by Fahad Ansari (Features, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 9, Ramadan, 1426)
This month, the Islamic Human Rights Commission will publish a detailed critique of the British government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation, written by FAHAD ANSARI. Here we publish an extract focussing on the targeting of “extemism”.
“They demand the elimination of Israel; the withdrawal of all Westerners from Muslim countries, irrespective of the wishes of people and government; the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one caliphate of all Muslim nations.”-Tony Blair (16 July 2005)
In addition to the new proposals in the Bill, the government has also repeatedly expressed its desire to tackle “extremism”. To do this, it is prepared to ban non-violent political groups, shut down places of worship, introduce biometric ID cards, exclude certain individuals from entering the country, and deport foreign nationals to countries notorious for the use of torture and extrajudicial killings.
Tony Blair’s twelve-point plan seems to be as much to tackle “extremism” and “extremists” as to counter terrorism. The difficulty lies in the fact that such a term is relative, undefined and unrecognized under British law. However, in his speech at the Labour Party national conference on 16 July 2005, Blair outlined what he called the “barbaric ideas” of Muslim extremists who promote this “ideology of evil.”
Given their widespread currency within the mainstream media, it is important to carefully examine more closely these ideas being labelled as “extremist”.
The idea that Israel should be eliminated is portrayed as a violent and hate-filled desire, yet in practical effect this type of accusation has been used by pro-Israeli activists and advisors against anyone, including many Muslims who seek and / or struggle for the liberation of Palestine, many of whom advocate a one-state solution, be it as one secular Palestine, a bi-national Israeli state or indeed a theocratic state or some other form of religious state, including khilafah and religious democracy. The solution of the Palestinian problem is warranted by both human conscience and the dictates of international law, and is a passion shared by most Muslims. This in no way means the elimination of Jews or the Jewish people, yet increasingly this charge has been used by Zionist activists against all those who seek justice in the Middle East, from whichever background they hail. The one-state idea is shared not just by many Muslims but also by numerous academics, journalists and international lawyers from a variety of faith and non-faith backgrounds.
It is alarming that what was once the extremist rhetoric of the most extreme right-wing Zionist groups and advocates is now being espoused by the British Prime Minister. Labelling Muslims in this way not only demonises them further in the public psyche but condemns a legitimate and normative aspiration for liberation as unacceptable.
No Muslim group, not even al-Qa’ida itself, demands that all Westerners be removed from Muslim countries. What the majority of Muslims in Britain and across the world do demand is that all foreign occupying troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan and that American military bases in Saudi Arabia be removed. Such a demand is in line with international law. Mr Blair’s claims that such demands are made “irrespective of the wishes of the people and government” is particularly absurd as these very people are forced to live under authoritarian dictatorial regimes where freedom of political expression is denied.
Again the aspiration for shari’ah law, caliphate etc. is portrayed as ‘evil’, ‘violent’ and at odds with all things considered acceptable by ‘British’ or at least ‘Blairite’ standards. This ignores the fact that there are hugely varying and disparate notions of what these concepts are or might be that are held amongst Muslims, and it condemns all forms of aspiration under these banners. If nothing else and taken on face value the ‘demand and striving to establish Islamic law or shariah in the Arab world’ is a wholly legitimate aspiration of those who seek it, as is any other political project. Shari’ah, Islamic law, political Islam in its many guises and other forms of political theory and aspiration based on religious values are probably ideas that inform and are sought by the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world, and not of a radical fringe minority. Blair’s statement condemns them all as hate-filled and hateful, despite the fact that many support these ideas on the basis that they may bring better cohesion and harmony to diverse societies. Although elements of Islamic law may not be agreed upon by Western powers, if democracy is to have any meaning whatsoever, those who yearn for Islamic law in their countries should be entitled to work toward this.
Likewise, the desire to unite the Muslim nations under one Caliphate is also a legitimate aspiration of Muslims, and many have argued that Muslim nations have the right to form political unity in a similar fashion to how American states united to form the USA or how European nations united to create the EU. It may seem an idealistic concept, but to condemn the desire of Muslims to have one legitimately elected leader is similar to condemning the Pope’s position in the Catholic Church.
This attack on Shari’ah and the Caliphate was repeated in even stronger terms by the Home Secretary Charles Clarke in a speech made in Washington DC in October 2005. In his speech, Mr Clarke unequivocally stated that
“ …there can be no negotiation about the re-creation of the Caliphate; there can be no negotiation about the imposition of Sharia law.”
