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LONDON (ChurchMilitant.com) - Recently released documents from a counterterrorism group in the United Kingdom list literary classics as indicators of right-wing extremism.
Writing in conservative British magazine The Spectator, British author Douglas Murray recently revealed the United Kingdom's counterterrorism program called Prevent named George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and a host of other classic British literary and cinematic works as signs of right-wing extremism.
In one [Prevent] document a number of books are singled out, the possession or reading of which could point to severe wrongthink and therefore potential radicalization. ... Elsewhere [Prevent] warns that radicalization could occur from books by authors including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Aldous Huxley and Joseph Conrad. I kid you not, though it seems that all satire is dead, but the list of suspect books also includes 1984 by George Orwell.
Other titles of concern to the government include John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Edmund Burke's pamphlet "Reflections on the Revolution in France," the poetry of Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, and even the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Among the authors named as potentially radicalizing was Murray himself. He wrote, "So everybody reading this column is at as much risk of being 'radicalized' as some young Muslim settling down with a tape recording of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden ... ."
Writing for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher commented, "The point seems to be that any reading material that encourages one to love God, country, non-Marxist political philosophy, and English history, might turn people into violent right-wing lunatics, according to the UK government's anti-terrorism watchdog."
Despite its targeting of "right-wing extremists," the Prevent program was originally meant to focus on Islamic extremism.
William Shawcross, the United Kingdom's commissioner for public appointments, condemned the Prevent program's failure to address Islamic terrorism and its insistence on targeting law-abiding British citizens.
He pointed out:
All the terrorist attacks across Britain committed since my review was commissioned have been Islamist in nature. But far more people are now being referred to Prevent because of extreme right-wing concerns, and the largest numbers appear to be referred because of mental health concerns and domestic and social "vulnerabilities."
In his final report on Prevent, Shawcross noted the organization had actually funded and promoted Islamic extremism instead of curbing it.
I discovered that some [Prevent-funded organizations] have promoted extremist narratives, including statements that appear sympathetic to the Taliban. ... In one of the most egregious cases, the leader of a Prevent-funded [civil society organizations] was found to have publicly made statements in 2021 that were sympathetic to the Taliban, and referred to militant Islamist groups — whose military wings were proscribed in the UK — as "so-called 'terrorists' of the legitimate resistance groups."
Shawcross isn't the only one to criticize Prevent for lumping in Brexit supporters with Muslim arsonists. In his Spectator piece, Murray humorously observed:
[I]t was never going to be enough for a government program set up to tackle one form of extremism to look only into that form of extremism. It is almost inevitable that the people taking part will come to feel that there are other forms of "extremism" that they must also focus on and that there is something almost bigoted about pursuing the specific thing they were set up to address. Thus does the great boondoggle of government justify itself. In any case, it transpires that the program's attempts to address right-wing extremism were even more inept than some of its attempts to address Islamist extremism.
Only 22% of referral cases to Prevent were related to Islamic terrorism, despite, as Shawcross noted, Islamic extremism accounting for 80% of terrorist activity investigated by police.
Nearly every novel, poem, film or author cited by the Prevent report lauds Christianity, Christian principles or Western culture. In essence, the report defines right-wing extremism as preserving the West's Christian roots. Prevent defined the varied likes of Orwell, Huxley, Milton, Tolkien, Chesterton and Lewis as "key texts" for "white nationalists/supremacists."
Indeed, the authors included in Prevent's watch list are quite a varied lot. Although some — like Tolkien, Chesterton, Lewis, and Burke — are similar enough, others — like Orwell, Huxley and even Locke — are rather a different breed.
Everyone in the first group was Christian. Tolkien and Chesterton were both Catholic, and Lewis and Burke were high-church Anglican, though both very friendly to and supportive of Catholics and Catholicism. Orwell and Huxley, on the other hand, were atheists. Although nominally a Protestant, Locke valued political notions above religious principles and was the progenitor of the infamous idea of separation of Church and State. But one thing all these authors shared in common was their love of Britain and their love of freedom.
Tolkien's most famous work, The Lord of the Rings, concerns the battle between the West and the Dark Lord Sauron, who seeks to corrupt the world and cleanse it of beauty. Much of Lewis' work, both fiction and nonfiction, focuses on similar themes: good combating evil, Christian virtue triumphing over worldly vice, and the power of tradition as the anchor of the West and secularism as its scourge.
Chesterton also writes along the same lines. In fact, his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill is credited with inspiring Michael Collins to rebel against imperial Britain and reclaim Ireland's national sovereignty and Catholic identity. Edmund Burke is broadly considered the founder of British conservatism and, arguably, one of the foundational minds of Western conservatism overall.
Orwell's 1984 details a dystopian future in which a totalitarian regime brainwashes its citizenry, promotes faulty reasoning (the novel's "2+2=5" maxim has often been quoted by conservatives in response to absurd claims a man can identify as a woman), and rewrites and erases history and literature in accord with the ruling party's ideology.
Huxley's Brave New World also depicts a nightmarish vision of the future, but through different means. Orwell anticipated thought would be policed and literature and history banned; Huxley predicted a ruling class that would inundate its subjects with hedonistic pleasure to such an extent that nobody bothered to think for himself or read literature or study history.
Locke's writings were a key part of establishing the modern idea of a republic and the freedoms of the individual. His philosophy was so revolutionary that one of America's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was all but accused of plagiarizing Locke when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Historian Andrew Roberts said of the list of "extremist" literature:
This is the reading list of anyone who wants a civilized, liberal, cultured education. It includes some of the greatest works in the Western canon and in some cases — such as Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent — powerful critiques of terrorism. Burke, Huxley, Orwell and Tolkien were all anti-totalitarian writers.
Prevent was, it will surprise nobody to learn, advised by leftist activist groups. Almost without exception, the literature the group deems "extremist" promotes freedom, family, patriotism and Christian virtue, leaving those reading the report to wonder why the government considers such values a threat.
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