Category Archives: Civil liberties

Playing the sectarian card: Britain’s Ministry of Justice is unfairly targeting Muslim prison chaplains

Yesterday, news came of a soon-to-be-released Ministry of Justice (MOJ) report, which will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the problem of radicalisation in UK prisons. Given that the government has trailed the report in the Sunday Times (“Most jail imams teach anti-western values”, 07/02/2016, p.7) and the Mail on Sunday (“Majority of prison imams are ‘teaching anti-western’ values that promote gender segregation, study claims”, 07/02/2016) and played the sectarian card, it is a highly premeditated political intervention. Pointing fingers at chaplains of the Deobandi Sunni persuasion, who are said to make up 140 of 200 Muslim prison chaplains, a senior Whitehall official is quoted as saying that, “It is of great concern that the majority of Muslim chaplains in prisons propagate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scripture which is contrary to British values and human rights. Such imams are unlikely to aid the deradicalisation of Islamists in prisons and could potentially even make them more firm in their beliefs.” And in his major speech on prison reform today, the Prime Minister promised that he was prepared to make major changes if necessary on the basis of the recommendations of the MOJ report. The appointment of Peter Clarke as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons this month, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism whom the government has previously deployed as a counter-extremism troubleshooter in the education and the charity sectors, signals the MOJ’s intent to construe prisons in the same light: as a hotbed of “extremist entryism”, with the potential to look at Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains in the same light as convicted terrorist offenders.

The Quilliam Foundation has stepped in to support the MOJ in identifying Deobandi prison chaplains as a particular problem. Usama Hasan, a senior researcher there, is reported by the Sunday Times as saying that “[t]he Deobandi movement is generally anti-western and anti-integration in its spirit … Imams in the prison system have to be more progressive and open-minded in terms of being supportive of modern, multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain.” The Foundation has prior form in this regard: its 2009 report on prisons, Unlocking Al-Qaeda, made essentially the same claims about Deobandi prison chaplains (pp. 33, 42, 101) and recommended a reduction in their numbers (p.108).

Reading between the lines, it seems as if Ahtsham Ali, the current Muslim Advisor to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is being set up as the fall guy for appointing many of these Deobandi chaplains. A damage limitation exercise on behalf of Ali is already under way to argue that he is neither an extremist nor of a particular sectarian persuasion by anonymous sources quoted in the Sunday Times. That is all very well, but what about some damage limitation on behalf of these Muslim chaplains who have rendered a great deal of public service in prisons for many years? Who is going to speak up for them?

It is naïve to expect fair play and even-handedness, or a reliance on evidence or the measured conclusions of academic research, especially where the incumbent minister, Michael Gove, is concerned. The news reporting and, one must surmise, the forthcoming MOJ report rely on the fallacious idea that the Deoband school is stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its original anti-colonial foundations (ignoring massive transformations since, both in the Subcontinent and the diaspora). It also seems to have discounted the findings of the three-year AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ research study on Muslim chaplaincy in Britain (2008–2011) carried out by the University of Cardiff. That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but also found that pastoral practice in the challenging prison environment and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect:

Muslim chaplains working across most sectors learn new attitudes from their experiences. While they often tend to start with normative, didactic approaches that are directed towards their co-religionists, their experiences of working with all kinds of people in a multi-faith environment seem to inculcate within them attitudes of empathy, person-centredness, equality, broad-mindedness, openness, approachability, supportiveness, tolerance, non-judgementalism, non-directedness, compassion, patience and humility. (Gilliat-Ray, Ali and Pattison,Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy, p.175)

The Cardiff team also found that, when called to do so, Muslim chaplains provided genuine pastoral care for non-Muslim inmates. Furthermore, the study established that Muslim chaplains’ pastoral training and experience was having an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities. It also argued that the preponderance of Deobandi seminarians among Muslim prison chaplains was largely due to the huge investment in imam training that this denomination has made in Britain, more so than any other Sunni or Shia group.

Another factor that the Cardiff research team did not mention was that, after 7/7, the government wanted Muslim prison chaplains to have theological training as part of the professionalization of the sector and for them to possess the wherewithal to tackle the arguments of violent extremists. Again, this policy shift favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand. That said, the main formal role of Muslim chaplains remains pastoral and aimed at the spiritual welfare of the general Muslim prison population, yet they have made informal efforts to tackle extremist ideas within this primary remit, and have facilitated greater cultural awareness and understanding of prison staff about mainstream Muslim beliefs in the context of radicalisation (Gilliat-Ray et al, p.110). Overall, however, they have not been formally involved in theological deradicalisation efforts aimed at inmates with terrorist offences, for which outside specialists have been brought in with the collaboration of the authorities (HM Prison Service, Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, 2010, p.35, Para 7.12).

