Labour government criminalises protest and attacks free speech

On 12 January 2010, five Muslim men were found guilty of using threatening, abusive or insulting words and behaviour likely to cause harassment and distress. They had protested against British involvement in the war in Iraq during a march by the Royal Anglian Regiment through Luton in March 2009. Two others were acquitted. On the same day their trial ended, the government announced it would be using its powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 to ban the organisation Islam4UK, which had declared its intention to stage a protest march on an unspecified date through Wootton Bassett, the village which has become synonymous with the patriotic ‘repatriation’ ceremonies which accompany the return of dead British soldiers from Afghanistan. The more bogged down in never-ending war the government becomes, the more determined it is to stifle and criminalise protest against its warmongering. Nicki Jameson reports.

Demonstrators on the March 2009 event in Luton, which had been agreed in advance with the local police, held up placards with slogans such as ‘Anglian soldiers – Butchers of Basra’, ‘British government – terrorist government’, ‘Illegal war in Iraq’ and ‘Muslims rise against British aggression’. The protest was small and peaceful – the only violence being from aggrieved supporters of the army who attacked the demonstrators. None of the men who were tried were arrested at the time; instead they were detained following a subsequent police investigation and charged for shouting ‘child-killers’, ‘murderers’, ‘rapists’ and ‘go to hell’ at the passing soldiers.

The police action was clearly prompted by the massive press coverage that followed the demonstration, with front-page headlines on every tabloid newspaper proclaiming ‘Hate for heroes – Muslims in vile demo’ (The Sun), ‘Sickening’ (Daily Express) etc, and labelling the protesters ‘The enemy within’ (Daily Star). In the wake of the event a ‘nationalist’ counter-protest organised by the ‘United People of Luton’ took place on 24 May, during which an Asian-owned shop was smashed up and three men in a car attacked. This was swiftly followed by the founding of the English Defence League (EDL) to ‘oppose Islamic extremism’, while Conservative MP David Davies tabled a bizarre amendment to a bill on religious hatred in an attempt to make it an offence to incite hatred against serving soldiers.

Although Davies’ attempt to squeeze defence of the military into protection from religious discrimination was merely a publicity stunt, his views are completely in tune with those of the Labour government, which reluctantly accepts a degree of opposition to its wars but is desperate to maintain an absolute embargo on any criticism of those actually doing the fighting, torturing and killing on the ground. The proliferation of ‘Soldiers are Heroes’ Facebook groups, the hysterical insistence that every presenter on British TV wear a poppy in the run-up to Remembrance Day and the creation of a spectacle around the Wootton Bassett ‘repatriations’ are all part of this propaganda war.

Islam4UK is a small organisation but has generated and attracted a lot of publicity. The decision to ban it has been widely opposed – largely on the basis that using draconian legislation, designed to proscribe groups that are armed and dangerous, against those who merely hold repugnant opinions is counter-productive and will increase their appeal. Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Spectator columnist Rod Liddle, who are both outspoken critics of much related to Islam, are among those vociferously arguing in favour of freedom of speech for all, while anti-fascists point out that, although Islam4UK and other groups connected to it have been proscribed, the EDL, BNP and other blatantly racist organisations are free to do as they please. Meanwhile, cheerleading for the ban is government-funded ‘counter-extremist’ think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, whose declared aim is to ‘foster a genuine British Islam, native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world’.

This attempt to foster a ‘Church of England Islam’ that supports imperialism, while censoring and criminalising all other manifestations of the religion, is being vigorously pursued, particularly in prisons and universities. Prison staff are issued with guides on ‘spotting extremists’, prisoners encouraged to spy on one another, ‘moderate’ imams recruited at immense salaries, and over-zealous converts segregated.

Universities have been increasingly encouraged in recent years to spy on students. This government interference with education and freedom of speech has met some opposition from university authorities; however most have willingly collaborated and in some cases gone beyond what was asked of them. For example, in 2008 over-zealous monitoring led to the arrest and detention of post-doctoral Nottingham University student Hicham Yezza, following his downloading of an Al Qaida manual from a US government website for another student’s research project on ‘radical Islam’..

Following the arrest on Christmas Day 2009 of former University College of London (UCL) student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, UCL willingly distributed a police request for information about his ‘activities’ while at the college in 2005-08 and has now set up an ‘independent inquiry into what transpired whilst he was here and his association with the student Islamic Society and their activities’.

Alongside the formal inquiries, a number of informal witch-hunts are being conducted, designed to pressurise university administrations to sack or expel ‘radicals’ and close down Islamic societies that do not conform. At Birmingham University a massive media campaign, supported by Dennis MacShane MP, was mounted against the Islamic Society, following its invitation to London-based Palestinian academic Dr Azzam Tamimi to speak on the anniversary of the massacre in Gaza.

At the London School of Economics (LSE) PhD student and lecturer Reza Pankhurst has been subject to a similar campaign. On 15 January, following contact with the Quilliam Foundation, The Times carried an article entitled ‘Senior member of extreme Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir teaches at LSE’. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not an illegal organisation in Britain but is banned in Egypt and Pankhurst spent four years in prison there for membership, a fact he has always been open about and never sought to hide from the authorities at LSE.

FRFI defends the right of Muslims in Britain to express their political and religious views and opposes all attempts to criminalise protesters against the murderous wars being conducted by British and US imperialist forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defend the right to protest against imperialist wars!

FRFI 213 February / March 2010


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