This week the Law Faculty of the London School of Economics invited me to speak at a panel discussion looking at the question ‘How Free is Speech?’ – which sought to explore issues surrounding balancing rights of free speech against protecting from incitement to racism or violence.
The LSE opened themselves to potential criticism by inviting me, as someone who believes in an Islamic approach to speech – that obliges political criticism and intellectual inquiry but prohibits base insult and slander. So I am grateful to them for allowing me to share my thoughts, especially since I wanted to look at how ‘free speech’ arguments apply to concepts such as ‘extremism’ – and exposing the UK Counter-Extremism policy called ‘Prevent’ for an audience that may not be well-acquainted with its most sinister and pernicious aspects.
Over the past few months, I’ve been speaking in Muslim communities around the UK as well as addressing people in the world of health, education and law, about ‘Prevent’, trying to illustrate that it’s not about ‘terrorism’ and violence but about ideas and beliefs.
But for this audience I also wanted to show that the people who suffer most under these policies are ordinary Muslim men, women and children.
Some looked shocked by the examples I shared. The man who has not been allowed to adopt a child because he had done nothing more than share an article from Hizb ut-Tahrir’s website about the collapse of the prosecution of Moazzam Beg – a prosecution that we argued was politically motivated. The schoolboy reported because he had spoke out against Israel and for the people of Gaza. Another pupil referred to Channel – the panel that interrogates beliefs and views and then forwards for ‘reprogramming’ if they are deemed ‘extremist – because of his personal religious views about participating in music lessons. The father who, when interviewed by social services about a parenting concern, was asked about whether or not he celebrated Christmas as part of their risk assessment. In some European countries children are removed from their parents because of their conservative Islamic beliefs.
I mentioned that as part of its official guidance to parent Tower Hamlets council advises that in ‘some forms of radicalisation parents may feel their child’s behaviour seems to be improving: children may become quieter and more serious about their studies; they may dress more modestly and mix with a group of people that seem to be better behaved than previous friends.’ http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgnl/health_and_social_care/children_and_family_care/keeping_children_safe.aspx
There was incredulous laughter but then silence as people realised the implications this could have if applied to young Muslims in Tower Hamlets.
None of this will surprise anyone familiar with the approach Ofsted have taken with schools in areas where significant numbers of Muslims live, by downgrading them for accommodating certain faith-based practises.
All these policies built on a false premise – that the most Islamic a person is, the more of a risk they pose. This false theory creates a spectrum from ‘secular-liberal Muslims’ at one end of the spectrum to ‘ISIS’ at the other – grading Muslims from ‘moderate’ to ‘extreme’. ‘Deradicalisation’, I explained, is the process of de-Islamisation or ‘Westernising’ (secularising) Muslim communities, fuelling calls for a religious reformation and criminalising some aspects in practical terms.
Whilst there have been acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims within Europe – just as there are acts of violence perpetrated by non-Muslims – the statistics do not begin to justify such policies, which have no evidence to support them. The organisation ‘Europol’ published evidence earlier this year that said only 2% of terrorist violence in Europe could be attributed to religious motivation – of which so-called ‘Islamic terrorism’ is a subset. But very few people are aware of this. http://thinkprogress.org/world/2015/01/08/3609796/islamist-terrorism-europe/
According to the police chief responsible for ‘Prevent’, Sir Peter Fahy, the police have been in danger of becoming ‘thought police’ – and, having not been given any clear definitions of ‘extremism’, they had implemented their own definitions. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/05/peter-fahy-police-state-warning This role is now to be shared with teacher, doctors, university lecturers and even nursery workers. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nursery-staff-to-be-forced-to-report-toddlers-at-risk-of-becoming-terrorists-9956414.html
Consider the impact of this sinister policy. When the whole country can talk about topics such as Jihad, Shari’ah, Islamic state and the conflict in Syria, most Imams will not address such issues in any meaningful way for fear of being labelled ‘extremists’ – so leaving a vacuum within the Muslim community, in particular for its youth.
English law is supposed to rely on precise definitions and non-discriminatory application. With ‘Prevent’, as with much anti-terrorism law –vague definitions are applied in a politicised and discriminatory manner.
This is a new McCarthyism. ‘Pre-crime’ and ‘thought crime’ are now a norm for Muslims. One audience member quoted Orwell: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength“. I responded with a quotation to illustrate the double standard. Consider the notion, I asked, that ‘it is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invaders hearth”. Winston Churchill wrote these words in his ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples’ – but it is impossible to believe if a Muslim said this in the context of British troops in Afghanistan – with individual Afghans supporting the occupying force as interpreters – that he wouldn’t be labeled an ‘extremist’ and quite probably prosecuted under Britain’s anti-terror laws.
I concluded with the following thoughts. On one hand there are some policy makers and opinion formers are proving that secular-liberalism can be a supremacist as any other political or religious belief. For them, wars overseas and support for odious regimes are fair game. For them ‘Prevent’ is a part of Britain’s Blasphemy laws. Not blasphemy against Christianity but against the dominant norms of secular liberalism. ‘Extremist’ is the secular word for ‘heretic’, with Channel as their modern day inquisition: to interrogate then ‘reprogramme’ if necessary. Local councils, banks, Ofsted, the Charity commission are all to be arms of Britain’s thought police.
On the other hand, there are people like me – protective of their identity; eager to challenge Prevent’s attempts to de-Islamicise Muslims. I want to encourage Muslims to hold fast to their principles, values and beliefs and to express their political views with frankness.
But as any student of history or religion will know, in any such conflict between a mighty state and a principled few, it is rarely the state that wins.