For all those who agree that Muslim prison chaplaincy in Britain has been a growing and largely successful sector over the last two decades with a solid track record of public service and professional development, now is the time to make your voices heard. There is genuine fear that the government is now going to smear this sector as “extremist Muslim entryism”. Is the government going to brush aside all this dedicated public service and experience and start getting rid of people on the basis of lazy and pernicious sectarian labels? Where is the due process? Where is the expectation that professionals should be treated in a meritocratic way on the basis of their individual performances?

From my sources, I am hearing that many Muslim prison chaplains are feeling resigned to losing their jobs, and that, as public servants, they have no right to speak out if Mr Gove — who is ultimately their boss — is going to sack them. How terrible it is that even high-achieving Muslim professionals feel so isolated and demoralised that they cannot defend themselves against such baseless smears? And more importantly where will that leave the pastoral and spiritual care of Muslim inmates who sadly now make up 12% of the prison population? It is hard not to see this as anything other than institutional Islamophobia being sanctioned at the highest level, which could have really damaging and deleterious effects. Now is the time to speak up and set the record straight.

Update One: In mid-March, Middle Eastern Eye reported that Sir Michael Spurr, Head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)  wrote a letter to prison governors, responding to the newspaper stories, describing allegations of extremism as ‘disgraceful’. While he would await the recommendations of the MOJ report, he defended the existing vetting and recruitment process for Muslim chaplains and commended their service, and praised the ‘characteristic resilience and dignity’ of Ahtsham Ali in response to the pressure he had been put under.

A month later, some of the MOJ’s report’s findings were leaked in the Times (19 April 2016, pp.1, 6, 29 (£, paywall)), although it had not been cleared for release by Number 10. Apparently the report ‘pulled no punches’ and offers 69 recommendations, stating that NOMS suffered from managerial weaknesses when it comes to tackling extremism.  The headline conclusions leaked to the Times were:

(i) Extremist literature was found in more than ten prisons, and there was ‘little or no assessment of the suitability of Islamic literature before it was distributed to “impressionable minds”.’

(ii) Chaplains at several jails were found to have encouraged prisoners to raise monies for Islamic charities that had links to international terrorism.

(iii) Prison chaplains were judged to be under-prepared for counter-radicalisation responsibilities: ‘sometimes they lacked the capability, but often because they didn’t have the will.’

(iv) The report claims to have found evidence that chaplains from other persuasions felt ‘marginalised, bullied and intimidated’ by the dominant Deobandi viewpoint in prison chaplaincies.

Sir Michael Spurr and Ahtsham Ali as well as the Bury Dar al-Ulum came under renewed criticism in these Times articles.

Whatever the merit of these serious allegations, only minimal details have been leaked, so it is too soon to know how substantive they are. That said, it should be noted that the MOJ has again demonstrated its predilection for politically-motivated leaks, and that the political focus has intensified in the last month with the BBC’s two-part investigation ‘The Deobandis‘ on Radio 4.

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Safeguarding Little Abdul: Prevent, Muslim Schoolchildren and the Lack of Parental Consent

There are a lot of things that could be said about the new statutory guidance on Channel under Prevent issued in April for local authorities, nurseries, schools, universities, social services, health care services, the criminal justice system and the police. There are many hot-button issues here, but I want to focus on the impact of all this on under-18s. Half of our community is under the age of 25 and, according to Census figures, something in the order of 800,000 Muslims under 18 potentially fall within the remit of these policies. From the official guidance (pp.16-17, Paras 77-79) it seems that informed parental consent for under-18s referred under a counter-radicalisation scheme called Channel comes very late in the process. The mainstay of Prevent after 2010, Channel is a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. And Channel is not a low impact policy. The trend line for referrals presently is upwards from seven in Channel’s pilot year (2006-7) to 748 in 2012-13. Under an FOI request to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there have been 2653 referrals under Prevent up to April 2013. For ages 13-16, there were 645 referrals, and for 12 and under there were 113. In one case, a child as young as three was referred as part of a whole family. Where religious affiliation data was collected, from 2007-10, 67% of those referred were Muslim and in 2012-13, 57% were Muslim (their percentage in the population being 5%).

