Monday, 13 December 2010

Is this man set to become a free speech martyr?

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I suspect I'm not the only person experiencing a spot of far-right hatemonger déjà vu on account of the news that the (not-quite) Qur'an burning Florida pastor Terry Jones may be prevented from making a planned visit to Britain next February. The home secretary, Theresa May, has said she is "actively looking" at the possibility of banning Jones, who is scheduled to address as meeting of the anti-Muslim far-right English Defence League in Luton, which, as the Guardian reports, she has the power to do if Jones' "presence in the UK could threaten national security, public order or the safety of citizens, or if she believes his views glorify terrorism, promote violence or encourage other serious crime."

We have, of course, been here before when, in 2009, the then home secretary Jacqui Smith banned the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders from visiting the UK to attend a screening of his anti-Muslim film Fitna at the House of Lords, at the invitation of UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Ranoch. The ban on Wilders, which was later overturned, proved highly controversial even among those who oppose his politics, as it was viewed by some as an attack on freedom of expression. The Home Office stated that Wilders' visit would "threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK", but opponents of the ban argued that as long as he wasn't threatening or inciting violence, he had the right to come here and express his views, however distasteful they may be.

The visit of Terry Jones presents a similar problem. He says he is coming to talk about "the evils of Islam", which is something, as we see with the EDL, is something people are legally entitled to do. But the argument for banning Jones does seem stronger than that for banning Wilders last year, as EDL rallies have a history of turning violent. In a petition to the home secretary, the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate make a convincing case for preventing the visit:
"...Pastor Jones wants to give a speech attacking Islam at an EDL rally in Luton. The EDL emerged in Luton in May 2009 and its first demonstration ended with 250 people going on the rampage through a predominantly Asian area of the town. Since then it has become a national organisation and is the single biggest threat to social cohesion in this country today.

Pastor Terry Jones’s presence in Luton will be incendiary and highly dangerous. He will attract and encourage thousands of EDL supporters to take to the streets, and cause concern and fear among Muslims across the country. Only extremists will benefit from his visit and, as we know, extremism breeds hatred and hatred breeds violence. For these reasons we are asking you to prevent Pastor Terry Jones from entering the UK."
Speaking to the Today programme this morning, Jones himself protests that he has no intention of inciting violence, saying that he would come bearing a "positive message" (his definition of "positive message" would appear to differ from most people's). Meanwhile, on Comment is Free, John Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and a seasoned anti-fascist campaigner, argues in favour of a ban:
"The refusal to ban the pastor of a hitherto obscure church with a following of fewer than 50 people does not represent a mortal blow to the debate about the merits of Islam. How many people can quote a single sermon of Jones's? How many can recount a single innovative theological, political or social contribution from him on this issue? Jones has nothing to offer except lighter fuel and malign intent.

But we know what sits on the other side of the debit sheet. Mass disorder. Communities divided on racial and religious lines. Intolerance. Violence. Entire towns rent asunder. Over the top? Just ask those people who live and work in those communities where the EDL roadshow has already rolled into town. They'll tell you. And they'll tell you what they think of the idea of a repeat appearance with Jones in tow."
It's a difficult issue – on the one hand, a combination of the EDL and the man who made the headlines worldwide for threatening to burn the Qur'an, speaking in a town with a large Muslim population, does seem like a recipe for trouble. On the other, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Theresa May would be giving Jones the publicity he craves by excluding him, making him a free speech martyr for those that share his extremist views. Is it not better to just let him come, on the logic that he will make far fewer headlines, and be denied the status of the silenced messenger, that way? He's already had far more publicity than he deserves on account of his aborted Qur'an burning stunt – do we really want to be giving him more on this side of the Atlantic?

But then again, if Jones comes to Luton and there is some serious trouble, then he and the EDL will make even more headlines, and the home secretary will have to explain why she didn't take the opportunity to stop it in the first place.

Not quite sure where I stand on this one – I'd be very interested to hear what people think. Please share your views in the comments.
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