Protecting little Brits from the bogeyman
Home secretary Theresa May’s decision to ban a radical preacher from Britain is an insult to us all.
The Lib-Con coalition has raised the spirits of some British civil rights campaigners who have praised the new government for scrapping New Labour’s ID-card scheme, amending the DNA database model, and ensuring that migrant children will no longer be held in detention. Yet last week’s news headlines declaring that an Indian Muslim preacher would be barred from the UK brought about a strong sense of déjà vu from the not-so-distant New Labour past.
Conservative home secretary Theresa May, using exclusion powers for the first time since taking up her post, has decided to disallow Mumbai-based televangelist Dr Zakir Naik from giving a series of lectures in the UK this weekend. May is very much following in the footsteps of former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith, who barred from Britain hundreds of people deemed not ‘conducive to the public good’, many of them Muslim so-called ‘preachers of hate’.
For Smith, coming to Britain was a ‘privilege’ which should not be extended to individuals ‘who abuse our standards and values to undermine our way of life’. Echoing her predecessor, May defended her decision to bar Naik by arguing that, ‘Coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right and I am not willing to allow those who might not be conducive to the public good to enter the UK.’
In October 2008, Smith announced that the then New Labour government would ‘take stronger action against those we suspect of stirring up tension’, by barring them from Britain and ‘naming and shaming’ those who ‘encourage violence or hatred in support of their ideology’. At that point, the New Labour government had already prevented an assortment of personas non grata from entering the country, including Muslim preachers, animal rights protesters, anti-abortion activists, neo-Nazis, an Israeli politician, hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg, and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart. What bound these disparate individuals together was that their opinions and behaviours were regarded as unacceptable and incompatible with British values.
This logic is now being applied by the Lib-Con coalition. May argues that Naik has made numerous comments in public lectures that are evidence of his ‘unacceptable behaviour’. Certainly some of his soundbites, as quoted in the press in the past few days, are pretty wacky and repugnant. He has allegedly said that Muslims who change their religion should face the death penalty, that George W Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks, and that every Muslim should be a terrorist like Osama Bin Laden because he is attacking ‘American terrorists’.
But if May is really serious about standing up for the values of a civilised society, then she should be defending people’s right to say, think, believe and listen to anything they want. No matter how much Naik and his ilk ‘glorify terrorism’, they, like the rest of us, should only be punished if they commit unlawful acts and not because they have ‘unacceptable’ thoughts and opinions. It is not for the government to decide what we, the public, have the right to say or hear.
The only way to contest unpleasant views is by letting them be aired and challenged out in the open – and watching some of his lectures on YouTube, it is clear that Naik’s views and conspiracy theories could be easily contested. Instead, by banning him from Britain, the Lib-Con government is sending a signal that Naik’s words are so forceful, so powerful, that his voice should be completely blocked out. In this way they actually reinforce the idea that there might be some truth to Naik’s theories.
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Just like the New Labour government before them, the Lib-Cons, when faced with the conspiratorial rants of some extremist Muslims, seem to be dumbfounded, nervous and insecure. Rather than allowing debates and the open exchange of ideas, our leaders feel it is easier simply to ban extremist views, literally to stop them at the border.
Of course, the Conservative Party has a reputation to live up to. As David Leppard, pointed out in the Sunday Times at the end of last month, in opposition, Conservative leader David Cameron campaigned to get the Egyptian radical, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, banned from Britain, and several senior Tories criticised the Labour government for allowing radical preachers into the country.
Leppard said that Cameron and May faced a ‘political test’ over Naik. Indeed, soon after Leppard’s article appeared, the Home Office decided to cancel Naik’s speaking tour. The decision does not appear to be based on any evidence that Naik could spark a round of suicide bombings, cause race riots or encourage a mass enrolment of British Muslims into Taliban training camps. According to Inayat Bunglawala, chair of Muslims4UK, Naik has delivered lectures in the UK several times before and they have always passed by without incident.
May’s decision to premiere the Lib-Cons’ use of exclusion powers by barring Naik is simply intended to dispel any doubts that the current government won’t be tough on bearded wacky Muslims who refuse to denounce the Taliban. Even those of us who are not particularly worried about not being able to see Naik speak live should be concerned about the Lib-Con’s New Labour-like, cavalier attitude towards freedom of expression. After all, anyone interested in affecting social change, challenging the government or having open debates could be accused of ‘stirring up tensions’ and could therefore conceivably be excluded from coming to Britain or speaking in public.
By barring Naik, May is sending a message that, under the current government, only non-controversial people who fit in with some Lib-Con idea of what it means to be ‘good’ are welcome in Britain. But ultimately, it is impossible to ban words, thoughts and opinions out of existence. However, as May and Smith before her have demonstrated, it is possible for governments from across the political spectrum to take it upon themselves to decide for the British people what they can or cannot say and listen to. So much for the Lib-Cons’ heralded repeal of New Labour’s assault on liberty.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.