Such spiteful rhetoric by leading members of the government makes it clear that when they condemn extremism, in reality they condemn opposing oppression, criticising British and American foreign policy, and all forms of political Islam.
Already, the government has openly declared its desire to proscribe non-violent groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Although Hizb-ut-Tahrir has frequently disagreed with other members of the Muslim community on various issues, it is universally recognised as a non-violent organisation which has consistently condemned violence and terrorism.
What is of particular concern is the grounds for such proscription and whether these will constitute a pretext for future proscription in any new anti-terror bill. If Hizb-ut-Tahrir is being proscribed for speaking out against British foreign policy, then what of the 2 million British people who marched against the Iraq invasion? If Hizb-ut-Tahrir is to be proscribed for criticising despotic rulers throughout the Muslim world, then how will the government deal with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs who routinely condemn these regimes? If it is for calling for the uniting of Muslim lands under one Caliphate that Hizb-ut-Tahrir is being proscribed, then how will the government deal with all the other Muslims in Britain who share this belief? There is not one instance in British history of a non-violent group ever being proscribed. Even Sinn Féin, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, was never proscribed. To proscribe Hizb-ut-Tahrir is to follow the tradition of dictatorial regimes throughout the world which do not tolerate political dissent and proscribe non-violent organisations with alternative viewpoints.
There can be no justification for prosecuting Hizb-ut-Tahrir and not the British National Party, whose members have been accused of inciting and perpetrating violent racist acts. In a democracy, neither should be proscribed. Those of us who disagree with them should confront them politically. If their members break the law they should be dealt with by the criminal justice system.
Since the 7 July bombings there has been a UK-wide increase in faith related and racially motivated attacks and widespread violence against individuals, their homes and families, businesses and places of worship. The British National Party has been distributing leaflets with images from the London bombings and the question “isn’t it about time you started listening to the BNP?” They have been spurred on – “indirectly incited” perhaps – by a rightwing media intent on an “extremist” witch-hunt. The government is not doing enough to confront this form of extremism. On the contrary, some of its proposals pander directly to it.”
Mr Blair also mentioned a proposed new power to order the closure of places of worship that are “used as centres for fomenting extremism”. On 6 October 2005, the Home Secretary published a consultation document with this very proposal.
The proposed power would require those controlling a place of worship (the trustees or the registered owner of the property) “to take steps to stop certain extremist behaviour occurring” in that place of worship. The definition of “extremist behaviour” is what “the police reasonably believe amounts to support for a proscribed organisation under section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000, or encouragement of terrorism as proposed in the Terrorism Bill.” Should the controllers fail to take reasonable steps, they will be guilty of an offence. In addition, a further order may be given restricting the use of the place of worship, which could include temporary closure of parts or all of the premises.
It is quite obvious from the words of the document and from the Prime Minister’s own words that such a law is being designed to shut down only one specific place of worship – the mosque. Once again, it is to be assumed from the given definition of “extremist behaviour” above that any criticism of foreign policy or discussion of political Islam in a mosque could result in it being shut down. This removal of politics from the mosque will only result in such topics being forced underground.
“The talk of ‘closing extremist mosques’ suggests the government cannot differentiate between individual responsibility and blanket criminalisation. In a recent trial in which a number of defendants had an association with the Finsbury Park mosque, the prosecution itself emphasised that thousands of law-abiding persons worshipped at that mosque weekly. They did not and could not criminalise the mosque in its entirety.”
More worrying is the raising of the question of whether “place of worship” would extend to “temporary meeting rooms” and “faith schools” for the purposes of the proposals. For the government to suggest such a proposal is for it to criminalise Muslim children as potential “extremists” for their choice of schooling. Even during the period when Britain was being subjected to a relentless bombing campaign by the IRA, no similar proposal was raised to close churches or Irish pubs where such “extremism” was being discussed.
“The proposals to “secure Britain’s borders” have so far been limited to the creation of a database on international extremists to be refused entry (discussed above) but are likely to encompass a much wider agenda. The idea of a “border police” has been floated, though it must be said that joint operations of immigration and police officers increasingly resemble such a force.
The government has been careful not be drawn into debate about the unpopular ID cards bill, and both Blair and Clarke have been unequivocal in admitting that “all the surveillance in the world” could not have prevented the London bombings. Yet Mr. Clarke was in Brussels on the 13 July for a specially convened meeting of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council, proposing to his twenty-four counterparts that they all introduce a biometric ID card in response to the bombings. Predictably, the attacks were also used as a justification for the longstanding and long-opposed proposal to introduce the mandatory retention of all telecommunications data in the EU. Neither of these measures are necessary to combat terrorism or legitimate in a democratic society.”
