London, United Kingdom - The British government has been accused of declaring "political war" on the country's Muslim minority over tough new counter-extremism measures that include the launch of a unit to appraise and potentially blacklist Islamic organisations and community leaders, and further proposals that would give authorities powers to shut down mosques and silence preachers who fail to adhere to "British values".

Critics also suggested that Theresa May, the home secretary, was using Muslims as a "political punchbag" in a bid to shore up right-wing support for the governing Conservative Party just six weeks before British voters go to the polls in a closely fought general election.

Respect Party candidate George Galloway [Reuters]

"Theresa May today declared a political war on Britain's Muslims. Dredging the bottom of the septic tank for UKIP dog whistles to blow," George Galloway, a member of parliament for the left-wing Respect party, wrote on Twitter, referring to the challenge to the Conservatives from the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party.

Current opinion polls suggest UKIP could undermine incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron's hopes of remaining in power by claiming more than 10 percent of votes, mostly at the expense of Conservative candidates.

In a speech on Monday, May described Islamism as the "most serious and widespread form of extremism" that the UK faced because of its links to terrorism.

"Islamist extremists believe in a clash of civilisations. They promote a fundamental incompatibility between Islamic and Western values, an inevitable divide between 'them and us'," she said. 

"They believe that it's impossible to be a good Muslim and a good British citizen. And they dismiss anybody who disagrees with them - including other Muslims - as 'kafirs', or non-believers."

Closing down mosques?

May said a newly created extremism analysis unit had already begun work identifying individuals and organisations from within the Muslim community with which the government and public sector institutions "should engage and should not engage".

Other measures set to be introduced if the Conservatives are returned to power include closure orders for mosques or other institutions found to have hosted speakers or events deemed extremist, new powers to ban groups and silence preachers that fall short of the threshold for proscription under existing counter-terrorism legislation, and online restrictions on extremist content.

New restrictions on entry to the UK would require immigrants to sign declarations pledging to respect British values, and would deny visas and asylum to those identified as extremists, while all imams and others in pastoral roles would be required to speak English.

"Islam is entirely compatible with British values and our national way of life, while Islamist extremism is not - and we must be uncompromising in our response to it," said May.

 UK denies use of Prism to get around privacy laws

But the proposals were strongly condemned by many Muslim organisations, with the Islamic Human Rights Commission calling them a "xenophobic assault on the Muslim community".

"These measures are a shameless expression of a hate and bigotry that is increasingly becoming normalised in Britain. It speaks volumes that Theresa May cannot see how her proposals represent an affront to the fundamental values of tolerance and equality," said Massoud Shadjareh, the IHRC chair, in a statement to Al Jazeera.

'Fed up'

Others expressed disappointment that May had cited discredited allegations of a "Trojan Horse" Islamist plot to seize control of schools as reason to justify tougher measures, just one week after a parliamentary committee investigating the affair reported only one isolated incident of extremism in schools was found.

"We are just fed up as Muslims with being a political punchbag. No matter what we do it is never enough," Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, told Al Jazeera. "If you don't subscribe to the government script you are labelled an extremist and we as proud British Muslims reject this divisive speech.

"They've not been able to tell us a single mosque that has been infiltrated by extremists and would need to be shut down. There isn't one because we've worked hard as a community to get rid of the extremists. Our mosques have become beacons of defeating extremism. The education select committee said there was no evidence of an extremist plot to take over schools, yet Theresa May still peddled this myth."

But other campaigners called on Muslim organisations to engage more constructively with the government. Dilwar Hussain, chair of the New Horizons in British Islam think-tank, said the proposals contained important sentiments and some positive messages.

He said May's speech had been even handed in recognising the need to also tackle other forms of extremism and acknowledging concerns about anti-Muslim hate crime, and had distinguished clearly between Islam and extremism.

"While mistakes have clearly been made in the past and some may want to constantly find ways to criticise counter-terror measures, mere opposition - without credible and constructive alternatives - cannot be an adequate response. Security is too important to play sectarian politics, and we really need to work together to make our country safer," Hussain told Al Jazeera.

Witch-hunt

Yet goodwill between the government and leading Muslim organisations has been in short supply in recent months following a series of mutually bruising disputes over the former's hardening stance on counter-terrorism and extremism policy.

We've worked hard as a community to get rid of the extremists. Our mosques have become beacons of defeating extremism.

Mohammed Shafiq, Ramadhan Foundation

Last month's passing into law of the controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which was rushed through parliament despite concerted opposition from Muslim and civil liberties campaigners, prompted scores of community leaders to sign a letter decrying a "McCarthyite witch-hunt against Muslims". 

In January, Muslim leaders accused Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, of peddling far-right arguments after he wrote to mosques urging them to do more to tackle violent extremism and demonstrate "how faith in Islam can be part of British identity". 

Despite those controversies, neither the centre-left opposition Labour Party nor the Liberal Democrats, currently the junior partner in the coalition government, have so far shown much appetite for criticising the tone of Conservative policies.

Labour concurs

Responding to May's speech, Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow home secretary, said many of the proposals May described should have been introduced earlier, and questioned the government's decision to slash funding for counter-radicalisation projects set up by the previous Labour government. She also called for further measures such as the introduction of a compulsory deradicalisation programme for Britons returning from Syria.

"Everyone other than the extremists agree that we should robustly defend and actively promote the pluralistic values our society rightly holds in esteem," said Cooper. "But it isn't enough for the home secretary to say it, she needs to act. We need to work in as many communities as possible, throughout the UK, to support civil society and defeat extremism."

Shafiq said it was disappointing that the main parties appeared to be in agreement about the broad direction of counter-extremism strategy, and had not offered more to address Muslim concerns.

"Generally all three parties now have the same viewpoint. What is interesting is that Yvette Cooper has not really said she would do anything differently. She has not come out against the demonisation of our community," he said.

"The Liberal Democrats in opposition were always the party that were seen as standing up to bigotry, racism and Islamophobia, but they seem to have been institutionalised by their time in government."

Shadjareh also criticised the other parties for failing to hold the government to account.

"We believe the needs and aspirations of the Muslim community should be treated equally with those of any other community. Only then can we work toward a better and more just society for all."

Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper

Source: Al Jazeera