In Britain today, all these things could happen to the child of Muslim parents without their consent. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, elements of which are based on the official Channel guidance and on incidents a lawyer told me about who deals with such cases. There is of course a particular focus on schools (which accounted for a fifth of referrals up to 2013). Since February, schools are obligated under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to prevent pupils from becoming radicalised.

Imagine your child is named Abdul, aged 12. He is taken out of class and questioned as to his views and behaviour by a member of the school’s senior management team. He might be asked about his beliefs, his political views, his associations, and so on. His case could be referred to the multiagency Channel Panel run by the local authority for assessment on the basis of the school’s investigation, and it would initially be assessed for risk by a police representative, and accepted or rejected at that point. The Panel could assess Abdul’s case and agree a series of interventions under Channel for Abdul. Only after all this referral, assessment and decision-making is completed is the Panel obliged to contact you for your consent in two matters (and only if Abdul’s case is not deemed high risk): (1) that you agree to interventions for Abdul under Channel that the Panel recommends, and (2) that you agree that information about Abdul’s case can be divulged to relevant agencies. It should be noted that the Panel reserves the power not to seek your consent if it deems Abdul’s case serious enough. There is also a further option left to the Panel if you do not agree to Abdul being put into the Channel programme. It can refer Abdul if he is deemed as “high risk” and “in need” to various forms of intervention from social services from financial and pastoral support all the way up to an “emergency protection order” under sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act 1989. This option adds an element of coercion to the informed consent asked of parents very late in the process of referral and assessment under Channel.

There have been instances where parents first realise that their child has been referred under Prevent because the child tells them he or she has been pulled out of class and questioned about his or her views and behaviour. In such cases, it is clear that some schools are assuming an implied consent on the part of parents to have their children questioned and assessed in this way. They have not heard formally from the school or from the Prevent Panel. Cases like these have not yet come to light because these parents are frightened of speaking out. They are worried that they will be labelled as extremists. Of course we have heard of reported cases where parents were completely unaware of the fact that their children had been radicalized without their knowledge. However, notwithstanding this issue, there are many genuine reasons to worry about how fair or proportionate this policy of referral and assessment under Channel is or will be in future. Let me conclude by sketching out a few of them.

The main concern is that we are heading towards intensified policing of regular conservative Islamic religiosity and dissenting politics among Muslims. Recent comments by Mak Chishty, the Metropolitan Police’s Commander for Engagement, that identify Muslim children not celebrating Christmas or supporting the boycotts, sanctions and divestments movement by not shopping at Marks & Spencer as potential indicators of extremism are very alarming. At the time of writing, the Met has not responded to calls for proper clarification of these remarks. Last week, it was found that a pilot survey (later scrapped when it was exposed) in east London primary schools was asking intrusive questions about political and religious issues from children as young as nine, without anonymizing the data.

The new Extremism Bill (pp.62-63) goes further in the direction of policing non-violent “extremism”, which includes measures like banning groups, gagging individuals, closing premises, employment blacklists and censoring broadcasts. Our Home Secretary Theresa May could not define “extremism” when pressed to do so by John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme. Her response hardly seemed a step above an arbitrary rule of thumb that one would know an extremist if one saw one. This loose notion of extremism is predicated on active opposition to a simple checklist of British values, namely as set out in the guidance: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” While I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of this point here, these values are not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability.

To touch upon the point about commensurability further, David Cameron recently opined in promoting the new extremism bill that the British value of tolerance had been too “passive”. To quote him, the notion that “as long as you obey the law, we [the state] will leave you alone” was now to be abandoned. For many British people, including myself, this is in fact a cherished notion that needs to be protected at all costs rather than abandoned. So while tolerance is a value, what it really entails at any particular moment in the life of our nation will be up for debate. Values frame our national discussion but they do not define a monoculture. This contentious and unproductive debate about British values is going on against a background of anti-immigration politics, Tory triumph and UKIP gains in the election, the fragmentation of the left, and indeed the growing appeal of ISIS to some Muslim young people. Around 700 or so are believed to gone over to Syria and Iraq.

In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, what are Muslim parents going to do to protect their children? They are after all the first “safeguards” of their own offspring, to use the current professional jargon. There are lively discussions on social media among Muslim parents about this. A widespread view seems to be striking a balance between bringing up your children with a positive view of themselves, their faith, their community, their society and country and the world at large while engaging them in an informed way about the very complex issues around terrorism, extremism, ISIS, the war on terror, racism, Islamophobia, grooming, sexism, etc. It is a daunting task. Hardly any Muslim parent I know thinks it is either easy or avoidable. Continually talking things through, listening, and offering support and guidance to our children is clearly essential. Dealing with teenage hormonal changes and challenges like depression and so on are more than enough for parents to deal with, without a kneejerk presumption that Muslim teens are converts on the jihadi “road to Damascus”.

