Sending them Bak will solve nothing
What's driving the UK government's war against loudmouth mullahs?
As Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the loudmouth ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’, slips back to Lebanon to avoid treason charges, you get the feeling that Britain’s war on terror has entered its own silly season.
Last Friday, prime minister Tony Blair unveiled a raft of measures to crack down on Bakri and other radical preachers – to close down their groups, deport them, or even put them in the dock for treason. By pursuing the mullahs, Blair is dodging the question of why some young British Muslims find their rants attractive. These new measures won’t do anything to stem extremism, but they could make Britain an even more stifling and anodyne place, with a moratorium on speech deemed ‘unacceptable’.
A loose translation of Blair’s proposals might be ‘we’ll deport you if you say anything we don’t like’. New grounds for deportation will apparently include: ‘fostering hatred, advocating violence to further a person’s beliefs or justifying or validating such violence.’ Never mind the mindless rants of Bakri and his ilk – this list would cover most political activists over the past 150 years, Marx and Mandela included. Home secretary Charles Clarke appropriately labelled this catchall bracket ‘unacceptable behaviour’, which covers writing, preaching or public speaking inside or outside Britain, or on the internet.
This is in the same spirit as the proposed law against ‘indirect incitement’ to commit terrorism. As lawyers have noted, these proposals would be a legal minefield. Bakri isn’t saying to anybody, ‘here’s some money, here’s a gun, go do it’ – in general, he talks in vague terms about not liking Jews, or fighting for Islam. To catch him, the net has to be cast very wide indeed. These proposals will also have a censorious effect on British public life – undermining our freedom to hear and take on strong arguments, however distasteful Clarke and Blair might find them.
The idea of trying radical clerics for treason, meanwhile, is a desperate grasping for a trump card. It’s supposed to give the impression that the whole country is united behind Blair against Bakri, and that these preachers pose grievous threats to our united national interest. This is a fantasy. Treason was used in wartime situations: against Sir Roger Casement for helping to form the Irish National Volunteers and taking part in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin; against Nazi sympathisers and collaborators during World War Two; and in the 1980s against individuals who spied for the Soviets.
The evidence that will be examined by the Crown Prosecution Service over the next few days is more like media discourse analysis. It reportedly includes a Newsnight report in which one of Bakri’s allies, Abu Izzadeen, said that ‘Mujahideen activity’ would make people ‘wake up and smell the coffee’; and another, Abu Uzair, said that ‘the banner has been raised for jihad inside the UK’. Then there is an undercover report by The Sunday Times, which includes Bakri saying that the freak Birmingham tornado was retribution for the arrest of one of the bomb suspects (‘It was so close to the area of arrest’), and that he had been ‘very happy’ since the 7 July attacks (1). These comments may be objectionable, and wrong, but they hardly amount to some Guy Fawkes plot.
Blair’s was a blind reaction, not a wartime strategy. These latest measures seem, in part, a response to last week’s Newsnight reports; the primetime spoutings of Abu Uzair and Abu Izzadeen were splashed across the next day’s papers. One senior minister captured the sentiment in government: ‘Why the hell can’t we do something about these people?’ (2) Just get them out of here, is the instinct. If we stop them saying all these nasty things, the problem will go away. The former Home Office minister John Denham correctly diagnosed that ‘the government has got into a real state of nerves about the whole thing’. He advised that ‘they’ve got to get a grip on it very, very quickly, stop floating half-baked ideas’ (3).
By stamping these mullahs as enemies of the state, the government gives them more weight than they are due. These guys are media pin-ups rather than hardened terrorists; they live on the dole in Tottenham and send out fiery faxes, rather than blow themselves up on the Tube or in Iraq. If the government is inventing new offences, perhaps the media could be guilty of ‘inciting extremists to say something extreme’. After the London bombs Bakri went to ground – but he was hunted out by the London Evening Standard, which shoved a microphone under his nose and plastered his response across the front page. It’s the oxygen of publicity and the shock-horror reaction that gives these people their profile.
Bakri does have an influence among a few followers. He isn’t corralling and brainwashing them, though; they come to him looking for instruction. Indeed, Maureen Cofflard, a French journalist who wrote a book about Bakri, L’Emir, says that ‘some of his followers are more extreme than him. Some people quit his group, saying he was “too soft”’’. It’s a copout for Blair to pin terrorism on foreign imports: the 7 July bombers were all British, born and bred. The real question isn’t why Bakri talks, but why others listen. Attacking radical preachers is a way of avoiding facing up to problems within mainstream British society.
In fact, Bakri’s views aren’t a world away from many in the liberal elite. He said that the British people were to blame for the bombs, because they had voted Blair back in, after his war on Iraq. But this is only a step on from the issue of the New Statesman that labelled the attacks ‘Blair’s bombs’. Faced by mutiny in his own ranks, Blair hopes that cries of ‘treason’ will get the troops into line. Judging by the dissenting reaction, though, this is unlikely. It’s simply not possible to pretend that Bakri et al are akin to Nazi collaborators, and that Britain is lined up behind Blair’s version of the national interest.
Banning extreme groups and exporting their leaders will just push the problem underground. When groups have been shut down in the past – as with Abu Hamza’s Supporters Of Shariah – they have tended to go elsewhere, into splinter organisations. If Blair bans groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which claims to support non-violent political struggle, he could find that followers go on to wilder things.
On Friday, Blair said that those who came here would have to ‘play by our rules and our way of life’, rather than ‘threatening our people and our way of life’. But what is our ‘way of life’? By his accounts, it seems to be a country where anybody who says something ‘unacceptable’ has to be packed off overseas. Rather than sorting out our disagreements face to face, we push them under the carpet. I for one don’t want to be part of any such Britain.
spiked-issue: London bombs
Defend free speech – now more than ever, by Mick Hume
(1) Undercover in the academy of hatred, Sunday Times, 7 August 2005
(2) Labour MPs turn on Blair’s 12-point proposal, 9 August 2005
(3) Labour MPs turn on Blair’s 12-point proposal, 9 August 2005
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