Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Anjem Choudary and the dangers of "Platforming the Bastard"

Since I last wrote about it on Saturday, the controversy surrounding the proposed Islam4UK march through Wootton Bassett has reached a crescendo. Home Secretary Alan Johnson has said that he "will back" a ban on the march taking place. British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) will be writing to Islam4UK, "urging them to cancel their protest," with a large counter-protest planned if they do not. The English Defence League  (EDL) claims that it has "recieved over 700 emails from the public pleading with us to do something to stop Anjem choudary and his thugs disrespectfully marching through Wootton Bassett." And Facebook groups opposed to the march are gaining 300 members a minute.

It has been instructive to see the willingness of the media to emphasise the fact that this march was taking place under "anti-war" auspices. The clear implication being that there is a direct link between opposition to the war and Islamic extremism, a useful propaganda ploy as public opposition to the war in Afghanistan continues to mount. Comment pieces, such as Gerald Warner's in the Telegraph, which ride popular anger to call for "adequate laws to suppress these troublemakers" also offer a useful precedent for further culling of civil liberties.

This is precisely why I urged that "those who realise that the crimes of militarism and the bigotry of religious fundamentalism must be opposed with equal veracity" should come out in opposition to both Islam4UK and  their nationalist detractors such as the EDL. My call, it must be emphasised, was not one for the suppression of free speech nor for authoritarian legal measures. Even the most vile of people should have the right to believe as the wish and voice those sentiments wherever they choose without threat of legal sanction. By the same token, those who disagree should be able to do so freely. Rationality will weed out reaction in debate and discourse, whilst counter-protest and non-violent direct action can do the same on the streets. In that context, my call was for direct action to reclaim the streets from both the Islamists and nationalists.

In essence, I argued for the militant version of no platform.*

Now, Anjem Choudary has come forward to reveal his true intentions. It would seem that, for the media savvy Islamist, marching on Wootton Bassett was never the final goal. As Sky News report;
Islam4UK leader Anjem Choudary has said [the march] could be called off - as long as Gordon Brown or any of his ministers agrees to take part in a televised debate on the war.

He added that controversial cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed should be allowed to take part.
A Downing Street spokesman "declined to comment" on the offer, repeating only Gordon Brown's view that the march was "abhorrent and offensive." It is safe to say that the likelihood of such an event taking place is marginal at best. As Janet Daly notes in the Telegraph, this "is presumably the beginning of a staged climbdown" in the wake of widespread public outrage and opposition.

However, it is feasible that more liberal commentators will respond to this challenge by advocating that such a debate actually happens. If they do, it is likely they will argue that such an event would, like Nick Griffin's appearence on Question Time, be more of a blessing to his detractors than his supporters. In the words of LeftOutside, "give the man enough rope and he’ll hang himself, give him enough airtime and he’ll tie himself in knots." On the surface, whether we're talking about Griffin, Choudary or any other vile specimen, it seems we would be best saying "Platform the Bastard, he hasn’t got a chance."

I would argue that this is a very bad idea. As I pointed out in the wake of the Question Time debacle,  freedom of speech for all points of view doesn't enter the equation "lest we are about to see members of the Anarchist Federation on the panel." Griffin was given air time to serve a propaganda purpose, and so too would Choudary be. He would, indeed, make a complete arse of himself in a televised debate and confirm everyone's worst suspicions. But he would also provide enough ammunition to the government that he would take the right to oppose unjust wars and basic civil liberties down with him.

Free speech is vital to a free and democratic society, and that right should not be removed from those designated "extreme." But we should be aware that, under the dominant corporate propaganda model, a debate between an Islamic militant and government ministers will not be freedom of speech. in action It will be a show trial. And the victim will not be Choudary - it will be the right to dissent.

* As an aside, it was a delightful irony to see the BNP promise that "the three highest publicly elected British National Party officials" will "physically block the road in Wootton Bassett should the authorities permit the threatened Islamist march in that town to proceed." Previously, they would have called such action "communist agitation." It would seem, however, that No Platform is fine with the far-right when directed against the reactionaries of a group to which they are opposed.