Luton protest trial and Islam4UK ban: huge attacks on civil liberties

Fight bigots with rational argument, not repression

Five Muslim men who protested at a home-coming parade by soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton in March 2009 were convicted under the Public Order Act.

The conviction of these five men, for using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, is a dangerous infringement of free speech and the right to protest. I abhor everything they stand for, but defend their right to freedom of expression. Even though what they said was offensive to many people, their right to speak their mind is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society.

They want to destroy our democracy and freedoms. I want to defend these values. If we silence and criminalise their views, we are little better than them. Judge Carolyn Mellanby was wrong to rule that the people of Luton have a right to be protected against words they find insulting. There is no right to not be offended, since almost any idea can be offensive to someone. Many of the greatest thinkers in history have caused insult and offence, including Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin.

The five convicted Islamists would like to censor us and put us on trial. We should not stoop to their level of intolerance. Democracy is superior to their proposed theocratic state and we need to prove it by demonstrating that we allow objectionable opinions and contest them by debate, not by repression and censorship.

I strongly disagree with these men and their fundamentalist religion. They seek to establish an Islamist dictatorship in the UK. I reject the hatred and religious tyranny they espouse. They oppose women’s rights, gay equality, people of other faiths and Muslims who do not conform to their hard-line interpretation of Islam.

But I defend their right to express their opinions, even though they are offensive and distressing to many people.

Insult and offence are not sufficient grounds in a democratic society to criminalise words and actions. The criminalisation of insulting, abusive or offensive speech is wrong. The only words that should be criminalised are untrue defamations and threats of violence, such as falsely branding someone as a paedophile or inciting murder.

Some sections of the Public Order Act inhibit the right to free speech and the right to protest. They should be repealed.

Just as I defended the right to free speech of the Christian homophobe Harry Hammond, and opposed his conviction in 2002 for insulting the gay community, so I also defend the right of these Islamic fundamentalists to make their views heard, providing they don’t incite violence. The best way to respond to such fanatics is expose and refute their hateful, bigoted opinions.

Rational argument is more effective and ethical than using an authoritarian law to censor and suppress them.

Peter Tatchell www.petertatchell.net

Beneath the tabloid hysteria.

With media whitewash causing many of people to give their attention to the politics of Islam4UK rather than the serious threats facing activists in Britain, the state is ramping up repression to new extremes, using its ‘war’ on political Islam as an ideology (even when nobody has been harmed directly) to drive wedges into basic liberties yet again.

COURT RULING BANS ‘OFFENSIVE’ PROTESTS

First off, five Muslim protesters have been convicted for peaceful and apparently legal protests against a chauvinistic military march in Luton.

This is the outcome of an ongoing attack on the right to protest following anti-war protests at a military parade. indymedia.org.uk/en

The protesters had been very careful to obtain police permission, did not disobey police instructions on the day, and carefully avoided any slogans which could be deemed to condone terrorism. Their trial has been duly exposed by their defence lawyers as an abuse of process and a travesty of the claim that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are in defence of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. asianimage.co.uk/uk

They were convicted of harassment on the grounds that they were found offensive by chauvinists and bigots attending the chauvinistic parade. A few of these bigots, who look suspiciously like EDL, attacked the protesters in Luton. After the event, various disreputable newspapers ran stories condemning the protests and praising the EDL goons who attacked them.

Like the previous case at the Mohammed cartoon protests, in which the category of ‘solicitation to murder’ (which actually means hiring an assassin) was used to gain convictions for acts of political advocacy (incitement law could not have been used as there was no serious and demonstrable likelihood of resulting action), the law has been distorted around the certainty that certain groups must be wrong – even if their acts are entirely within the law as previously written and interpreted.

It seems that, as believers in an unpopular ideology, the protesters were taken to be guilty in advance – the charges simply had to be invented after the event. As a result, new categories of ‘crimes’ are created on the spot by judges and juries expanding interpretations of existing laws to allow criminalisation of entire categories of formerly legal action.

