It’s official: it is now a crime to be arrogant
The imprisonment of Abu Izzadeen for the ‘criminal offence’ of Talking Bollocks In A Mosque represents a grave assault on free speech.
Like me, you probably don’t care very much about what happens to Abu Izzadeen, the Radical Cleric Formerly Known as Trevor. He’s the ranting mullah best known for heckling former home secretary John Reid in 2006, who was born plain old Trevor Brooks in Hackney, London, and who worked as a BT technician until he decided to convert to Islam and spend his adult life making finger-wagging speeches about evil Jews, British kaffirs, and how ‘magnificent’ 9/11 was. For all I care, Trev can go to hell. In fact, maybe he should make real his promise to become a suicide bomber and ‘be blown into pieces, with my hands in one place and my feet in another’ (1). That sounds like a fitting end for this fancy-dress ‘terrorist’… just so long as he does it far, far away from other human beings.
However, you should care – a lot – about the implications of the arrest, trial and imprisonment of Izzadeen on charges of ‘inciting terrorism’ and ‘fundraising for terrorists’. On Friday, Izzadeen was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison at Kingston-upon-Thames Crown Court, after being found guilty of these terrorist offences; five of his cronies received sentences of between two and four years. Reading the coverage of Izzadeen’s trial over the weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking that he had literally shaken a tin to collect cash for terrorist groups, and then posted the contents to training camps in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, his only ‘crimes’ were crimes of thought and speech – he has been jailed for what he said, and even for how he said it, rather than for anything that he did. His imprisonment represents a new low blow to freedom of speech in Britain.
Abu Izzadeen, formerly known as
Trevor Brooks, was sentenced to
four-and-a-half years in jail.
There was a time when ‘inciting terrorism’ would have meant convincing and cajoling an individual or a group of individuals to commit a terrorist atrocity. And there was a time when ‘fundraising for terrorists’ would have meant, well, raising funds for terrorists: that is, collecting money and handing it over to a terrorist group for the purposes of buying weaponry, semtex, flying lessons or some other item or thing likely to be useful in the commission or execution of an act of terrorism. Not any more. In the trial of Izzadeen and his accomplices, there was not a jot of evidence that anyone had been incited to terrorism by their words, or indeed that their words had been intended as a direct form of incitement, or that Izzadeen, his mates or anyone else who listened to their cranky sermons had sent money to terrorist training camps in Iraq. No, Izzadeen was found guilty and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on the basis of a rambling, incoherent 11-hour ‘protest sermon’ he gave at Regents Park Mosque in November 2004. During the sermon, Izzadeen, who was surrounded by a tiny group of like-minded losers, slated the actions of the American and British armies in Iraq and praised 9/11.
At one point, he also said the following: ‘Fight the [enemy] with your wealth. Jihad with money, jihad with money. The jihad is to give money for weapons, for tanks, for RPGs, for M16s.’ (2) Nasty words, no doubt. But no evidence was presented at Izzadeen’s trial to show that those three sentences, delivered during an 11-hour dirge, were part of a broader fundraising campaign, or that anyone sent money to Iraqi insurgents upon hearing Izzadeen’s comments. And yet Izzadeen and others were found guilty of ‘fundraising for terrorists’ as surely as if they had been caught red-handed with dollars destined for the coffers of al-Qaeda. Likewise, no evidence was presented to show that Izzadeen’s words incited anyone to go to Iraq and blow up some Brits or Yanks; instead it has been argued that his comments ‘contributed to an atmosphere’ in which some Muslims consider killing to be a religious duty (3). Contributed to an atmosphere? When it comes to ‘indirect incitement’, that is about as indirect as it gets.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Izzadeen’s real offence was to Talk Bollocks In A Mosque – and whatever you might think of his vile ideas and gruff manner, Talking Bollocks In A Mosque should not be a crime, certainly not one punishable by four years’ imprisonment. Izzadeen has effectively been found guilty, not of being a terrorist, but of being a fantasist – of dressing up and adopting the demeanour of a bin Laden-style motormouth mullah who thinks it is big and clever to sing the praises of violent jihad. There’s no denying that Izzadeen had a point when he said during his trial that he and his accomplices had used ‘no other weapon than our tongue’ – and so long as you are using your tongue to speak, rather than, say, to poke someone’s eye out, then its use should never be a crime (4).
Does the sending down of Izzadeen show that the authorities are using the trials of ugly, unpopular, unctuous Muslim clerics – with whom nobody could possibly sympathise – to experiment with new restrictions on free speech? Certainly, there are good reasons why all of us should be deeply concerned about the precedents set by the imprisonment of this jester-jihadist.
First, the case shows how flabby the category of incitement has become today. Traditionally, in the eyes of the law, incitement involved a close relationship between two parties, where one encouraged, implored or cajoled the other into doing something criminal. Now it seems we can be incited by overhearing the words of a preacher in a mosque, or by watching a DVD of one of his sermons (5). This further erodes the distinction between thought and action, giving rise to the dangerous idea that speech itself is a potentially lethal act, which can easily and unwittingly provoke violence, or the funding of violence, or ‘create an atmosphere’ in which killing becomes more common. Indeed, in Izzadeen’s trial, speech and terrorism were treated as one and the same: his words were described as ‘terrorist fundraising’ and as ‘incitement to terrorism’. In short, words themselves are a form of terror.
