A war waged on liberty in liberty's own name

January 20, 2006

Paranoia about Muslim 'extremists' has seen the West trample on the very rights it claims to uphold, argues Abdul Wahid

Is there an "extremist" under your bed? Worse still, a Muslim one? The Government's proposed "extremism task force" may not be a match for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and paranoia about Islam and injustices committed against Muslims in the name of security have not yet reached McCarthyite proportions. Nonetheless, the changes to the law proposed by the Prime Minister are draconian, challenging centuries-old liberties while intensifying the alienation of Muslims in Britain.

Tony Blair has proposed banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, the party to which I belong. By doing so he would label as terrorist an organisation with a 53-year history of non-violent political activism working to shape public opinion in the Muslim world in favour of a caliphate system of government with an elected ruler and defined systems of accountability. In promoting an unashamedly Islamic approach that is committed to sharing resources for the benefit of all citizens (regardless of their faith), we are strongly against Western imperialist foreign policy. But despite this, we have clearly condemned the killing of innocent civilians in New York, Madrid and London.

It is a disturbing reflection of the climate in Britain that this unprecedented proposal to proscribe non-violent organisations has not caused outrage. Similarly, there is no vocal opposition to the way anti-terror proposals disproportionately target one minority community and potentially silence and criminalise political support for resistance struggles in Palestine and Kashmir.

Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education, further fuelled the paranoia by declaring that universities should be more vigilant in seeking and rooting out "extremists".

The label "extreme" inevitably imposes a type of censorship on those views selected as such by politicians and the media. Kelly's suggestion surely has huge implications for discussion and debate on campus.

There has been a blurring of the war on terrorism with a war on political ideas. The paranoia produced by giving police the powers to "stop and search" and arrest and detain for two weeks without charge is spreading.

The "smoke" - more often without fire than with - has blown beyond anxious neighbourhoods and across university campuses.

Muslim student leaders fear they could be expelled from courses or that prayer rooms may be closed if they organise political debates about Zionism or about the resistance to occupation in Iraq.

Muslim students are unlikely to abandon views that they are forced to censor, only keep them hidden, and a view that is not expressed can never truly be challenged intellectually, just condemned. Any frustration and alienation they feel could only be fuelled by such a climate.

Hizb ut-Tahrir's is a vision that commands huge support in the Muslim world and has substantial backing among Muslims in the UK. Our members are often better able to articulate a viewpoint of Islam and politics than others.

If universities, students, academics and thinkers do not discuss, question and scrutinise the views of our non-violent political organisation, who then would they approach to try to bridge the already huge gap in understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds? Do they really prefer a one-sided neoconservative rant about any future caliphate to an informed dialogue?

I suspect my words may resonate with Muslims on campus. But it is the rest of society that needs to appreciate what is happening. It is highly likely that silencing one section of the community by legal or social pressures will give politicians greater licence to encroach upon the speech of others, so narrowing the circle of "acceptable" views to hold in society.

This is not a position about which anyone should be proud, and it only adds to the image of hypocrisy that stains a nation that promotes the rhetoric of free speech and human rights elsewhere while violating what it holds most sacred in its own midst.

Abdul Wahid is a Middlesex GP and an executive member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

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