Following recent protests in the UK, Sunak’s government have proposed a tightening of the 2006 Terrorism Act that brings with it controversies over the definition of terrorism.
Most are acquainted with the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, which highlights the subjectivity of how we perceive many groups in global warfare today. Defining who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter has been for most of human history dictated rather arbitrarily by which side you support, often which side you are born into.
Consider for example, the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian democratic forces, viewed by Turkey and Syria as dangerous rebels and terrorist sympathisers, who are simultaneously viewed by the United States and the UK as freedom fighters, who played a key role in the defeat of the Islamic state. In a similar vein, consider the protesters of Hong Kong sent to prison by China for “sedition” whilst the UK and Canada offer them asylum.
These examples serve to show that in anti-government struggles, those in power will always seek to demonise those fighting against them, and those in opposition will seek to glorify those same fighters. For the sake of freedom of speech, a middle ground must be found. This is what lies at the heart of the current debates surrounding the tightening of the 2006 Terrorism Act. Due to the recent conflict in Palestine and Israel and the subsequent demonstrations in support of Palestine in the UK, the government is considering tightening the 2006 Terrorism Act in a move that could see supporters of the Scottish rugby team and the Suffragettes outlawed. Until now, this act prohibits citizens from “publishing statements” that glorify “the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future, or generally)” of “acts of terrorism or convention offences”. This act also prohibits inciting members of the public to “emulate” these same acts.
The main existing issues with the current act are firstly in the encroachment on freedom of speech by putting demonstrators at the mercy of the UK government’s identification of who is and is not a terrorist, and secondly, the historical transcendence in the act. This specifically is what could lead to the criminalisation of supporters of the Scottish rugby team. By singing the anthem “Flower of Scotland”, they, by the definition of the Act, are glorifying “terrorist” actions of the past and in the second verse of the song, inciting members of the public to potentially emulate these same acts in the future. Under new proposals, the government would expand the Act’s definition of “supporters” which has prompted backlash from independent reviewers.
It is clear to see that this expansion of the Act would risk damaging not only the freedom of expression championed by our society, but also the freedom to protest which has brought us so many of the things which we enjoy today. Those who support Palestine should feel free to demonstrate without fear that they will be criminalised as Hamas glorifiers. Similarly, those who support the reunification of Ireland should be able to demonstrate without fear that they will be criminalised as supporters of the Irish Republican Army.
It is important to note that those who encourage and call for acts of terrorism should rightfully be convicted, just as those who incite acts of racial discrimination should be convicted under hate crime legislation. Terrorism, and the murder of civilians, is unequivocally bad. However, citizens of British society must feel free to support causes that may be perceived by the government as controversial, and must be free from legislation that is too broad and puts freedom of expression in danger. As I laid out earlier, who is a “terrorist” and who is a “freedom fighter” is dependent on who you ask. Thus, our society must accommodate civil discussion and disagreement. Amendments made to the 2006 Act should not seek to broaden the legislation, but rather they should seek to narrow the legislation to more effectively convict those who are a danger to society whilst safeguarding the public’s right to protest. If we fail to hold our government to account on this issue, those in our society who support just causes may one day find themselves behind the bars of a prison cell.