 in handling suspects, accusing them of harassing Muslims and pushing them onto the path of extremism. This has lead a battle of finger pointing, with Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond saying on Tuesday that "apologists" for terrorists shared some of the blame for their acts.
Programs already in place to tackle extremism have also been criticized, with a former senior Muslim police officer, Dal Babu, calling the Prevent anti-terror strategy a "toxic brand" which the Muslim community perceived as spying on their activities.
Shakeel Begg, imam at the Lewisham Islamic Center which drew negative attention after it emerged that one of the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby had worshipped there, told VICE News that it was difficult to participate in Prevent as a Muslim leader because "the community will see you as spying on them." This then became a barrier to engagement with young people, he said, adding that they might then go on to seek information in other quarters.
He told VICE News he finds himself constantly "worried" about saying the wrong thing and touching on contentious issues for fear of being criminalized.
Begg has attracted controversy himself after it was reported by the BBC that he had hailed jihad as "the greatest of deeds." He is currently suing the broadcaster for describing him as an "extremist" who "encourages religious violence," insisting that he was using the non-violent meaning of the term "jihad," to refer to a spiritual struggle.
Merali told VICE News that she believed such strategies were encouraging Islamophobia and social division. "We need to get rid of the idea of Muslims as some sort of dangerous other who don't deserve equality before the law," she said. "[Or] we will not be able to change the highly racist culture which is rapidly developing, and is very damaging to the fabric of society."
Follow Aws al-Jezairy on Twitter: @Aws_A_