The promiscuous redefinition of incitement is bad news for all of us. If the words spoken in a mosque, on a street corner or at a public rally are redefined as violent things in themselves, then that opens up thought and speech to the closer scrutiny and policing of the authorities. Moreover, the new view of incitement calls into question the existence of free will itself. Where the old legal definition of incitement viewed individuals as rational and reasonable, and in need of intense coaxing before they could be said to have been incited, in the current definition of incitement individuals are seen as vulnerable, unthinking automatons who can be provoked into violence upon overhearing a few sentences spoken by a robe-wearing loudmouth. In imprisoning Izzadeen, the authorities are sending a loud and clear message, not only to radical clerics, but to the rest of us too: ‘We’re putting him away to protect your naive, reactive minds from his poisonous terror-words.’
Second, Izzadeen’s trial shows how a nervous British elite is using new anti-terror legislation to shield itself from what it sees as political attack and criticism. Bethan David, the Crown Prosecution Service’s counterterrorism lawyer, insisted that Izzadeen’s imprisonment was not about making it an ‘an offence to have negative views about Britain and its values and culture’; rather it simply showed that it is an offence to ‘encourage acts of violence’ (6). The lawyer doth protest too much. In making it a crime to ‘glorify terrorism’, and in defining certain words and expressions as terrorist acts, the British authorities’ new anti-terror legislation is deeply and politically censorious. When the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer was asked in 2005 to define what kind of speech would be outlawed by new anti-terror laws, he said that people ‘attacking the values of the West’ could be imprisoned for ‘long periods’ of time (7). It seems contemporary British society is so fragile that it is scared of words; it is so uncertain about what its own core ‘values and culture’ are that it desperately erects a forcefield of censorship around them in the hope that no one will knock them down.
Third, Izzadeen’s trial shows how keen the authorities are to police our emotions as well as what we say and what we do. In his summing up, the judge attacked Izzadeen for being ‘arrogant [and] contemptuous’. To one of the other defendants, the judge said: ‘You are someone with extremist and dangerous views. Not only the words themselves, but the tone in which they were issued, showed the depth of your fanatical zeal.’ So is it now a crime to be arrogant? Is it an offence not only to say certain words but also to say them in a particular tone? Perhaps all of us should watch what we say and how we say it, lest our tone upset one of the law lords. Izzadeen and his cronies were not only found guilty of speech crimes and Thoughtcrimes – they were also sent down for Tonecrimes, for putting the wrong kind of emotion into the words that they dared to speak in public.
The irony of all this is that if anyone provided the odious Izzadeen with a public platform it was Britain’s own political and media elite. This buffoon with a miniscule number of followers was invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and BBC TV’s Newsnight to comment on 7/7, the war in Iraq and the outlook of British Muslims. Following his heckling of John Reid in an east London mosque in 2006, he was transformed into a media and political bogeyman. His ‘threat’ was discussed at high-level government and police meetings. The DVDs showing him ‘inciting terrorism’ in Regents Park Mosque in November 2004 were discovered during a police raid in 2006 and then made public, later becoming the basis for the trial. Prior to that, Izzadeen would have been lucky if three men and a goat had watched his recorded rantings; it was the police’s actions that brought the rants to wider public attention. Given that every report still refers to Izzadeen as ‘the cleric who heckled John Reid’, perhaps his true crime was to Embarrass New Labour In The Media.
Izzadeen’s trial was a showtrial; worse than that, it was a showtrial of a straw man. The authorities turned him into a panto villain in recent years, and then made a spectacle of throwing him off the stage while sections of the media whooped and cheered them on. And in the process, free speech, the distinction between thought and action, and free will itself have been further dragged through the dirt. The showtrial of Izzadeen has been more harmful to British democracy and freedom than the idiot Izzadeen could ever have hoped to be.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.
Brendan O’Neill said there was no foreign factor in the London bombings. He went to a rally for free speech, with the edges taken off. Josie Appleton didn’t think deporting Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed and other radical preachers would solve anything. She also believed the extremism taskforce would fail. Or read more at spiked issues London bombs and Free speech.
(1) An extraordinary lapse, Times Online, 21 September 2006
(2) Muslim extremist Abu Izzadeen faces prison over terror speeches, The Times, 18 April 2008
(3) Muslim extremist Abu Izzadeen faces prison over terror speeches, The Times, 18 April 2008
(4) Accused ‘not sorry’ for UK deaths, BBC News, 4 March 2008
(5) Muslim preacher Abu Izzadeen jailed for four and a half years, Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2008
(6) ‘Leading light’ in inciting terror jailed, Independent, 18 April 2008
(7) See Defend free speech now more than ever, by Mick Hume
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