Equally, a lot of Muslim parents I’ve talked to are concerned that the government is really overdoing things. The lack of parental consent is a massive issue. The government has set up an ill-advised process that implicitly excludes and alienates Muslim parents under an ethos of presumed mistrust. As I’ve outlined above, the school and the Prevent Panel can make major judgements and decisions about your child without even talking to you. We all have reasons to doubt how competently these Panels will make decisions about Muslim children. If they exhibit anything like the cultural ignorance of Commander Mak Chishty then we have every reason to fear that a lot of bad calls will be made.

Therefore, I would propose that it is in our collective interest to safeguard our children by pushing for consent and consultation to be at the heart of this policy. Those most affected by this policy – Muslim children and by extension their families – have been pushed to the margins. There is no requirement for Prevent panels to have any form of community representation and as a matter of course parents have no say in the referral or assessment process. I am aware of one case where a representative from a mosque council in a London borough has been offered a place on a separate advisory body, whose remit seems very limited and whose continuance is subject to the review of the Prevent Panel. This is obviously far from satisfactory: it seems tokenistic and is in danger of merely providing some kind of community rubber stamp for a referral and assessment process under Channel largely unaccountable to the community that it most affects. And then there is the fact that four-fifths of referrals are not taken further by Prevent Panels, according to ACPO’s own statistics. The negative conclusion from this low adoption rate is that children are being pushed towards Channel without sufficient cause. As parents we have to ask at what price? What impact will all this scrutiny at school have on Abdul’s sense of well-being and belonging, his confidence, his aspiration, or his happiness?

My personal judgement is that Prevent has gotten to a stage where it is institutionalising a “them and us” mentality that will reap a harvest of suspicion, distrust and doubt on all sides, and will drive the tiny pro-ISIS youth subculture further underground while conflating it with both conservative Islamic piety and Muslim radical politics. In my view it is better that we abandon Prevent in its new statutory guise and go back to the drawing board. In the interim, however, so long as Prevent is on the statute books, it may be wise to seek greater safeguards for our children against a system that has great potential to be stigmatising and discriminatory. There is obviously a lively debate to be had about which mix of tactics will work best to avoid innocent Muslim kids being mislabelled as extremists in schools.

Abdul deserves a better future. One in which he is treated a citizen rather than as a suspect. Where he can disagree, sometimes even be bold and radical in disagreeing if he chooses to do so, without being labelled an extremist. Where he can be proud rather than be ashamed of being a Muslim. He deserves to be inspired at school, opened up to new possibilities, for his autonomy to be nurtured and respected. This is the kind of schooling and the kind of country that we need to fight for.

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How not to deal with al-Muhajiroun

Muslim communities around the country have shunned al-Muhajiroun and its various entities for years and refused to give them a platform. Instead, they have to work through front organisations, hire private halls, set up high-street stalls or leaflet people with their poisonous little tracts. They are utterly marginal but are still able to generate huge coverage through provocation. Their recent barracking of British troops returning from Iraq and a counter mini-riot in Luton has poisoned relations in the town. The Muslim community of Luton, which had already chased them out of the mosques, has taken to chasing them off the streets too in a desperate bid to signal their utter disgust and consternation.

Anjem Choudary’s latest wheeze to incite the ire of the national press and to irritate the hell out of Britain’s Muslims as well as everyone else is to use a legal loophole to relaunch al-Muhajiroun this week, which had been disbanded in 2004. Only its successor groups, al-Ghurabaa and the Saviour Sect, were banned in 2006 under terrorism legislation. It seems fairly clear that Choudary expects, and indeed makes the calculation, that the reformed al-Muhajiroun will be banned pretty quickly to generate the notoriety and street-cred that he wants to sustain. As they play a propagandistic role, they will continue to find ways to dodge past legal restrictions by using coded language or forming new entities. The law is obviously a blunt and ineffectual tool.

Well Choudary got his headlines yet again last night when a debate with Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) on sharia law verses UK law never got started, ending in acrimony and thuggish behaviour after about half-an-hour. Al-Muhajiroun used their own goons to enforce strict gender segregation at the event, and roughed up at least one person who objected, and so the event was abandoned and the police were called in.

I called the CSC earlier this week as I had concerns that they were just being used to promote Choudary’s latest wheeze and that I had my suspicions that the so-called neutral event organiser, the mysterious Global Issues Society (GIS), was just another al-Muhajiroun front organisation, a suspicion that was proved spectacularly correct last night. The Centre had its concerns too but wanted definitive proof that GIS was a front if it was to pull out at such a late stage.

