Milne’s Empty Threats

Milne himself makes a rare foray onto his own Comment pages today. His purpose is to threaten his readers, obliquely, with terrorist attacks if Hizb ut Tahrir is banned:

If peaceful organisations are banned, Muslims are routinely locked up without charge and support for mainstream Muslim causes is criminalised, some will certainly be intimidated and keep their heads down. But others will conclude that participation in politics is pointless, that the tolerance and liberal democracy proclaimed by the political establishment is a fraud – and go underground. It is in everybody’s interests that parliament resists a panic measure which threatens us all.

I assume that by “go underground“, Milne literally means “go into the Underground and self combust”, or at the very least, “join a terrorist organisation”. After all, if all he meant was that Hizb ut Tahrir’s followers would find it more difficult to recruit new cadre, and would have to operate in a low level clandestine way, would that really be such a bad thing?

This is all par for the course for Milne’s Comment Page. Under his editorship of these pages, the Guardian has become the mouthpiece for those whose theme has been: “Can we really blame ‘them’ if they blow themselves up in a crowded train/market/pizza parlour/shia mosque”?

But let’s take Milne’s substantive claim at face value. Except in a very limited sense, I have never been a subscriber to the “pressure valve” theory of politics, in which allowing extremist sectarian groups – the British National Party, Hizb ut Tahrir – to operate openly performs the vital social function of diverting racist conspiracy theorists from seeking to achieve power by violent means. To some extent democracy does achieve this effect. It represents a clear challenge to extremists. “Come on, then”, we say. “If you really do represent all True Muslims everywhere, or the Aryan Volk, or the International Working Class, lets see how good you are at getting them to vote for you”. Sometimes they try. Usually, they fail. And even when they gain some small amount of political power, their ability to exercise it is generally constrained by the law and by their own limited abilities.

This outcome is, however, a welcome side effect of democracy only. The reason that we don’t ban the BNP, and shouldn’t ban Hizb ut Tahrir, is that they are doing nothing unlawful, and indeed nothing which should be rendered unlawful in a liberal pluralist society. That we preserve such an approach is not simply a “cost” of freedom: it is its nature.

There have, in the past, been better reasons for banning Hizb ut Tahrir and indeed other parties on the far right. Until 1996, Hizb ut Tahrir UK was run by Omar Bakri Mohammed, and it actively and specifically incited terrorism. As for the National Front – the party from which the BNP developed – there are some very good questions to be asked about Nick Griffin’s jaunt to Tripoli to seek funding from Gadaffi. If there are similar, compelling, dangers presented by Hizb ut Tahrir, then the Government should make them public.

In any event, consequentialist “pressure valve” arguments do not apply to Hizb ut Tahrir. Unlike other potentially violent extremists such as the Socialist Workers Party and the British National Party, Hizb ut Tahrir does not contest elections, and is focussed solely on building cadre, winning over the Ummah, and then declaring a Caliphate. Theirs is a strategy of deferred gratification. Their members will never be bogged down in committee meetings in some district council. Their method is to spread the message. And their message is, and always has been, that “liberal democracy … is a fraud”.

So, we’re in a double bind. If Hizb ut Tahrir operates openly, then it will continue to preach the message that totalitarianism is preferable to democracy: and they may increase their membership. If we ban it, we deprive ourselves of a strong argument which needs to be made generally: that liberal democracy and autonomy is always better than submission to the imagined will of a stern God.

If not by banning Hizb ut Tahrir then, how should liberals, socialists and progressive fight back?

The answer, in part, is to expose groups like Hizb ut Tahrir for the totalitarian scum that they are. We need to counter their arguments. We should be giving them no quarter.

This, of course, is the precise opposite of what the Guardian Comment page editor himself has been doing for the past three years. Under his editorship, we have had Comment pieces by an undisclosed member of Hizb ut Tahrir and an article praising that party’s supposed support for “womens’ rights”. We have had article after article after article after article after article after article after article after article after article by members of the extreme Islamist political group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

There has, indeed, even been an article by Sa’ad Al-Faqih who made an argument about the wrongheadedness of Britain’s proposed anti-terrorism measures which was substantally the same as that deployed today by Milne himself. The article billed Al Fagih as “a leading exiled Saudi dissident and director of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia”. In fact, he is the al Qaida spokesperson in London, and identified as an al Qaeda associate on the UN and HM Treasury lists.

There has, of course, been some balance in the Comment pages. He has published one article by Professor Norman Geras, after all. And we shouldn’t forget those five risible articles by “Norman Johnson”.

Banning a political movement is one thing. But providing it with a platform and acting as its cheerleader is quite another. Milne’s concern that Hizb ut Tahrir members will lose faith in liberal democracy is affected and false. In fact, he has been promoting precisely this conclusion, from a specifically Islamist perspective, since his appointment as Comment Editor.

Also see Normblog on a different aspect of the same article.