The convictions set a precedent which could make it illegal for ANY protester to say something deemed offensive to bigots, Sun readers, Nazis or the target of the protest. This is a big extension of the current abuse of harassment laws. It will most likely now be taken as illegal:


* To call a politician or a foreign head of state a murderer or a warmonger on a protest,
* To call a fox hunter or a vivisector a torturer,
* To shout anything which could be deemed an “insult”,
* To call people “Nazi scum”,
* To berate arms dealers with having no morals.

These things have been banned, not by a new law, but by an abusive extension of an existing law (on harassment) which is already widely abused.

It seems that radical Islam has become a kind of ‘black hole’ around which discourse is distorted – so necessary is it taken to be that any action however harmless taken by radical Islamists is illegal, introducing a case against radical Islamists is allowed to corrupt rational discourse to the point where new prohibitions emerge retrospectively, on the spot, as laws are stretched to make legal actions a ‘crime.

CRIMINALISING DISSENT

Meanwhile, the attempt to ban Islam4UK, the current group label used by radical Islamists allegedly connected to al-Muhajiroun, is apparently to be banned – because it has been too successful in getting media attention.

Under the draconian laws allowing proscription of ‘terrorist’ groups – extended in 2006 to those who ‘glorify’ terrorism – someone can be jailed for ten years simply for belonging to an organisation. Given the networked nature of many modern organisations, this could easily be used to jail people simply for who they know, who they associate with or what they believe.

The situation is in effect a new McCarthyism – an ideology, not a set of actions, is banned.

It must have been expected that the group would simply re-form. Anarchist groups faced with similar persecution do the same. So too have Basque separatist groups in Euskal Herria, Kurdish and democratic Muslim parties in Turkey, and parliamentary parties of former ruler Thaksin in Thailand. The current ruling party in Turkey (the AK Party), roughly akin to the Christian Democrats in other countries, has previously been banned several times by the military and judiciary seeking to retain control, only to be re-formed under new labels and repeat its electoral success.

The group in question allegedly has as many as 81 ‘front’ organisations already formed, any of which could be activated following the ban.
(guardian) The result is an endless cat-and-mouse hunt in which the organisation can never be truly banned, but simply chased from one designation to another. Security sources have also allegedly opposed the bans on the grounds that they make the group’s activity harder to monitor.

So why has it been banned?

Again, to set a bad precedent – and to look ‘tough’ to the tabloids and the bigots with an election ahead. On the latter point – of course the tabloids will find a new bogeyman. As long as there is a single Muslim in Britain, the tabloids will be able to find someone to portray as their archetypal ‘mad Mullah’. They have already passed from Abu Hamza to Abu Izzadeen to this latest bogeyman, Anjem Choudhary. This will continue, moving from the more ‘radical’ to the less. The threat to all Muslims is massive. Many people are joining a Facebook group calling for Choudhary to be deported – despite his being a British citizen. Apparently, British Muslims don’t count as truly British. Where will it end?

The Conservatives have declared that they wish to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group which has some very nasty views but does not condone terrorism.
(conservativehome.blogs.com)

Press reports have targeted the Muslim Council of Britain for supporting the Palestinian struggle, even if British troops were sent to Palestine.
(www.independent.co.uk )Newspaper hysteria following the Detroit bombings has included calls for Islamic student societies to be banned unless they can ‘guarantee’ nobody in them will be ‘radicalized’. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk )

More crucial, however, is the precedent this sets.

It has now been established that the government can ban an organisation which does nothing more than shout slogans. It doesn’t even have to prove that the organisation glorified terrorism. It simply has to have an overlapping membership or similar rhetoric to another group which is supposed to have glorified terrorism.

This could have a massive effect, giving the police new powers to persecute dissidents across the political spectrum.

