Terry Jones and the limits of tolerance

The government has banned Terry Jones from entering the UK. Jones is the fundamentalist US pastor who threatened to burn a copy of the Koran outside his Florida church on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Before he found fame through “International burn a Koran Day” his Dove World Outreach Centre had just 50 members. Jones is certainly a racist and homophobic Islamophobe — his website sells T-shirts, cups and baseball hats carrying the slogan “Islam is of the devil” — but he is not just anti-Muslim, he is an equal opportunities bigot who also believes Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism are the devil’s work.

It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that the decision to ban Jones comes on the same day as Baroness Warsi’s speech claiming that anti-Muslim bias is now the social norm and calling for tolerance. But the government cannot have it both ways: banning a pastor for extremist views and “unnacceptable behaviour” (to use the Home Office’s phrase) is not the action of a tolerant society.

The government claims that “[T]he use of exclusion powers is very serious and no decision is taken lightly or as a method of stopping open debate”, but it has a worryingly broad basis for denying entry to the country that clearly limits freedom of expression.

Jones was originally due to come to the UK to speak at an English Defence League (EDL) rally in March before he was “disinvited” for being homophonic and racist. Prior to his EDL rejection a smaller group called England Is Ours had invited him to speak to its members.

The England Is Ours website provide links to links to the BNP, the National Front and StormFront. When I spoke to England Is Ours secretary Barry Taylor he said he has “no idea” if Jones is racist but he thought not because Jones has an “Egyptian chap as a pastor and some African–American chaps”. Taylor happily admitted Jones is anti-gay “but that’s a Christian thing.” Jones’s itinerary with the group –– a loosely organised collective of some 30 individuals –– involved two meetings “debating political issues” and an outdoor church service, not exactly the birth of a new political movement.

Surely, a pastor from Nowheresville representing just 50 people invited to speak to an organisation with only 30 members should not be the kind of “threat” that keeps the Home Office up at night as a threat to “community harmony”? The government should think twice before turning cranks into free speech martyrs.

Terry Jones in action below. More on exclusion orders herehere, and here