Putting a forcefield around Britain

Jacqui Smith’s plan to keep out of Britain anyone who is not ‘conducive to the public good’ is both illiberal and impractical.

What do hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg, Muslim cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, US animal rights activist Dr Jerry Vlasak, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Israeli Likud party member Moshe Feiglin have in common?

All have been denied entry into the UK.

Since 2005, a total of 230 people have been prevented from entering Britain after their presence was deemed not ‘conducive to the public good’. About 80 of them were so-called Muslim ‘preachers of hate’, but they also include animal rights protesters, anti-abortion activists and neo-Nazis.

Now, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced that the government will ‘take stronger action against those we suspect of stirring up tension’ by barring from Britain, and – a New Labour favourite – ‘naming and shaming’, those who ‘encourage violence or hatred in support of their ideology’.

The burden of proof will be on those individuals suspected of holding ‘unacceptable views’. They will need to demonstrate that they are not going to cause any trouble while in Britain. Individuals who once had extremist views, but now claim to have disavowed them, will have to retract them publicly and convince the authorities that they have repented.

Muslim clerics who preach about the virtue of massacring infidels, neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust, animal rights activists who demonise medical researchers, and anti-abortion campaigners who elevate ‘the rights of the unborn’ over women’s rights are not on spiked‘s list of favourite people. In fact, we have attacked and campaigned against such views many times. But though their opinions are despicable and backward, they should not, as the government implies, be ‘beyond the pale’ and forcibly excluded from Britain.

In a civilised society, people should have the right to say, think and believe anything. They should be held accountable for their actions, not for their words, opinions or thoughts. It is not for the government to decide what we, the public, have the right to say or hear. No matter how unpleasant, views should be aired – and contested – out in the open.

Smith said that the ‘privilege of coming to Britain’ should not be extended to individuals ‘who abuse our standards and values to undermine our way of life’. So apparently ‘British values’ include compromising freedom, and the ‘British way of life’ only includes saying and doing what is acceptable according to government decree.

Most of us would not be included on Smith’s list of personas non grata, which reflects the government’s current preoccupations, especially its obsession with radical Muslims. But Smith’s proposals represent a dangerously cavalier attitude to everyone’s freedoms. After all, to ‘stir up tension’ is the prerogative of any political campaign which aims to change society, to challenge injustice or to protest against government policy.

In the name of protecting the public from those who ‘spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities’, the authorities are not just crossing the line between criminalising deeds and words; they are also pitting individuals and communities against each other. When Moshe Feiglin was refused entry by Jacqui Smith in relation to ‘unacceptable behaviour’ on a visit to Britain in 2005, the decision was justified on the basis that Feiglin’s presence might lead to inter-community violence because of his strident views.

Likewise, in 2004, then Home Secretary David Blunkett said that a visit from Louis Farrakhan, who had allegedly described Jews as bloodsuckers and Hitler as a great man, would threaten public order.

With politicians taking increasingly illiberal measures in the name of protecting Muslims from Jews, Jews from Muslims and various other communities from hearing anything they might deem offensive, perhaps Smith and her colleagues should also be reprimanded for ‘stirring up tension’ amongst Brits.

Opposition party officials claim that the Home Office’s new rules are little more than a PR move because, after all, they won’t stop undesirable individuals from spreading their views on the internet. So some suggest that the government should be shutting down websites instead. Others argue that the government’s resources would be better spent on tackling extremism in our midst. Rather than focusing on stopping extremists from entering Britain, the government should seek out and deport the extremists are already here.

It is true that Smith’s proposal is in large part a moral posture, a way of sending a message that the government is tough on ‘hate crimes’. It is also true that the measures are impractical. No matter how long the Most Wanted list gets, the government cannot ensure that the messages of ‘bad people’ will not be spread in the UK.

But, more importantly, the real message the authorities are sending here is that politicians are unable to win British people over; that they have given up any hope of imparting meaningful values to those they see as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘impressionable’. Faced with the rants of ‘hate preachers’, our political leaders feel powerless and dumbfounded. Unable to demonstrate that there are more inspiring things to do with your life than to end it with a bomb strapped around your waste, politicians feel it is easier simply to ban extremist views out of existence, literally to stop them from crossing the British borders.

However, disgruntlement amongst some British Muslims is not caused by some ‘alien elements’. Those responsible for the 7/7 and 21/7 bombings did not live apart from society. They were educated in British state schools, participated in public life and had very mainstream interests, such as working out, playing cricket and going on anti-war marches. To say that these youths were simply ‘brainwashed’ by foreigners is to look for external explanations for internal problems. Instead of asking tough questions about their own failure to socialise certain minorities, and about what the existence of homegrown terrorism says about life in Britain and the West today, Smith and the rest prefer easy explanations and finger-pointing at cranky foreigners.

It is not easy to pinpoint the reason why the British suicide bombers decided to carry out their atrocities. What’s certain, though, is that it takes more than a few sick websites and rants by radical preachers to lead someone to go through with such an extreme act.

Rather than address serious political problems at home, the government is now desperately trying to outlaw anything from overseas that push the boundaries of legitimate political discussion. Even those of us who are not particularly worried about the individual freedom of Muslim extremists or Holocaust deniers should be concerned by this move to ban out of existence any words, thoughts or opinions that do not have the government’s official seal of approval.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked. She is speaking in the session Immigration: the more the scarier? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Previously on spiked Brendan O’Neill wondered whether Abu Izzadeen was guilty of the crime of talking bollocks. Amir Butler suggested Britain avoid the Australian error of trying to legislate against hate. Josie Appleton thought deporting clerics would solve nothing. Rob Lyons asked Who’s afraid of Snoop Dogg?. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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