Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Islam4UK, the Barnet sheltered housing march, and the defence of democracy

I'm not sure that banning Islam4UK is a good idea. I suspect that banning them will gain them a few more recruits, rather than lose them any. In general, I am against the state exercising its power to decide how or whether people can organise politically.

Where there is dangerous criminality, of course, it's reasonable to step in to prevent that.

I'm glad Islam4UK called off their planned march through Wootton Bassett. It was a stunt designed mainly to cause offence to military families.

I don't support the UK's intervention in Afghanistan, and Islam4UK aren't completely insane in what they say about western military intervention in the Middle East (although they are insane in what they say about almost everything else), but the march deserved to be stopped.

But by who? By the state? Curiously, the government was ambivalent about whether it would intervene to stop Islam4UK's march, but has now banned the organisation. I'm not in favour of the state banning demonstrations, however detestable the cause.

In the great scheme of things it is hard to imagine that the banning of Islam4UK is the thin edge of a wedge which would see the state banning more and more of its political opponents, of whatever political stripe. But I still worry.

Yesterday, the government lost in the European Court of Human Rights over its section 44 stop and searches under the Terrorism Act 2000. These have been used extensively against journalists and protestors with nothing like terrorism on their mind. They allow police to stop and search people 'on a hunch'; suspects' details, even when they are found to have done nothing wrong, are generally retained. On Monday night, I went to my union meeting - the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists. Attending was Pennie Quinton, one of the journalists who brought the case in the ECHR. In this article she explains the background.

Yes, the state is seeking to expand its powers. As a society are we vigilant enough about this? Do we ourselves too readily call for bans on things we don't like? It takes a lot of self-control to tolerate dissent and a lot of effort to listen to and argue against ideas we don't agree with. But that's what democracy requires. If you don't practise democracy - in all senses of the word 'practise' - I fear you lose it.

Let me give you an example closer to home. From the sublimely awful Islam4UK, and over-zealous anti-terrorism legislation, to the astonishing case of the Barnet sheltered housing march.

A friend of mine was recently summoned to a meeting between Barnet council, the local police, and 'leaders' of the Muslim community in Barnet. The aim of the meeting was for the council and police to dissuade anyone who might be thinking of joining the counter-demonstration to the planned far-right rally in Harrow.

That, in my view, is objectionable enough. Why should Muslims remain meekly at home while racists parade in front of their mosque?

But Mike Freer, who was still council leader, also let slip that he had been under pressure (he didn't say who from) during the summer to BAN the march to defend sheltered housing that went through his ward in Finchley. To his credit, he resisted that call (and I doubt he could ban it if he wanted to) but the very idea that anyone in Freer's political vicinity should ask him to do so is shocking.

I would think in this case that such a call would be more down to political laziness, than to authoritarianism, but it certainly shows disdain for the importance of democratic traditions such as the right to protest. Democracy - use it or lose it, even in Barnet.

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