Prior to last night’s debate it was clear that GIS had:

1. Booked Conway Hall as a student society at Queen Mary’s under false pretences. No-one from the local student Islamic society had heard of them and the college authorities had no record of any student group registered under that name.

2. Had only organised a handful of “debates”, all of them involving al-Muhajiroun representatives.

3. The event was heavily promoted by al-Muhajiroun itself through its own website, and they provided a lurid poster and their own contact number for the event.

4. No-one knowledgeable about the Muslim activist scene in London had heard of them.

At the event itself:

5. The security “hired” by GIS turned out to be just more associates of al-Muhajiroun who enforced their gender segregation code.

6. The so-called neutral chair appeared to be associated with al-Muhajiroun.

Now the CSC says it acted in “good faith” in accepting this invitation, an assertion that can’t be left unchallenged. At the very least, CSC showed questionable judgement in giving the GIS the benefit of the doubt when there were so many legitimate suspicions about them. It seems probable that the CSC was more focused on highlighting their own campaign for a quick ban and burnishing their reputation as a scourge of radical Islam by playing up to al-Muhajiroun’s all-too-familiar tactics.

If instead we want to use debate to expose and de-legitimize al-Muhajiroun further, the only way to do it would be to organise a neutral platform with a proper invite list. Most importantly, a debating opponent is needed who could take on Choudary and win among the disaffected and radicalised segment of young Muslims that al-Muhajiroun hopes to recruit from. Douglas Murray better fits the role of an anti-Islam bogeyman, who memorably described Islam as “an opportunistic infection” at a memorial conference for Pim Fortuyn in February 2006, a statement he is yet to resile from. Murray’s mere presence was no doubt designed by Choudary to buttress further the siege mentality of anti-West radicalism and self-righteous victimhood that al-Muhajiroun promotes.

The lesson of this little fiasco is that the stoking of an Islam-West controversy has become predictable, exploitable and even somewhat of an industry. The question is: how to break the cycle and construct better alternatives? Frustration, despair and even ennui at the current standoff is just a cop-out and we need to do better: so, over to you, any suggestions?

This has been cross-posted from City Circle Blogs.

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Conversion and Betrayal

Today we live in an age when the boundary between two allegedly monolithic entities, “Islam” and the “West” appears to be rigid, politicized, ring-fenced. So the question arises as to the motives of converts to Islam. Are they converting to faith or to an anti-West political cause? Such questions get asked after terrorist incident involving converts like Richard Reid, Don Stewart-Whyte, and Germaine Lindsay.

Such examples reinforce the view that conversion to Islam is an act of joining an anti-West political cause rather than one of the world’s great religions. If conversion to Islam was dubbed “turning Turk” to the Elizabethans and the Stuarts confronting Ottoman naval power; “turning Terrorist” is its twenty-first century variant.

It can be observed that cultural boundaries between these two so-called worlds can, with time and circumstances, grow more or less rigid, or conversely become more or less permeable, with conversion seen as less threatening, as less remarkable. John Walker Lindh, dubbed “the American Taliban”, provides an iconic illustration of the tensions around conversion today.

Lindh converts to Islam in 1997, and sets out for the next few years to master Arabic and to memorise the Qur’an, in trips to the Yemen and secondly in Pakistan, to a simple madrasa in the NWFP. Exposed to the idea of global jihad, he signs up with Harakat al-Mujahidin for basic training in May 2001 and is then sent to Afghanistan in  to fight jihad there. In June 2001, Lindh, now fluent in Arabic, is sent to one of the Arab traning camps, al-Farooq, run by Bin Laden. Fighting for the Taliban he idealised against the Northern Alliance, Lindh never fires his gun once. He is shortly captured and incarcerated at a basement in the Qala-i Jangi near Mazar-i-Sharif. Of 330 men, only 85 come out alive, Lindh included. Lindh comes to global attention in a CNN interview just after he is captured but not yet in full American custody, as “the American Taliban”.

At the end of his trial, all charges relating to terrorism were dropped and Lindh was charged with carrying a rifle and grenades for the Taliban, for which he was sentenced to 20 years, and forbidden by a court ruling to speak Arabic in prison. In his final court statement Lindh repudiated terrorism, and al-Qaeda’s ideology and approach.

