Friday, 27 February 2009

Government banning policy faces test with visit of controverisal Lebanese journalist

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In the wake of the bans on Geert Wilders and the Westboro Baptist Church, the government is now facing calls to apply the same rules to Ibrahim Moussawi, a Lebanese journalist with links to Hezbollah who has been invited to speak at a course on political Islam at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Moussawi is due here on 25 March, but the Conservative Party have urged the government to show consistency and prevent him from entering. In a letter to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, the shadow security minster Pauline Neville-Jones said:

"In October last year you introduced what you described as 'tough new measures' to deny entry to extremists. These measures included 'creating a presumption in favour of exclusion in respect of all those who have engaged in fostering, encouraging or spreading extremism and hatred'. Mr Moussawi has so engaged. In line with your 'tough new measures', I trust that if Mr Moussawi applies for entry, you will use your powers to exclude him."

The story doesn't seem to have made it into most of today's papers, with the exception of the Daily Mail, who have wholeheartedly joined in with the Conservative appeal to ban Moussawi. Incidentally both have previously appealed to the government, unsuccessfully, to have him barred from entering the UK (he was last here in February 2008). The Mail and the Tories have also been joined in their opposition by the right-leaning think tank Centre for Social Cohesion, who announced the news in a press release:

"The Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) can reveal that SOAS, which is part of the University of London, is planning to pay Islamist extremists to teach a course on political Islam between 23 and 27 March 2009. The CSC has been informed by SOAS that the course is aimed at educating Government officials and the Police."
So what are the charges against Moussawi? If you're applying the same logic the government applied with Wilders, then it's hard to disagree with the Tories. He is editor of the newspaper Al-Intiqad, which has strong links to Hezbollah, and was previously a senior employee at the official Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar. In explaining why Al-Manar doesn't carry interviews and statements from Israeli officials, Moussawi has stated that "It is an enemy state ... why would you put spokesmen for an enemy state on the air?", and has been quoted by the New Yorker as saying that Jews are "a lesion on the forehead of history".

So, if the new measures the government introduced in November are designed to exclude those "who have engaged in fostering, encouraging or spreading extremism and hatred", then Moussawi, given the words attributed to him on Jews, certainly fits the bill. And Hezbollah, albeit its military wing, is listed as a "proscribed terrorist group" by the British government. If you ban Geert Wilders, then it's hard to argue that you shouldn't ban Moussawi.

Which of course brings me back to the worrying implications of these new regulations. We are in danger of banning anyone coming into the country who holds controversial views. I don't think Moussawi should be banned any more than I thought Geert Wilders should be banned. I didn't think the Westboro Baptist Church should be banned either, but their exclusion was less worrying because they were going to disrupt the streets of Basingstoke with one of their offensive and preposterous pickets, with implications for policing. If we're only keeping idiots like them out, then fine. But banning people like Wilders and Moussawi have greater implications for our democracy.

In the case of Wilders, a member of our legislature should be free to invite a member of a fellow EU country's legislature to speak, even if they hold highly controversial views on religion, and in the case of Moussawi a British univeristy should be free to invite whoever it likes to address one of its courses. Moussawi has been invited to SOAS as part of a one-week course on "Political Islam: Global and Local Manifestations and Challenges" which, as the course information explains, will address the implications of political Islam in both its violent and non-violent forms. A look at the programme shows that, as part of the five day course, Moussawi will be taking a session on "Hizbullah II: Current politics and prospects". In a course directly addressing the issues surrounding Hezbollah that, as the programme shows, will offer many perspectives, it would surely be fascinating to hear from someone on the inside. This is not a case of a preacher being allowed to indoctrinate children with extremist views in an unregulated environment. This would be a case of an individual, as part of a university course, challenging a group of adults with a controversial perspective on the issues at hand. Which is surely what universities are for? We can't allow the government to dictate who is allowed to come to Britain to speak at our universities, in the same way that we can't allow them to dictate the opinions that make it acceptable for a foreign politician to come here.

But, if you do have a rule in place for excluding those "who have engaged in fostering, encouraging or spreading extremism and hatred", then you must apply it to Moussawi in the same way as it was applied to Wilders. In introducing this rule and using it as it has, the government has set itself up for exactly the kind of accusations of double standards ("one rule for those who criticise Islam, another for proponents of extremist Islam") it now faces from the Conservatives and the right-wing press.


Christopher Gray said...

This is a bit like teaching religion in school. There's a world of difference between 'preaching' a specific doctrine, and informing pupils about that doctrine through teaching methods.

Preaching tries to indoctrinate the facts as dogma using emotional tools, whereas teaching uses rational tools and isn't intended to force pupils to suspend their own judgement - quite the reverse, in fact - it encourages questioning and dissent.

And anyway, there are surely plenty of UK residents who are at least as capable of teaching this material, aren't there?

George said...

I wonder whether Lord Ahmed has an opinion on this one?

Andy Armitage said...

You're dead right, Paul. I, too, would rather such people were not banned (and, as you say, it remains to be seen whether our lords and masters will show consistency), because it just reduces us to the level of countries who do trample on free speech. But I would expect nothing less from the third-rate careerists who make up most of the political bunch we have in New Labour (and elsewhere) at the moment. They are, for the most part, dispicable, dishonest, vote-seeking, politically correct nonentities whom history will forget quite quickly. As a gay person, I might be among those who would like to see the loony Phelpses barred from the UK. However, as anyone can see from the blog I mostly write for, Pink Triangle, I am not, and often make the case that, once we go down the road of banning people whose views we don't like, we run the risk of its happening to us.