During the course of the 1980s, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now “Liberty“) was embroiled in a number huge internal debates which threatened to split the organisation.
The issues involved in each debate reflected, largely, the tension between various perspectives of the NCCL’s heterogeneous membership. There was a particularly nasty fight over a NCCL-established commission’s inquiry into the violent and repressive policing of the miners’ strike, which led to some members of the commission considering the issue of the bullying and assaults directed at working miners. Later on, NCCL conferences were dominated by a series of furious confrontations between pro-censorship feminists, who argued that pornography was “hate speech” directed at women, and libertarian feminists, who formed a group called “Feminists Against Censorship” to oppose that faction.
Perhaps the biggest battle within the NCCL centred around the question of whether the organisation should support activists in the neo-nazi National Front, if their civil liberties were restricted. The issue first raised its head in the 1970s, where the American Council for Civil Liberties decided to litigate to defend the right of the National Socialist Party of America, to march through the village of Skokie in Illinois: a town with a large Jewish population, which included many Holocaust survivors. 30,000 ACLU members in the state resigned their membership.
An interesting footnote to the case is that it transpired that the NSAP leader, Frank Colin, was himself the son of a Jewish holocaust survivor. One day, perhaps, somebody will write a book on the reasons that a members of ethnic minorities end up advocating political causes dedicated to their own persecution. I mean, how did the daughter of a black Jamaican end up, albeit briefly, a British National Party councillor? But I digress…
The NCCL’s internal fight over the support of the civil liberties of members of the far right was a rather low key affair, certainly when compared with the storm caused by the ACLU’s support of the American National Socialists. In the 1980s, the NCCL received two requests for assistance from the National Front. In both cases, they were told that the NCCL was a small organisation, with limited resources, and that they should seek their own legal advice.
As a matter of fact, this sort of response was routinely given to individuals and organisations requesting the NCCL’s assistance. It was also an accurate reflection of the poverty – relative to the well funded ACLU – of the organisation. Nevertheless, it was a cop out; and one which in any event did not forestall an ill tempered debate on the principle of the propriety of defending the civil liberties of members of far right organisations. Resolutions were passed, accusations were thrown, and a few newspaper articles were written on the subject. Ultimately, the debate on supporting NF members was one of the factors which led the then General Secretary Larry Gostin to resign.
My view on the subject of defending the basic civil liberties of extremists is simple. A civil liberties organisation which does not do so, merely because of the offensiveness of the extreme politics in question, cannot call itself civil libertarian. This is why I was heartened to see that Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, forthrightly opposing the proposed ban on Hizb ut Tahrir, which – despite its violent rhetoric and totalitarian politics – is not a terrorist organisation.
Similarly, I am not a supporter of the argument that one should not appear on the same platform as a member of an extremist organisation because to do so “legitimates” their politics. I have spoken on the same platform as the ancient, and now dead, racist, “Lady” Birdwood: because she would otherwise have been unopposed. I might well think twice, though, about speaking from the platform of an organisation which espoused a vicious politics. I might do it, perhaps, if I felt that I could make it clear that I was not making common cause with that outfit, generally.
One thing I would not do, were I the director of a progressive pressure group, is to co-organise a rally with an extremist political outfit.
Yet, this is precisely what Shami Chakrabarti’s Liberty has done.
This evening, Liberty and an outfit called the British Muslim Initiative are holding a National Rally to Defend Freedom of Religion, Conscience and Thought. Speakers include the usual suspects: Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, Lee Jasper, Lindsey German, Ken Livingstone and Kate Hudson. They also include the Tory Party Vice Chair, Sayeeda Warsi, and the shadow Tory Attorney General, Dominic Grieve MP, and Andrew Stunell MP- the Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Community and Local Government.
Livingstone, German and Hudson have sufficient experience of extremist Islamist politics to know perfectly well what sort of organisation the British Muslim Initiative is. In Liberty’s defence, I can only assume that it is run by innocents, who have no idea about the organisation with which they’ve teamed up.
The British Muslim Initiative is the brainchild of Anas Altikriti and Azzam “Kaboom” Tamimi, formerly members of the shura council of the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Association of Britain. They set up the British Muslim Initiative in order better to engage in the more overtly political, and less purely spiritual, forms of Islamist activism. Its prominent members are Muslim Brotherhood activists.
The Muslim Brotherhood, as readers will know, is a prominent Islamist political movement which seeks to establish – presently, by non-violent means – a theocracy in the Muslim world. It is, in the words of Tony Cliff, a clerical-fascist organisation. Although it favours democracy as the best strategy to attain power, its politics are profoundly illiberal. Were it to come to power, it would quickly move to desecularise society, and would enact laws which would deny fundamental freedoms to women and those it deems “apostates”.
I would support a rally which sought to defend freedom of religion and the freedom to have no religion. However, how can progressives support a Rally organised by extremist grouping, such as the Muslim Brotherhood? How could Liberty have allowed itself to become the sole co-organiser of such a meeting?
Although there is a Sikh organisation and a Jewish organisation involved, as you might expect from a Muslim Brotherhood Rally, a large number of the supporting organisations are Muslim Brotherhood front organisations. They include:
– Islamic Forum Europe
– The Cordoba Foundation
– Assembly for the Protection of Hijab
– Federation of Student Islamic Society
– Islam Channel
– European Muslim Network
Speakers include Tariq Ramadan, Salma Yaqoob, and new kid on the block, Soumaya Ghannoushi: who I assume is a scion of Rachid Ghannoushi, the head of the Tunisian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood: the Al-Nahda Movement.
The BMI have also secured the support of the Islamic Human Right Commission, which is Khomenist rather than Qutbist. Nice to see them working together!
The point is this. When Liberty speaks on platforms alongside – or even organised by – political movements which are absolutely opposed to everthing they stand for, at least they can argue that they are doing so to ensure that a broad argument is heard. However, when they explicitly partner with such an organisation, they lose the ability to take such a critical, and detached position.
Put it this way. If the British National Party was to be banned, or subject to a penal law which was designed to prevent it from campaigning, Liberty might well want to object to the passage of that law. It might even speak at a public meeting at which a BNP activist was also invited to speak. But would Shami Chakrabarti speak at a BNP rally? And would she co-organise a meeting with one of the BNP’s front organisations: say the Christian Council of Britain, or Civil Liberty?
This is a low point in Liberty’s history.
As a footnote, I suspect that innocence is the best explanation for the involvement of the Tories and the LibDems in this organisation. They should really know better. Perhaps they were seduced by the sheen of respectability provided by Liberty’s involvement. I expect that the Tories, at least, would withdraw, if they knew that they were participating in a Muslim Brotherhood organised event. Last week, David Cameron wrote in the Sunday Times:
The final change needed is a much more rigorous approach to combating Islamic fundamentalism. The government seems confused as to what fundamentalism actually is. On the one hand ministers perfectly reasonably express concern about women who wear the veil while teaching. On the other hand they pay for extremist preachers of hate such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports suicide bombings, to attend conferences.
We need to embrace genuinely moderate Muslims, the majority who love Britain and want to live in peace, while confronting the fundamentalists. Those who distance themselves from terrorism while seeking to radicalise young Muslims into despising the West are part of the problem.
Yet, one week later, his shadow Minister and his vice chair are speaking at a conference organised by precisely the outfit that Cameron condemns.