From Cable Street to Wootton Bassett
Padraig Reidy: Islam4UK's proposed march throws up some awkward questions for liberal free-speech defenders
05 Jan 10

Anjem Choudary is the closest real world British politics has to an Internet troll. Provocative, emotive and quite, quite silly, Choudary and his cohorts in al Muhajiroun/Saved Sect/Islam4UK learned at the feet of Syrian preacher Omar Bakri Muhammed, (see Jon Ronson’s excellent documentary on Bakri Muhammed, Tottenham Ayatollah here).

Muhammed revelled in his controversialist role, and was quite a figure of fun for UK journalists right up to the morning of 11 September 2001, when the west woke up to jihadism. From then, he became a “preacher of hate”, and was eventually barred from the UK in the wake of the London 7/7 bombings, leaving Anjem Choudary to run (blacklisted) al-Muhajiroun.

After an August 05 ban, al-Muhajiroun did what pretty much all banned groups do: announced it was disbanding, came up with a new name (in fact, a series of new names, of which Islam4UK is the latest) and carried on with business as usual.

Business as usual this week has consisted of announcing a plan to stage an “anti-war” march in Wootton Bassett, the town where the bodies of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan are repatriated. (I put “anti-war” in quote marks quite deliberately: Islam4UK are not “anti-war”; they are pro-war, just on the other side.)

This is trolling. It is nothing more than a calculated attempt to upset people. As Wootton Bassett’s MP James Gray has pointed out, if they have a grievance with government foreign policy, they should protest outside parliament or Number 10, not in a Wiltshire village.

And yet… have we been here before?

Of course: provocative, insulting demonstrations — and the reactions to them, form landmarks for many people: two in particular spring to mind: the British Union of Fasicts’ attempt to march through (largely immigrant, Jewish) Whitechapel in 1936, which resulted in the Battle of Cable Street, and the attempted march by the National Socialist Party of America through Skokie, Illinois, a village with a large population of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their families.

Reactions to the outcomes of these proposed marches are mixed: most British people, for example, would approve of the violence used by Whitechapel residents to prevent the Blackshirts marching down their streets: meanwhile most liberals would approve of the American Civil Liberties Union’s decision to support the NSPA’s right to march through Skokie (a right that was established in law, but, in the end, never exercised).

While Islam4UK’s mooted march is not directly comparable to the marches of the other two, the aim is the same: not to gain support, or win an argument but to provoke and even appall. Classic trolling. But while one would support the right of an Internet moderator on a privately-run site to ban trolls, one would not nearly be so comfortable with Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s statement that he would have “no hesitation” in banning the “particularly offensive” proposed march through public streets.

Support for free expression includes support for the right to expression of “particularly offensive” sentiments (though not support for the sentiments themselves). It would follow then, that Choudary and his friends should be allowed to march through Wooton Bassett without hindrance. But does this mean the residents of Cable Street were wrong?

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.