By Rizwaan Sabir
Muslims Must Work to Change the Anti-Terror Laws
Since the events of 9/11 and 7/7, the British government has launched a series of programmes and initiatives under its counter-terrorism strategy (Contest) to counter the threat posed by individuals intent on adopting a violent methodology for change. Out of the four areas that comprise Contest (Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare), the Prevent strand, or Preventing Violent Extremism as it’s officially known, has been given the most coverage by researchers, academics and practitioners, respectively.
However, this has led the Pursue component – the strand which has created numerous draconian anti-terror laws that have authorised extended pre-charge detention periods, control orders and a surveillance culture – to be somewhat neglected. In essence, the problem lies with the definition adopted in the Terrorism Act 2000 that has lowered the bar for what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ offence. According to the definition, terrorism is the use of force, or the threat of force, to influence the government for a purpose related to the advancing of a political, religious, racial or ideological goal, regardless of whether it’s in the United Kingdom or abroad. Now keeping this definition in mind, if somebody calls for the overthrow of an oppressive regime or defends the right of a group of people to resist an occupying army, they are potentially inciting terrorism.
To provide some perspective to the example, if you say that the people of Palestine have a right under international law to resist the Israeli occupation and have a right to self-determination, they could be said to be ‘inciting terrorism overseas’. But, if you stand outside Downing Street and shout – ‘Israel has a right to take all necessary steps to defend itself, even if it means bombing the people of Gaza with cluster bombs and white phosphorous’, this is a totally legitimate position to hold. In fact, you might even get invited in for tea and biscuits.
Just as insidious as this idea is the glorification element of the Terrorism Act 2006, which also hinges onto the definition of terrorism mentioned above. According to this section, it is an offence to glorify or encourage – whether directly or indirectly – an act of violence. You may not attempt to encourage an individual to commit an act of violence, but if the individual interprets your words, writings or video as an encouragement to commit violence, then you are potentially committing an offence. The most absurd thing is that because it is an offence to glorify terrorists no matter when they were operating, it is actually an offence to glorify what an American Revolutionary or Lawrence of Arabia did, both of whom were terrorists according to the current definition.
So, what do we do then? The answer is actually quite simple. Because the problem with many of the terrorism offences hinge on the over-broad definition of terrorism, the government must tighten the definition, along with other components of the legislation not mentioned here that equally threaten and undermine legitimate speech and actions. Whether it’s Israel’s occupation of Palestine, China’s occupation of Tibet, the dictatorial regime of Burma or the Pakistani government’s war against the people of the North, is besides the point. Respect for international protocols that defend the right of citizens to speak without fear of being detained as suspected ‘terrorists’ is paramount and should act as the foundation for any democracy – not only on paper and in rosy speeches, but in reality too. The British Muslim community, along with all other people who respect and believe in the idea of liberty and civil rights, must take it on themselves to become the biggest challengers to such insidious and draconian powers that have done nothing more than justify botched terror raids, wrongful arrests and continued vilification and criminalisation of Muslims.
As a Muslim, I believe that the Muslim community has the conviction, belief and passion to challenge the laws of this country that threaten them with arrest and detention if they hold a political view that challenges the status-quo. Indeed, the next ten years will be difficult. The far right is increasing in power, socio-economic conditions are worsening and anti-Muslim sentiment is further increasing throughout Europe, but let us not allow this to bog us down. Let us use these difficulties and challenges as motivating tools. This is a struggle that needs to be fought and it is a struggle that needs to be tackled head-on. Only when the anti-terror laws have been altered, the draconian clauses dropped and threat of arrest and detention ended, will Muslims feel safer to engage in a more honest and open debate about violence, foreign policy and the Middle East.
In the next ten years, I believe that the British Muslim community – armed with its increasing number of intellectuals, religious authorities, writers, journalists, lawyers, academics, community leaders and professionals – should be at the fore of such discussion and debate. As a community we have a lot to offer. We are young, radical and energetic, and we must use these strengths to shape policies and laws that affect us so heavily. Let us make it our duty to inform and pressure those in power that we will not passively sit back and continue being criminalised and threatened by their over-zealous laws. If there was ever a time to get active, it is now. Let us show those in the corridors of power what democracy is.
Rizwaan Sabir is a doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde where he is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government discourse, with a special focus on counterterrorism. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog and various news agencies. In 2008, he was wrongly arrested in a terrorism raid at the University of Nottingham and detained for six days for being in possession of research material. Since his release, he has become an outspoken campaigner against counter-terrorism measures and anti-terror laws.
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