Free Expression and Fascists

This is a cross post by Peter Risdon

The 2006 March for Free Expression was mentioned by Alan A in a post at Harry’s Place a couple of days ago. He said:

When you compare that to the March for Free Expression, back in 2006, huge effort was put by the organisers into ensuring that Nazis did not attend. The board included Peter Tatchell, Evan Harris MP, the National Secular Society, and both Maryam Namazie and Sayyida Rend Shakir al-Hadithi. Racists were expressly told to stay away, and the religious freedom of Muslims was explicitly defended.

That meant that when it was attacked by Bob Pitt, it was able to squash his lies.

Bob Pitt has now responded:

In connection with the so-calle dMarch for Free Expression back in 2006 (it was in fact a poorly attended static demonstration in Trafalgar Square, the purpose of which was to defend the “freedom” of the right-wing Danish paper Jyllands-Posten to publish racist anti-Muslim cartoons) Harry’s Place informs us that “huge effort was put by the organisers into ensuring that Nazis did not attend”. Consequently, “when it was attacked by Bob Pitt, it was able to squash his lies”.

It would be interesting to know what this “huge effort” the MFE organisers made to deter the far right consisted of. The BNP made it clear in advance that they supported the MFE and intended to send a contingent from their front organisation, Civil Liberty, to the Trafalgar Square event – but, apart from indicating that they didn’t want the BNP joining them, the MFE organisers appear to have made no serious attempts to counter this.

The event was organised through a blog. The first posts on the blog were titled, in this order, “Starting point”, “Statement of Principle”, “When”, “Why” and “No fascists please, we’re British”. Excluding fascists was one of the first and highest priorities for us, as organisers. So was preventing the affair becoming a sort of Nuremberg Rally of anti-Islamic banners. Perhaps the most controversial thing I did was ask people not to bring banners of the Danish cartoons. As the “No fascists please”post said:

It would be disingenuous, even dishonest, to pretend that the Danish Cartoon Affair has nothing to do with this movement – on the contrary it absolutely was the event that galvanised us into action. But we were also concerned by the closure of a play in Birmingham following demonstrations by Sikhs, and by demonstrations by fundamentalist Christians against a couple of programmes scheduled by the BBC.

As students of the various websites around the world that are used by apostate or moderate Muslims – anonymously, in fear of their lives – to support each other can testify, the most immediate victims of absolutist, supremacist Islam are Muslims themselves.

Pitt knows this – he studied the March’s blog and even started a special section on his contemptible blog just for the March – so, when he says the purpose of the rally was “to defend the “freedom” of the right-wing Danish paper Jyllands-Posten to publish racist anti-Muslim cartoons”, he is, in my view, knowingly lying. The purpose was to defend free expression, all free expression.

Speaking at the rally was a great personal risk for Rend Shakir and I’d like to salute her courage here and now, something I fear I might not have done sufficiently in the past. She and I were liaising constantly behind the scenes with the Muslim Action Committee, who were organising a counter-demonstration, to prevent any possibility of violence and to do everything we could to make it an event Muslims could also attend. In this, I think we were at least partially successful. In the end, MAC held their rally elsewhere to avoid the possibility of clashes, and Rend spoke at that, then dashed to London to speak to us. We did everything we could not just to ensure the BNP couldn’t hijack the event, but also to make it as inclusive as possible.

That’s why, when BNP supporters threatened to kill me for excluding them, the Muslim Action Committee offered me sanctuary.

I’ll repeat that. The BNP were so angry at being excluded from the event that their supporters issued death threats. The Muslim Action Committee offered me a safe place where fascists wouldn’t be able to attack me. That was the measure of our work against the BNP; that was the measure of our work trying to extend hands across the divide to the MAC.

It might be that some BNP supporters attended the March. What could we do about that? Pitt is being deeply deceitful when he says we made no serious attempts to counter it. We couldn’t stop individuals attending, but there was NO fascist presence in Trafalgar Square that day. Johann Hari mentioned communists mingling with fascists, but I believe he meant the Freedom Association as the latter. They did indeed have a fascist on their board in the 1970s, John Tyndall, who went on to found the BNP. Had the organisation not renounced that past entirely, they would not have been associated with the event.

I can substantiate that claim. In 1983 I was doing something that attracted large-scale press coverage. The Freedom Association wrote and offered assistance. I flushed the letter down the toilet. Tyndall was still on the board. At no time in my life would I have accepted fascist help. When the FA offered support for the March, I met with Mark Wallace, their campaigns manager, and the sole topic of conversation was whether or not they had renounced the association with Tyndall. Mark was very aware and open about that past, and adamant in his renunciation of it. That renunciation went all the way to the top of the organisation.

It is incredibly difficult to stop an event like that being hijacked by fascists. As Alan A said in his original post, other events have not been so successful in this respect. But we did manage it, and the fury of the BNP’s supporters was a source of great personal satisfaction for me.

So were Bob Pitt’s discomfort and his increasingly pathetic attempts to smear us.