Corbyn is right – expressing support for ISIS should not be a crime

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is once again being criticised for something he said several years ago. He’s been labelled a terrorist sympathiser for a comment he made during a 2014 parliamentary debate on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.

In a discussion about what to do with individuals returning from Syria, Corbyn said the government should ‘avoid the kneejerk reaction of saying, “These are bad fighters and those are good fighters, so we will ban these and allow those in”’. He was drawing attention to the complexity of the Syrian Civil War. ‘Do they then have to prove which particular force they joined in Syria’s three-way civil war?’, he asked.

But Corbyn’s main point, which many of his critics are now delighting in dragging up, was that political viewpoints, including the expression of support for ISIS, should not be criminalised. ‘Expressing a political point of view is not in itself an offence’, he said. ‘Expressing a point of view, even an unpalatable one, is sometimes quite important in a democracy.’

This is perhaps one of the most progressive things he has ever said. And he’s right: as condemnable and outright evil ISIS is, simply expressing support for it should not be a crime. To police someone’s political or personal viewpoint is to make thoughtcrime a reality. Once an individual is proven to be plotting a terrorist act, they should be arrested. But Corbyn’s defence of liberty, the distinction he made between political opinion and violent intent, was spot on.

It’s just a shame that he is so inconsistent on this issue. In 2012, when Ken Livingstone refused to share a platform with a BNP member on the BBC, Corbyn said: ‘Well done Ken Livingstone for refusing to share platform with the BNP. There is no place for racism in democratic debate.’ So Corbyn is in favour of free speech for ISIS supporters but not the BNP.

When political tensions are high, we must be careful not to implement kneejerk measures that infringe on speech. A big part of the problem that the UK and other European countries now face is an unwillingness to engage with the ideas that fuel religious extremism. Simply banning people from expressing support for ISIS will only aggravate the narrative spun by extremists – that they are subversive and that liberalism is a sham.

Free speech is the bedrock of a free and open society. Politicians need to be brave and stick up for civil liberties following terrorist attacks. The only way we will defeat Islamist extremism is through an open, honest and free debate.

Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked. Follow her on Twitter: @Ella_M_Whelan

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