Muslims in Britain are facing increasing difficulties in their support of the global Islamic movement, and threats to their human rights and civil liberties, after new ‘Anti-Terrorist’ legislation was rushed through Parliament in less that 48 hours early this month. The Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill formally received Royal Assent on September 4, after being published on September 1, approved by the House of Commons on September 2, and by the House of Lords on September 3. The law makes membership of proscribed organizations a criminal offence, and also makes it illegal to conspire in the UK to commit crimes abroad.
The ‘emergency’ legislation was prepared and passed in the aftermath of a nationalist bombing in Northern Ireland in August, in which 29 people were killed and which has shaken a peace agreement between the British government and Irish nationalists in April. However, this bombing was no more serious that dozens of others during the 30-year nationalist insurgency in Northern Ireland, during which such legislation has evidently not been deemed necessary.
There can be little doubt from the timing of its passing, immediately after the US bombings of Afghanistan and Sudan, that Muslims and the Islamic movement are the real target. Home secretary Jack Straw admitted as much in an article in the Independent newspaper on September 2, in which he wrote that:
‘There are also measures in the Bill designed to deal with people who attempt to use our shores as a safe haven when they conspire to commit terrorist and other serious offences abroad. We will not let the United Kingdom be used as a base for the organization of terrorism and other overseas crimes. Our tradition of tolerance is real and vital to our democracy... but there will be no hiding place here for those seeking to destroy those values, here or elsewhere.’
Commentators also pointed out that the Bill was a response to requests from the US that Britain act against Muslim groups in the UK, that Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia had made similar demands, and that ‘Arab dissident groups in London’ - ie the Islamic movement - are expected to be covered by the Bill.
The law has been criticised even by non-Muslims in Britain. Much of the political criticism focussed on its rushed passage through Parliament without any proper debate, thanks to the Labour government’s massive majority. Many MPs pointed out that there had not even been time for them to read the bill before being expected to vote on it. However, some human rights and other campaigners also highlighted its weaknesses and the dangers of miscarriage of justice. These protests have been largely ignored by the government, probably because this ‘flexibility’ is precisely the law’s attraction to them.
The key parts of the law affecting Muslims concern membership of proscribed organizations and conspiracy to commit offences abroad. No list of proscribed organizations has been published, but it will almost certainly include Islamic groups which the west accuses of terrorism, such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and other Palestinian groups. The law also permits courts to convict people of membership of these organizations on the word of senior police officers who are not obliged to present any evidence for their assertions. This is supposedly because the information on who to arrest will usually be provided to the police by the Intelligence services, who will not be willing to reveal their sources. However, it leaves the procedure wide open for malicious or political prosecutions.
The conspiracy laws are placed specifically under political control: all prosecutions will depend on the approval of the Attorney General, the government law officer. The activities of groups friendly to the west and hostile to anti-western governments such as Iran and Sudan will thus be protected by the British government, while Islamic groups and others perceived to be working against western interests will undoubtedly be targeted. The law also specifically exempts British intelligence agencies and their employees, who may conspire to do whatever they please without threat of prosecution.
The threat to Muslims’ civil liberties was highlighted in Britain by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and other groups. Massoud Shadjareh, Chairman of the IHRC, highlighted three areas of concern: the definition of terrorism, the definition of ‘support’ for terrorism, and the rules of evidence. He concluded that ‘it is indeed an anomaly that the government has resisted the introduction of legislation to combat religious discriminations because it feels that the terms cannot be adequately defined. Surely this is even more the case with the present bill.’
The Muslim Council of Britain, the Union of Muslim Organizations, the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, and numerous other community groups issued press releases and wrote to the papers objecting that Muslims should be singled out. However, their voices were ignored by the government and the media alike. Shadjareh points out also that ‘this is a sign of the weakness of the community... A few years ago, when Dr Kalim Siddiqui spoke for the Muslims here, the government would not have felt so comfortable taking such measures against the Muslim community.’
Dr Kalim Siddiqui always emphasized that Muslims in Britain had to play a full role in the Islamic movement and the global Ummah’s struggle for justice. This was a key plank of his thinking behind the establishment of the Muslim Parliament.
London is also a centre for Muslim groups working against the oppressive regimes in their own countries, usually with local support from the Muslim community here. But none of these groups is terrorist; most are concerned with political, public relations and intellectual work, which should be protected by the west’s supposed values of freedom of thought and speech. However, as with so much else in the west, these values are proving hollow indeed. Muslims in Britain can expect a hard time in the next few years if they insist on supporting international Muslim causes.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998