A proposal suggested in recent months has been to hold special trials for terrorism cases, based upon the French system of juges d’instructions or examining magistrates. The idea is to have a security-cleared judge assemble a fair, answerable case, based on a full range of both sensitive and non-sensitive material. The case would then be tried in a conventional way by a different judge. This allows the suspects to be confronted with specific accusations and evidence without damaging intelligence sources and techniques.
This method was used to prosecute suspected Algerian terrorists in France during the early 1990s. The defence is given an opportunity to see and contest all the evidence which the examining magistrate collates and places on the file, including any sensitive intelligence material. The case which the examining magistrate presents to a court cannot be based even in part on sensitive intelligence material which the defence has not had an opportunity to contest. Lord Carlile offered his support to such a move, stating that “if the criminal law was amended to include a broadly drawn offence of acts preparatory to terrorism, all could be prosecuted for criminal offences and none would suffer executive detention.”
However, such a method utilises the offence of “associating with wrongdoer” in order to convict suspects violating the fundamental freedom of association. There already exists in the UKan abundance of criminal laws under which suspected terrorists could be prosecuted. The creation of new offences based on guilt by association will undermine even further civil liberties and fundamental human rights. Such a law would have the additional effect of causing divisions within the Muslim community, as Muslims would refrain from speaking to, meeting with or even shaking hands with other Muslims and would avoid mosques and Islamic events out of fear of being associated with a wrongdoer. The ultimate result of this would be a severing of the bonds Muslims have with one another both in the UK and abroad. Furthermore, a report by the International Federation for Human Rights into these prosecutions in France concluded that the French system violated the European Convention on Human Rights, adding that it had ‘inflicted grave, often irreparable damage on the victims’.
“To the Prime Minister’s interpretation of “extremism” can be added the Home Office’s list of “unacceptable behaviours” (which applies to “any non-UK citizen whether in the UK or abroad”): “writing, producing, publishing or distributing material”, “public speaking including preaching”, “running a website” or “using a position of responsibility such as a teacher, community or youth leader” to express views which the government considers:
- Foment terrorism or seek to provoke others to terrorist acts
- Justify or glorify terrorism
- Foment other serious criminal activity or seek to provoke others to criminal acts
- Foster hatred which may lead to intercommunity violence in the UK
- advocate violence in furtherance of political beliefs.
The Foreign Office is working on a database of foreign “extremists” and the Home Office on a “list” of “specific extremist websites, bookshops, centres, networks and particular organisations of concern” in the UK. It is entirely predictable that the resulting “clampdown” will be perceived as censorship of those who might criticise British foreign policy or call for political unity among Muslims. This is disingenuous to say the least, carrying the dual risk of “radicalisation” and driving the “extremists” further underground, to use the government terminology.”
“The Home Secretary has long enjoyed wide-ranging powers to exclude and deport people from Britain that he deems “not conducive to the public good” and, under a law drawn-up ingeniously to cover a single individual, can also strip British nationals of citizenship if they have a second nationality . . . The “problem” (as the government sees it), is Article 3 of the ECHR (as incorporated into the UK Human Rights Act) which prevents the government removing people to third countries in which they face a risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment (a proviso which has been upheld by the UK courts time and time again). The government’s solution is a series of “memoranda of understanding” (MoUs) with third countries that persons being returned there will not be mistreated. The first such “understanding” was reached with Jordan … though it is not at all clear from the text that the MoU even expressly prohibits the death penalty. “Not worth the paper it’s printed on” said Amnesty International. On 11 August the first ten “extremists” were seized pending deportation. These were the very same individuals who had been interned and then subject to control orders. A number have severe mental health problems as a result of their indefinite detention; one was seized from a psychiatric unit. Their families and lawyers were initially not told where they were taken to and the Home Office denied repeated requests for this information. Most of the men face expulsion to Algeria. The decision to rely on diplomatic assurances from a regime that the government knows on strong evidence makes use of torture undermines the universal international rejection of such “assurances”.”
The case of these men must be studied in detail in order to truly understand the breakneck speed with which civil liberties have been eroded in Britain.
UK 2005: Terror Again by Fahad Ansari.
Pp 100. ISBN: 1-903718-36-8.
This report can be downloaded in PDF format from http://www.ihrc.org.uk/show.php?id=1599. To order a hard copy, please send a cheque for (UK)£4 to IHRC, PO Box 598, Wembley, HA9 7XH, UK.