Lindh was the first prisoner to be “Abu-Ghraibed”, to be photographed naked and bound, blindfolded with the word “sh*thead” written across it, to be denied access to the Red Cross or to a lawyer. His was the first test case for the Bush adminstration’s creation of a legal state of exception by which international and constitutional rights were suspeneded.

Frank Lindh, John’s father, says that his son was born Muslim, always focused and disciplined from a young age. Throughout his journey to and through Islam, Lindh comes across as driven, but also as passive, as innocent to the complexities of the wider world around him. Lindh comes across as a majdhub, drawn to faith, to good practice, almost as if by a bestowal of Divine grace. He has an idealism, a divine foolishness, a fatal incuriosity for the practicalities of the world and the messy realities of politics. Tom Junod’s remarkable prison portrait leaves the unmistakable impression of itmi’nan, of Lindh being at peace with himself, in serenity at his lot in prison, reliant upon his Creator and constantly prayful. He is never known to miss the fajr prayer or to fail to offer his tahajjud devotions in the night. As the prison librarian he devotes himself to ancient Arabic texts. As a constant target for violence and abuse, Lindh cannot afford to leave himself in unsupervised parts of the prison. As Junood, puts it, despite being described as a global villian, as a modern-day “renegade”, “in response to what America has done to him” Lindh “has become more Islamic — more himself, and a better Muslim.”

Lindh is portrayed as an insider, the innocent American abroad, naive to political realities, touched by a simple profound faith of the heart, that divorces his intentions from his acts. But Lindh is also an outsider, one who has took up a task and a choice that few converts have: the cause of jihad on behalf of the Taliban. He is the terrorist, one for whom the basic dignities  and human rights afforded a prisoner of war and a citizen were suspended.

Lindh’s story indicates that choices away from liberal self-enlightenment can only be seen as acts of betrayal. But betrayal of what? Of enlightened morality and sound reasoning, as conversion enacts a reversal of the process of reformation and enlightenment. Such a choice might have been seen, in kinder times, as naive or eccentric, but today are seen as subversive, defiant, traitorous. Converts to Islam must be deconstructed as moral persons to make safe the boundary around liberalism (and indeed Islam), marked by words of rejection and acts of violence, such is the dangerous ambiguity of free choice, of acceptance and betrayal, that the convert represents.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 44, May 2008.

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Defending Liberty: Not a Day More

The campaign against the British government’s bill to extend detention without charge from 28 to 56 days is gainng momentum. One campaign, Not a Day Longer, which brings together Liberal Conspiracy, Amnesty International, City Circle and Our Kingdom, is being run from Facebook, so please sign up here. One thing you can do is to write a letter to your local MP. Here is my missive to my MP, the former Secretary of State for Health:

Dear Patricia Hewitt,

I write as a very concerned constituent of yours regarding the government’s proposal to extend detention without charge from 28 to 56 days. As you formerly worked for Liberty (which is now opposing this bill), I’m sure that you will appreciate the gravity of chipping away at one of our most fundamental freedoms: the right not to be detained without charge.

Britain already has the longest period of detention without charge; by comparison, Turkey has 7.5, Ireland, 7, France, 6, Russia, 5, the USA, 2, and Canada, 1. All these countries also face a terrorist threat but have not seen fit to drastically undermine habeas corpus to the extent that Britain has, a fundamental right first promulgated in England over 700 years ago.

The government has not only selected an arbitrary figure of 56 days for the extension but has provided no compelling evidence that it is necessary. At no point have terror suspects failed to be charged within the current 28 days. The difficulty in dealing with encrypted computer files can be addressed by additional resources and expertise.

Skepticism has become widespread with leading figures like Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, Ken Macdonald, director of public prosecutions and head of CPS, Lord Woolf, former lord chief justice, Vera Baird QC, solicitor-general, and Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, coming out against the extension.

The alienating impact on Muslim communities, the impact on families with potentially innocent individuals being held for up to two months, and the erosion of the presumption of innocence, will in all likelihood work against efforts to garner better intelligence if the fundamental rights of those whom these measures will more adversely affect are stripped away.

So far, forty nine Labour MPs have decided to vote for the freedom and liberties for all of Britain’s citizens. There is no simple trade off between freedom and security. It behoves us to tackle terrorism by upholding our most precious rights and values. I ask that you will now vote against the extension in Parliament.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Birt

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More free speech, not less

In October the Racial and Religious Hatred Act came into force in Britain that outlaws anyone from stirring up religious hatred against people on religious grounds. From the late Eighties onwards, it was argued that while certain religious groups such as Sikhs and Jews were seen as ethnic groups under incitement to racial hatred legislation, others like Christians and Muslims were not. The Act is meant to provide fair protection across the board for all the main religious groups in the UK.

