The Home Secretary’s decision to ban an extremist group shows exactly why we must not allow sentiment to overrule free speech says Padraig Reidy
Depending how you look at it, it’s either been a good or bad week for Anjem Choudary and his admirers.
Bad on two fronts. Yesterday, five men who participated in an Islam4UK-organised demonstration against returning soldiers in Luton were convicted of using “threatening, abusive or insulting words and behaviour likely to cause harassment and distress.” The five were given two year conditional discharges and ordered to pay £500 each towards costs.
This morning, meanwhile, Home Secretary Alan Johnson announced that Islam4UK is to become a proscribed organisation. Technically, this is not a new ban, merely a revival of a 2006 ban on Al Ghurabaa, itself set up by members of Al Muhajiroun after fears that that organisation would be banned. The then Home Secretary John Reid said “I am determined to act against those who, while not directly involved in committing acts of terrorism, provide support for and make statements that glorify, celebrate and exalt the atrocities of terrorist groups.”
Did Al Muhajroun/Al-Ghurabaa/Islam4UK engage in such activities? Oh yes. All this and more. It was they who coined the phrase “The Magnificent 19” to describe the 9/11 suicide bombers. And in 2008, senior member Abu Izzadeen was convicted of inciting terrorism and fundraising for terrorism overseas.
So Johnson’s move could be seen as mere housekeeping.
But of course it’s not. It’s inconceivable that the Home Office was not aware that Islam4UK was just another name for the same old gang. The revival of this ban must be connected to the controversy Choudary stirred last week with Islam4Uk’s proposal to march through Wootton Bassett, carrying coffins to commemorate Muslim dead in Afghanistan.
Are the ban and the convictions really a problem for the group? Their reactions to previous bans would suggest that, organisationally, things will carry on as normal, just with a new title and web domain. Moreover, last night’s and this morning’s broadcast news were filled with Choudary and chums, highlighting how their convictions and banning proved that democracy and free expression are at best a sham and at worst a conspiracy against Islam. It’s not quite free publicity, but it’s exceptionally cheap.
So a mixed week for Anjem, but an exceptionally bad one for justice and free expression. The conviction of the five Luton protesters throws up massive problems. While their slogans were nasty, they called soldiers “baby killers” and “rapists”, they were part of a political protest, of which police had been made aware. Anyone who’s been on a protest knows that the language is rarely of the “rectify the anomaly” variety. How many times has Tony Blair been called a murderer? How many times have “Nazi scum” been ordered off our streets? A protest’s sole function is to get noticed — and strong language gets you noticed.
If there had been a public order issue at Luton, the police could have told the protestors to disperse, or even detained them temporarily; it’s far from ideal, but it beats a conviction.
And this conviction is dangerous: while the general consensus that one can support the troops without supporting the war holds sway in the country, it’s important to differentiate between supporting the troops and shielding them (and the broader population who turn out to acknowledge them) from offence. One leading lawyer expressed his concern over the conviction to me, suggesting that while it was understandable to want to protect war-weary troops from insult, he was not confident that general legal offences designed to prevent abusive and insulting behaviour fit this task. Protesting against troops returning from a war must qualify as political speech, and as such must have some protection. But as casualties rise in Afghanistan and the entire nation increasingly feels the pain of a long war, it’s easy to discard such high principles.
Johnson was lucky he was able to exploit an existing ban in order to make a move against Choudary. The motivation must have been to be seen to be acting on Choudary and his cohorts, and now that has been achieved with minimum effort. It’s just disappointing that the government’s impulse when confronted with such a character is to attempt to shut him up, rather than use him as an example of the vigorous health of free expression in Britain, even in wartime.