Leader of Islam4UK, Anjem Choudray (center) holds a news conference in London after Home Secretary Alan Johnson announced today that the Islamist group will be banned, January 12, 2010.
"Banning Islam4UK is Playing into Its Hands"
Op-Ed, The Scotsman
January 14, 2010
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
AS OF this week, it will be a criminal offence to be a member of Islam4UK. Anyone found to be a member, or who joins them on a rally, will be risking a ten-year prison sentence.
And on the face of it, why not? The law is clear: a group can be banned if it glorifies "the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism", and they clearly have.
On a personal level, Islam4UK offends me. Its perversion of Islam is all about hate; authentic Islam is all about tolerance. Its perversion of Islam is all about politics; authentic Islam is all about improving your own ethical behaviour.
Muslims have lived peacefully all around the world in many countries for centuries. Those who believe that Islam demands that Britain should be a sharia state are simply wrong. It does not. And saying so can only stir up Islamophobia.
As a Muslim, a Scot and someone who has had the honour of wearing the Queen's uniform as a paratrooper for seven years, I feel nothing but contempt for the members of this group.
All this is a reason to denounce them. But it does not mean that banning them is a good idea. Because to win that argument, you have to contend with something much more heavyweight: freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is not just a slogan. It embodies an important idea. The idea that you can be criminalised for your actions but not for your beliefs. That you should decide what to do with a due fear of the law, but you should be able to speak freely. That you should, in short, be master of what goes on inside your own head. When you threaten that, you are stepping over a line.
And there are other reasons why banning this ridiculous group should not be done in haste.
First, it plays into Islam4UK's hands. It turns out that they hadn't even applied for a licence for the protest at Wootton Bassett — the whole thing was a publicity stunt. If they wanted publicity for their opinions, this has given them more than they could have dreamed of getting from a million Wootton Bassett marches.
Why should you care about how much publicity they have? The answer is that in this age of instant mass communication and dissemination, the process of converting a lost young man into a radical, and a radical into a terrorist, is something which can happen while the kid is alone in his room.
If he just looks for it, he will find all the incitement he wants online, and the process need only take a few months. And if he just looks a little further, he will find all the instruction in terrorism too. All it takes is a Google search and a little bit of perseverance. And this is why giving free publicity to this ridiculous group is wrong.
Last week they were a nonentity. This week they are big news. And that will send scores of disaffected angry youngsters to search out information on the group, and the process of radicalisation will roll on, given an extra prod from Home Secretary Alan Johnson's ban.
The free publicity is also a disaster for Muslims, because it misrepresents us. This year's British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that more Britons feel standoffish towards us than positive towards us. But I suspect that most people with negative views aren't actually talking about real Muslims, they're talking about their idea of Muslims.
I suspect that if you asked most of them to describe a typical Muslim, their description would be of almost cartoon-like figures, such as the leader of Islam4UK, Anjem Choudary, who dress like clerics to promote their political views.
And that is not surprising, given how much the media focuses on extremists, and how little it focuses on typical Muslims — doctors, teachers, manual workers — going about their business in the normal way.
This is part of the reason why the coverage this ban gives this group is such a disaster. The media already gives these loonies so much attention compared with ordinary Muslims that it's no surprise that so many ordinary people feel negative towards us.
And yet the media bear some responsibility. Not only do they give Islamists a very large platform to air their views, they also often make them seem more authoritative by referring to uneducated preachers as "clerics". That gives the impression that they speak for Islam, when in fact they only speak for themselves. A journalist would not dream of calling someone a surgeon or a general just because they had put on the right clothes, and yet they throw titles such as "Muslim cleric" around like confetti.
In this way, groups such as Islam4UK come to be the face of Muslims to many people in the UK, and the reputation of Islam as a whole is unfairly tarnished.
The second problem with banning the group is that it prevents their arguments being defeated in free and open debate.
Look at some of the idiotic things this group has come out with. Glorifying the 19 9/11 attackers, despite the number of innocents — Muslims included — who they have killed. Claiming that the ban on the group means that Britain is a dictatorship. In an election year. It would not take much mental effort to rebut these nutty things.
And if the Home Secretary had made more of an effort to do so, instead of reaching for his sledgehammer, then the number of impressionable and angry young would-be radicals might think again before they type the group into Google.
Look at what the ban has achieved. Acres of news coverage for this bunch of placard-waving loudmouths. It will not stop them from spreading their provocative views and it is unlikely to stop them from glorifying terrorism as private individuals. So those who believe the ban is a strike against the group in any meaningful sense simply do not understand its dynamics.
As much as I hate everything this group stands for, I know that like the BNP, Islam4UK deserves the same freedom of speech as the rest of us.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Programme, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a World Fellow at Yale University.
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