Considering how controversial the Act has been, this milestone has received little or no comment. Why? The main reason is that the law is largely symbolic. The threshold for evidence is so high, given the fear that the freedom to criticize religion would be compromised, that the law is unlikely to be used. In fact it will do little to change, and may even exacerbate, the cultural standoff in Europe around Muslims that has been heating up over the past twenty five years or so.

After the Rushdie Affair in 1988-1989, both community politics and public perceptions of British Muslims were defined by free speech controversies until 9/11 when the “terrorist” motif took precedence. Arguably British Muslims have had three responses to direct cultural attacks on their identity, religion and culture, which is backed up by an academically-sound National Opinion Poll conducted in 2006.

The first, supported by about nine per cent, is the Muslim Power approach and is unconcerned with defending free speech. It supports complete free speech for Muslims even if they attack others in hateful terms or incite violence and the use of the law to silence critics of Islam and Muslims. This approach mirrors and plays into an anti-Muslim agenda and aids the authoritarian instincts that persist in even the most democratic of governments.

In autumn 2001, when the government first tried to pass a version of the incitement to religious hatred law, it was tagged with anti-terror legislation and promoted as protecting Muslim communities. In fact the Home Office had other ideas at the time: a friendly official showed the list of proposed prosecutions to a prominent activist and there were more Muslim than non-Muslim names on it — filled with the usual suspects of course. Similarly it’s often black people who have been prosecuted under incitement to racial hatred legislation.

The second and most popular, backed by around 29% of British Muslims, is the Defenders of Islam approach. It looks to defend Islam from external and internal attacks by using the law. This approach is quite happy to see both Abu Hamza and Nick Griffin silenced, a strategy that has proved tempting to successive Home Secretaries as well. However, as the legal expert Eric Heinze argues, European legislation outlawing forms of hate speech has a decidedly unimpressive track record in the courts.

The basic reason is that it is very difficult to establish the intent behind what people say and therefore court decisions are rare, sporadic and often seem biased and driven by the political climate. Given all this, Muslims are very likely to be a key target of this new legislation.

The Terrorism Act 2006 even goes a step further by not requiring the need to establish intent at all in any speech that glorifies or encourages terrorism. As Liberty said at the time, “outlawing passionate speech and criminalizing non-violent political parties will make Britain less safe by silencing dissent”. This has a chilling effect on political dissent within Muslim communities that the Defenders of Islam have inadvertently helped to create.

The third stance is a consistent free speech stand that protects all Britons against encroachments on their legal right to express their viewpoint freely, and to profess even controversial, rude or offensive views. According to the poll, only 3% of British Muslims supported this approach, so this is definitely a minority opinion. However it seems to me to be best option for three reasons.

Firstly, defending the rights of all is more likely to preserve the rights of minorities than legal restrictions that are liable to be applied discriminately. The law should serve to enable not disable free speech across the board. Secondly, the distinction in law between what people say and inciting people to some other criminal act, particularly to violence, that has been eroded should be reestablished. Thirdly, and most importantly, there should be a shift away from legal to cultural approaches. We need to censure but never censor anti-Muslim prejudice. Far better than rebuttals will be the humanizing of all our Muslim stories through the media, culture and the arts and the enabling and not the silencing of our political voices.

Yahya Birt is Director of City Circle and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

Reproduced courtesy of Emel Magazine. This first appeared in Issue 38 in Nov 2007.

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Thought Crime comes to Britain

Boyd Tonkin says it much better than I could, but the case of the Lyrical Terrorist shows that people can now be locked up for what they think, what they write and what they read, download and print out from the Internet. How can we have come to the position whereby the first response of the state is to send an angry young Muslim to jail for what they think, write or read? This is madness. Better that she had received some kind of counseling, advice and guidance, talking her out of her violent fantasies. If she had planned to move from the realm of fantasy to reality and was part of some plot, it would have been entirely different. That the law no longer seems to recognise the distinction is truly chilling.

Boyd Tonkin: The scribblings of dreamers are catharsis, not crime
Let’s hope no anti-terror officer ever browses in that banquet of butchery, ‘The Iliad’

The Independent, 12 November 2007

http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article3152363.ece

Thought crime has come to Britain. We knew that in principle, as wave after wave of legislation has pushed the scope of anti-terror laws from deeds and plans to words. The case of Samina Malik, the Heathrow airport worker and jihadi fantasist convicted on Thursday under the Terrorism Act, confirms it beyond reasonable doubt.

