Caliph Cameron is bringing ISIS-style illiberalism to Britain
Our rulers’ authoritarian response to ISIS is trashing freedom and tolerance.
We know from their Four Lions-style Twitterfeeds and video statements that some ISIS members dream of co-opting Britain into their unforgiving caliphate. They fantasise about raising their black flag over Downing Street and enforcing harsh sharia law on us, doing away with what they see as our foolish traditions of tolerance and democracy. But it turns out they don’t need to. They don’t have to traipse across Europe to London, for our leaders have proved themselves willing to trash tolerance and democracy on ISIS’s behalf. Giving new meaning to the word irony, in the name of tackling the threat posed by the Islamic State David Cameron and Co are adopting some of the methods of the Islamic State, undermining free speech, free movement and universal justice.
It speaks volumes about the UK government that the only solution it can come up with to the problem of young Brits going off to fight with ISIS is draconianism. PM David Cameron got the ball rolling in mid-August with his promise to use censorship to try to stem the flow of British Muslims to ISIS’s ranks. He announced that anyone spotted waving the ISIS flag in Britain will be arrested. Also, anyone who praises ISIS – that is, who ‘glorifies terrorism’, which is a crime in England and Wales under the authoritarian Terrorism Act of 2006 – faces arrest, too. He boasted that 28,000 ‘terrorist materials’, including 46 ISIS videos, have been unilaterally removed from the internet by police. Some of these ‘terrorist materials’ have nothing to do with recruiting people to ISIS or explaining how to make bombs or anything like that – they merely express a favourable view of ISIS and other groups; that is, they ‘glorify terrorism’, they express an opinion. Yet they’ve been banned. As Cameron unashamedly says, there are limits to British tolerance: ‘We are a tolerant people, but no tolerance should allow the room for this sort of poisonous extremism in our country.’ So supposedly tolerant Britain will not tolerate the expression of disturbing views.
Home secretary Theresa May followed hot on Cameron’s heels by proposing the punishment of speech crimes committed by radical Islamists. May wants to re-introduce ‘banning orders’ against those whose words and ideas currently ‘fall short of the legal threshold for terrorism proscription’ – that is, against people who do not recruit for terrorist organisations, and who don’t even glorify terrorism, but who merely express hotheaded Islamist ideas. If a targeted Islamist breaks his banning order and gives one of his speeches about kuffars, then he will face arrest and imprisonment. For speaking his mind. This is intolerance in action. It sets a very dangerous precedent. If we allow May to rewrite the law to ban certain extremists from preaching or speaking in public, what’s to stop her from targeting other extremists in the future? Political extremists, perhaps, or eco-extremists, or Millwall-loving extremists.
Meanwhile, Tory backbencher David Davis, once hilariously thought of as a libertarian, has suggested British citizens who travel to fight with ISIS should be stripped of their citizenship – that is, made stateless. Not to be outdone, Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson, who also once posed as liberal, has suggested trashing hundreds of years of universal justice in the name of tackling the problem of Brits hooking up with ISIS. Any Brit who travels to Syria or Iraq should, through a ‘swift and minor’ change to the law, be presumed guilty of terrorism until they can prove otherwise, he says. There would be nothing ‘minor’ about such a change to the law; it would represent the undermining of one of the key planks of any system of law that considers itself democratic – that we should all be presumed innocent until such a time as the state has proven beyond reasonable doubt that we are guilty of an offence. ISIS must be delighted as it watches Boris score a low blow against our pansy, kuffar laws.
So, our rulers’ plans for Doing Something about the problem of Brits going to fight with ISIS is to restrict freedom of thought and speech, rein in tolerance, and overhaul Enlightened law. That our leaders have so speedily suggested a mass ditching of the values of the Enlightenment cannot be explained by the problem of ISIS alone, or by the videoed beheading of the American journalist James Foley by a Brit. After all, there have been beheading videos before, including ones executed by Britons (most notoriously the beheading of the American journalist Daniel Pearl by Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a one-time student at the London School of Economics). Rather, it is our politicians’ already-existing discomfort with what they see as the dangerous nature of liberty that propelled them post-Foley to undermine freedom and tolerance even further. Clearly viewing unfettered freedom as a moral bad, as the potential corrupter of fragile minds, they have allowed their illiberal prejudices to come to the fore in the wake of ISIS’s rise.
They are doing ISIS’s dirty work for it. Indeed, it is striking how closely our leaders’ proposed clampdowns on liberty echo ISIS’s own allergy to freedom. In banning extremist ideas on the basis that they might warp young minds, Tory politicians express the same fear of words and lack of faith in individual free will as can be found in ISIS’s propaganda. In the latest issue of its magazine, ISIS talks about ‘polluted ideologies’ and calls into question ‘the notion that the people can choose’, particularly the notion that they can choose ‘whether to follow the truth or to embark on a falsehood’. This is a very similar censoriousness to Cameron’s, being driven by a conviction that ordinary people cannot distinguish truth from falsity, and thus must be protected from foul ideologies, because ‘every time choice is allowed it will result in misguidance’, as ISIS says.
Our elites’ transformation of ‘radicalisation’ into something that just happens to people, like brainwashing, echoes ISIS’s conviction that there is no such thing as free choice. Indeed, ISIS says it wants to ‘eradicate the principle of “free choice”’, believing that it allows people to be overcome by ‘shirk, misguidance or heresy’. Fundamentally, authoritarian ISIS is driven by a view of people as weak-willed and requiring protection from ‘polluted ideologies’. There is ‘widespread ignorance amongst the people’, its magazine says: people are ‘like camels’. This is a less PC version of what the Caliph Cameron is saying – that certain ideologies pollute people’s minds, and so we must limit people’s free choice because they are incapable of deciding ‘whether to follow the truth or to embark on a falsehood’ (ISIS’s words, not Cameron’s, though I know it can be hard to tell).
This is the terrible irony of the draconian response to the ISIS / British Muslim problem: it actually imports ISIS-style illiberalism into the UK. It creates a secular Caliphate-on-the-Thames. It does to Britain what ISIS has only dreamt of doing to us, rubbishing our freedom and tolerance in the name of holding back ‘polluting ideologies’.
There are two massive problems with the draconian response to the ISIS issue. The first is its denting of liberty, not only for Muslims but for us all, where the home secretary might soon be able to decide if we are ‘extremists’ and imprison us on that basis alone. And the second is that it dodges the only thing that might truly address the problem of Brits signing up for ISIS: the battle of ideas, the fight to win the hearts and minds of British youth through demonstrating what is good and virtuous about our society and why they should stay here rather than travel to the misanthropic pseudo-state set up by ISIS. The key problem is our failure to enthuse young Brits with a moral vision, not the magical allure of Them over there. Which is why the draconianism of Cameron and Co is the worst possible response. We should become more liberal and tolerant and freedom-loving in response to the ISIS problem, not less, precisely as a way of communicating to our youths what our values are and why they are so superior to the people-hating, illiberal project of the Islamic State.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.