When Harriet met Hizb

from the Observer

What does an MP do when members of a totalitarian sect drop into her surgery?

A few weeks ago, Harriet Harman was holding a surgery for her Peckham constituents. As always, it was an open house, and every variety of south Londoner was coming to her office. She had dealt with the usual run of complaints and appeals when the door opened and for the first time in her life Harman confronted authentic anti-democrats.

If she had been less startled, she might have seen the funny side. The members of Hizb ut-Tahrir hated democracy and all that went with it – secularism, the separation of church and state, the emancipation of women. It’s not just that they would establish a dictatorship if they came to power, the successor parties to the communists and the fascists would do that. The Islamists regarded it as sinful to stand in elections or even vote.

Yet here were totalitarians and misogynists going to a woman democratic politician and begging her to persuade Tony Blair not to take authoritarian measures against their authoritarian sect. The scene could have been bettered only if Harman had been a Jewish lesbian.

In fact, she is a courteous and patient politician. She listened politely to what they had to say and the more she heard the more despairing she became. As they were leaving, she said, ‘you’re British citizens. Shouldn’t you try to play a part in British society?’

‘We’re not a part of British society,’ they told her. ‘We stay here like guests in a hotel.’

Harman didn’t know how to respond, and I’m not sure I do either. Her government’s answer is to declare Hizb an illegal organisation. It looks reasonable at first glance because pretty much everyone else has banned Hizb already.

Mosque committees refuse to allow it on their premises. The National Union of Students bars it from its buildings because ‘it is responsible for supporting terrorism and publishing material which incites racial hatred’. The Germans and the Dutch have outlawed it. In Denmark its spokesman was found guilty of distributing racist propaganda in a leaflet on the Jews entitled: ‘And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out.’

British Asians despair of its cultish recruits. On the opendemocracy.net website Huda Jawad writes of being badgered by young men at her university. ‘They thought that the way to achieving Islamic nirvana was to grow a beard, pepper their talk with Muslim-Arabic and aggressively illustrate to the “misguided” sister how she is contributing to the genocide of her fellow Muslims by choosing to wear trousers, make-up and, heaven forbid, have non-Muslim male friends!’

Shiv Malik of the New Statesman found a Hizb recruiter who described how he followed the tactics of a Moonie or Scientologist when seducing a convert. ‘Say for example that you’re having a marriage breakdown. I’ll use that: “Your wife is leaving you because of problems that stem from the fact that Islam isn’t present in the world today”.’

All of which seems to show that Hizb is an uncomplicated promoter of extremism. But it’s not as simple as that. The best way to understand the group and the problems the government will face when it tries to ban it is to see it as a neo-fascist party based on religion rather than race. Like the European far-right, it explains the world as a Jewish conspiracy and has learned the techniques of modern PR. It knows that it is better to smile at the cameras than screw up your face and scream.

Hizb is reasonably open about what it wants. Its draft constitution imagines a caliphate in which only Muslims can elect the caliph, who in turn would be bound by God’s laws – a theocracy, in other words. Until that glorious day, there will be ‘a bloody struggle alongside the intellectual struggle’ between Islam and unbelief.

The whiff of violence is there. But because Britain is its chief recruiting and fund-raising base in Europe and a ban here would cripple the organisation worldwide, Hizb has become slick and good at presenting itself as benign.

It has taken its racist propaganda off its website. Its media spokesmen are polite and well-dressed. Leaders such as Omar Bakri Mohammed, who wallow in suicide and murder, left to form al-Muhajiroun years ago. When their successors say they no longer promote violence, they’re telling the truth in the narrow sense. They condemned the 7/7 bombings, although you wonder if they would order members to go to the police if they found out about a fresh attack.

The worst you can say of Hizb and its 3,000 or so members is that they are part of a conveyor belt. Omar Sharif, the 27-year-old from Derby who ended up as a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv in 2003, began his journey into the world of slaughter by reading Hizb literature. He moved on to al-Muhajiroun and then to murder and suicide.

But, equally, you can say the BNP is a conveyor belt which takes white men part of the way to racist violence.

It knows the police are watching and is careful these days not to incite attacks. Yet no one is the least surprised when a BNP member is found guilty of firebombing a house or beating up strangers unlucky enough to have the wrong skin colour.

Similarly, there are animal rights groups that provide the mental atmosphere in which violent ideas develop without specifically saying that farmers’ graves should be dug up and scientists’ homes attacked.

Unless the Home Office knows something I don’t, I can’t see an intellectually coherent case for banning Hizb, but leaving animal rights and neo-fascist groups alone. As Harman might have said, this is Britain and we don’t use emergency powers unless we have to, even against people who see themselves as guests rather than citizens.

Of course, keeping Hizb a legal organisation shouldn’t stop the intelligence services spying on its members or journalists exposing how creepy and fascistic its sunny PR men can be once the smiles fall from their faces.

Now’s my chance to sue, or at least get a free lunch

Although The Observer’s crack team of libel lawyers often has to fend off people who want to sue me, I’ve managed to get through life without suing anyone. Last week’s news that the MMR vaccine has nothing to do with autism is testing my self-restraint.

Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?

On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs – at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I’m wondering who I can sue to get my money back.

Obviously, there’s Wakefield, but I doubt if he could afford to meet the damages from a class action on behalf of hundreds of thousands of parents.

The editor of the Lancet is a more tempting target. Wakefield’s original research was based on a sample of just 12 children, which was too small to be meaningful, as the Lancet ought to have known. Medical journals are not the richest of institutions, however, and it would probably take only a couple of thousand single jab bills to close the Lancet down.

By contrast, the Daily Mail and Private Eye, which fed the passing frenzy with all kinds of mumbo jumbo, are loaded. I had a very pleasant lunch at the Eye recently, so I’d say we’re quits. That is no reason why you shouldn’t copy your bills to Ian Hislop, its editor, or Paul Dacre, the editor of the Mail, and demand prompt payment or a free lunch of your own.

I think I’ll sue Channel 5 which in 2003 showed one of the most shamelessly propagandistic dramas to appear on British television. Hear the Silence took it as read that MMR caused autism and that Big Government and Big Pharma were conspiring to hide the truth.

Perhaps Wakefield, the Lancet, the Mail, the Eye and Channel 5 should be more worried about the people who took the mania so seriously they didn’t give their children any vaccines, single of multiple. In my experience, they were determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers.

If there should be a measles epidemic…

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