Abu Qatada and the farcical fearmongers
If there is one thing worse than successive governments’ hyping up of hate preachers, it’s their inability to do much about them.
On Tuesday 17 April, UK home secretary Theresa May was proudly announcing that ‘the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda’, 51-year-old Abu Qatada, had been re-arrested ahead of his deportation to Jordan where he was to face trial on bomb-plot charges.
But there were some murmurings that May was a little ahead of herself. It was posed to her that Qatada’s defence team still had time, a good few hours in fact, to launch an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The court’s original judgement, that Qatada ought not to be deported on the basis that any Jordanian trial could use evidence extracted under torture, had been issued on 17 January, May’s questioners said. That meant the three-month period in which both sides were allowed to appeal was not due to elapse until midnight on Tuesday. But no, May said, ‘the government is clear that Abu Qatada has no right to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, since the three-month deadline to do so lapsed at midnight on Monday’.
Except of course, as we now know, the deadline hadn’t lapsed. While May was celebrating the deportation of Qatada, a feat that had defied countless other home secretaries over the past decade, Qatada’s lawyers were busy lodging an appeal with the ECHR. This appeal now means that Qatada will not be deported for the foreseeable future. And so, for the past few days, May has been doing an admirable impression of someone pretending that their egg-plastered visage remains a model of good face-washing practice.
This incredible cock-up is indicative of many things, from the near sublime ministerial incompetence at the Home Office to its accompaniment, staggering Whitehall complacency. But above all, The Farce of Abu Qatada captures something of a paradox – that alongside successive governments’ relentless fearmongering over mad mullahs, hate preachers and the like, both New Labour and now the Tory-led coalition have found themselves incapable of doing much about them. For if there is one thing more depressing than hyping up the likes of Qatada as a threat to civilisation, it is the political inability to make good on countering that threat.
Let’s not be any doubt, the fuss and fear over Qatada, and the countless other pantomime villains currently starring at a mosque near you, has almost entirely been stoked by the political and media class. Throughout the 2000s, figures like Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjem Choudary, who seemed to found minority-interest Islamist groups for the sole purpose of having them banned under New Labour’s anti-terror legislation, were consistently hyped up as clear and present dangers to the UK.
Most notable of all, of course, was Abu Hamza, whose role as the political class’s pantomime villain-in-chief was sealed by the fact that he had a bona fide hook for a hand. Such was the then New Labour government’s obsession with Hamza, a man whom the then home secretary David Blunkett described as ‘unfit to be a British citizen’, that in the words of one former New Labour minister, ‘I would go to meetings where Hamza was almost the only thing discussed, [even if he] wasn’t on the agenda’. And where the politicians went, pitchforks in hand, so the press followed, armed with ‘Evil Hook’ headlines and endlessly repeated, rarely proven quotes about so-and-so ‘organising al-Qaeda training camps’ or being ‘Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man’.
What was always noticeable about this fearsome retinue of ‘extremists’ was that they were never actually found guilty of doing anything. For all the political chatter about the existential threat they posed, the only charges that were ever brought against them were effectively speech crimes. That is, they might have praised 9/11 in front of their single-figure congregations or have been found to be in possession of some tedious multi-volume treatise such as ‘The Encyclopaedia of the Afghani Jihad’.
As yet another New Labour home secretary – this time John Reid – said of Choudary in 2006: ‘I am determined to act against those who, while not directly involved in committing acts of terrorism, provide support for and make statements that glorify, celebrate and exalt the atrocities of terrorist groups’. While presented as a declaration, this can just as easily be read as an admission that the crimes of Choudary and Co. amount to little more than, as Brendan O’Neill put it, ‘talking bollocks’.
Likewise, Qatada has always been as much a product of politicians’ anxious fantasies as their prompt. So while we’re told that he’s a ‘very dangerous terrorist’ by May, while the government is urged to ‘strain every sinew’ to have Qatada deported by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, as Luke Gittos pointed out on spiked in February he has not actually been found guilty of anything. In fact, since he was first detained without charge in 2002 under the anti-terrorist Crime and Security Act 2001, he has effectively served a nine-year prison sentence.
But while the illiberal effects of this politically-driven obsession with so-called hate preachers are objectionable, just as dangerous is the political impotence that has accompanied it. And it is this that is writ large in the government’s sheer inability, when it comes to Qatada, to execute its will. The principal obstacle is of course the European Court of Human Rights, which, ever since the Human Rights Act of 1998, has had the power to override national legislation and legal decisions. So at every stage that the government has tried to deport Qatada, the ECHR has ruled that it cannot do so on the basis that the legal process in Jordan will violate Qatada’s human rights.
The problem with the ECHR’s intervention, however, is not simply that it violates a notion of national sovereignty, subjecting state power to the constitutionally higher power of the European court. It is that in doing so, it damages our political ability to hold the British state to account. So in the case of Qatada, instead of an organised political opposition mounted against the state’s draconian treatment of individuals for little more than spouting nonsense about 9/11 and global jihad, we have a battle being fought out on entirely legal terrain.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attitude of campaign group Liberty, whose head Shami Chakrabarti foolishly praised May on Tuesday: ‘Credit must go where it is due and it is due to the home secretary today. We don’t always agree on the application of human rights but she seems to understand that if the government does not respect the rule of law, why should anyone else?’ It seems that under the dead hand of the ECHR, even liberty is not a question of politics now, but of law.
The effect is clear. State power is not being fought with democratic power – it is being fought with the supra-state power of those unaccountable unknowns over in Strasbourg. This is nothing less than the triumph of lawyerism over politics, a belief that all conflicts, all problems, are best sorted out by lawyers. And to hell (or Jordan) with the people.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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