True, the legal core of the prosecution’s case lay in the Islamist horror handbooks (“How to Make Bombs” and so on) found on her computer – although there is no evidence that she ever lifted a finger to act on them. But the mood music of insinuation played out entirely around the poems, the scribblings, the postings of the self-described “Lyrical Terrorist”. With the whole of Catholic Europe desperate to dethrone her, Elizabeth I famously said that “I would not make windows into men’s souls”. Now the British state, which politely declines to raise the issue of human rights when it entertains the Saudi autocrats who have funded the export of jihadi extremism around the world, makes those windows, kicks them in, and tells young Muslim hotheads that every stupid brainstorm may send them straight to jail.

Besides, if trite bloodthirsty verse of the sort that helped to convict Malik agitates our law-makers so much, perhaps they should start their crackdowns in higher places than a bedroom in Southall. Take George Bush’s new best buddy, Nicolas Sarkozy. Every day, this patron of terrorist lyrics permits – no, commands – the singing of Rouget de Lisle’s “War Song of the Rhine Army”, better known as the “Marseillaise”. And what does every rugby team or village fete bellow each time the chorus comes around?

The final couplet’s invitation to massacre the counter-revolutionary infidel could hardly be clearer: “Let impure blood drench our fields!” Even closer to home is an inflammatory anthem crammed with sanguinary images of “scarlet standards” and the “martyred dead”, sung by a British political conspiracy once dedicated to overturning the entire economic order of society.

After a spine-chilling evocation of “martyrs” who died in ideological battle, the sinister ditty (“The Red Flag”) explains why this movement’s symbol is “deepest red”: “ere their limbs grew stiff and cold/ Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold”. Truly chilling stuff. Surely, the leader of an organisation who sanctioned the singing of such a grotesque hymn to sacrificial death should at least have his hard drive examined by our Thought Police?

The glamour of bloody strife in a higher cause has appealed to dreamers and drifters since the first tribal bard brought news of shattered limbs and spurting arteries from the first battlefield. And if Malik’s gory imaginings rendered her a “complete enigma” to the Recorder of London, then much of western culture – which has often gloried in sanctified slaughter – must remain a closed book to him. Let’s hope that no anti-terror officer ever bothers to browse in The Iliad, that banquet of butchery served up with a relish that has excited writers for 2,500 years: “Achilles slit open his liver/The liver spurted loose/ he reared and jammed his lance through the man’s ear”.

From Homer to 50 Cent, lonely and frustrated youngsters have sought to compensate for the limitations of their lives via the vicarious thrill of spoken or written violence. Malik’s own non-Islamist inspirations included Tupac Shakur, the rapper who lived the “thug life” as well as singing about it. His posthumous stock as a poet of the gang-ridden ghetto streets rose so high after his death by shooting in 1996 that Harvard University hosted a conference on his work. I find Tupac’s literary charms pretty resistible (“I want to piss on his head/ I want his family dead” and so on, ad nauseam) but the usual defence of gangsta rap deserves a hearing.

This material acts as catharsis, not incitement; as purgation and not provocation. Puerile it may be, but the bellicose doggerel of the “Lyrical Terrorist” herself looks like a feeble attempt to graft hip-hop style onto the Islamic tradition of counter-crusading warrior verse (“Move to the front line/ To chop chop head of kuffar swine”). Of course, the Muslim world came rather late to the poetic pleasures of holy gore. The medieval Chanson de Roland, another pillar of European literature, boasts enough smiting and slicing of the Saracens to keep the “Islamophobia” hunters busy for weeks. As for her beheading riff (“It’s not as messy or as hard as one may think/ It’s all about the flow of the wrist”): this feels rather like a sexual fantasy gone astray. And we know that cults of holy war and martyrdom tend to thrive in cultures where sacred violence leads to honour but sexual expression leads to shame.

Whenever police officers, politicians or our not-so-secret service chiefs decide to scare us again, they summon up the current menace to the “British way of life”. Curiously enough, the “Lyrical Terrorist” case has helped define the features of that way of life that urgently need defence. They include a sense of proportion and a sense of the absurd; an unflustered sympathy with human oddity and eccentricity; and – these days, above all – a common-sense refusal to be stampeded into repressive hysteria by every youthful folly or fantasy just because it wears a headscarf or a beard. How the real predators must rejoice to see our blinked enforcers open up a ring-binder full of unwisely scribbled desires and dreams, and cry “Wolf!”.

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Filed under Civil liberties, UK Politics, war-on-terror