Hence for example, they could ban ALF, ELF, or the Italian ‘insurrectionist international’ (which doesn’t exist but is stated to exist in various court cases); then they could claim that dozens of local animal rights groups, Earth First!, Anarchist Black Cross, or whoever else they want is the same organisation and ban them as well. It should also be noted that, if this banning of parties deemed to condone terrorism had been done in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement would have been impossible. There can never be peace if one side cannot express its views or protest peacefully. The state seems to have decided it wants to preclude the possibility of peace or dialogue in advance.

MUDDYING THE WATERS: THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST POLITICAL ISLAM

Many people, including some on the left and posters on Indymedia, are mudding the waters of the need to fight back against state repression by emphasising issues with the politics of Islam4UK. The group has many authoritarian views incompatible with socialism, liberalism and anarchism. In principle, it would like to create a theocratic state in Britain, similar to those in Saudi Arabia and Iran. They doubtless have some quite nasty views (though also some quite laudable ones – against imperialism for example).

Crucially, however, it has no chance of succeeding in such goals. Moreover, it is pursuing them by entirely peaceful means. It is no different in this regard from dozens of small Christian groups which would similarly like to see some authoritarian social order established around religion, but which pursue their means by preaching, worshipping and converting.

In addition, the group is tiny – perhaps two dozen people showed up in Luton.

It is surreal to compare such a tiny group to the likes of the EDL and the BNP, which are hundreds or thousands-strong Nazi groups which spread their message through racist violence and terror.  It is even more surreal to assess the group’s political rights by its goals, which it has no means to achieve. By the same standard, if it is OK to ban Islam4UK because of its repulsive ideology, it should also be OK to ban the Conservatives, Labour, various authoritarian-socialist groups, pro-Israel groups, etc. The whole point of free speech is that it applies to everyone.

An exception is sometimes made for Nazis because of their inherently hateful ideology and violent means. But small Muslim groups cannot be compared to Nazis – they have neither the numbers nor the violent methods. In any case, racism and fascism are not simply abstract views but are connected to deep forces of colonialism and white supremacy in societies such as Britain. To put all forms of prejudice and authoritarianism on the same level with Nazis shows a complete failure to understand the impact of white privilege and white supremacy in the contemporary world.

Crucially, the group is not being banned because they have a vile ideology. It is hard to find an aspect of Islamic theocracy which is not echoed in the discourse of the right-wing sections of the press. They, too, call for corporal and capital punishment. They, too, oppose the gains of women’s liberation and gay rights. They supported Moseley in the 30s. They constantly race-bait against Muslims and immigrants. They supported the jailing of Oscar Wilde. They oppose the idea of human rights. They ran to the defence of Nazi Geert Wilders when he was banned from Britain under laws they had supported. The only reason they spew their hateful filth against certain Muslim leaders is because of their skin colour and visible difference.

Islam4UK has actually had a very effective strategy of identifying with the unspeakable in the situation, speaking the ‘truth’ of the situation (in Lacanian terms) – that imperialist war is nothing to celebrate, that British soldiers are committing routine atrocities overseas, that the nationalist rituals of ordinary British life are a cover for something terrible which must be opposed – the things which nobody dares say, or at least to say in a disruptive enough way to interrupt the normal functioning of the performance of ideology – and it is this disruption (not their specific political views) which is the reason for the hatred directed against them. They are fully expecting persecution, and embracing it almost Gandhi-style, not at all with guns and bombs (whatever their rhetoric says).

It is not as if they are getting away with violence. If their members commit acts of terrorism, physically attack people, or incite racial hatred, this is already covered by dozens of other laws, some of them very extreme… without the banning of the group having any effect whatsoever. It is simply that they are exercising their basic democratic rights – and being criminalised for it.

Right now, arguing about the political views of Islam4UK is like standing around in Nazi Germany arguing about whether Zionists have horrible politics. The real issues are pervasive Islamophobia concealed under a front of ‘anti-extremism’ – and the destruction of what little remains of the right to dissent in Britain’s nascent police state.

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