Sunday, 12 December 2010

Pastor Jones should not be banned. But I expect he probably will be.

Today we learned two things: that the would-be Koran-burning Florida pastor has been invited to Britain by the anti-Islam English Defence League; and that the Home Secretary is being urged to ban him. So far, so predictable. My strong suspicion is that he will indeed be banned. The change of government has not fundamentally altered the UK establishment's suspicion of free speech. Or, to be more accurate, its conviction that when freedom of speech threatens to conflict with administrative, political or police convenience, free speech must give way. There's no First Amendment in Britain (the ECHR equivalent, Article 10, is hamstrung by caveats). And there is now a well-established procedure for banning people from these shores whose views are deemed undesirable.

Theresa May has already acted earlier this year to ban another "preacher of hate", the Islamist Zakir Naik. To not ban Reverend Terry Jones as well would seem discriminatory, even churlish to let him in. And it would be easy to draw an equivalence between the two. Nick Knowles, whose Hope Not Hate campaign is demanding Jones be kept out, claims that Jones' presence would be "incendiary and highly dangerous" and would sow discord between communities. The same pragmatic reasons were advanced against Naik. His presence, we were warned, would give succour to extremists and would inflame tensions. In both instances, moreover, the implication is that letting the preachers in would mean, ultimately, more young Muslims becoming "radicalised" and thus lead to more acts of terrorism - in the one case as a result of Naik's alleged teachings, in the other because the "concern and fear among Muslims across the country" predicted by Knowles would harm social cohesion.

I wouldn't ban either man; I'm pretty much a free speech fundamentalist. But there is nevertheless an important distinction between the two cases. Naik was accused, plausibly or not, of directly endorsing acts of terrorism. He is supposed to have said that every Muslim should be a terrorist. He is no Anwar al-Awlaki; and it's hard to believe that any young British Muslim would be "radicalised" by hearing Naik - especially when one considers the many preachers of indistinguishable views who are in Britain quite legally and preach every week. Some such people, indeed, enjoy a respected position as "community leaders" and have the ear of politicians and the police. Nevertheless, on one interpretation of his views Naik was a friend of terrorism.

Pastor Jones, by contrast (as Cranmer points out) only ever threatened to burn a book - a threat he did not go through with, and which has not been repeated. And there's no suggestion that his trip to Britain, should it take place, would involve such a stunt. Members of the English Defence League, indeed, are quite capable of burning Korans without the physical presence of Pastor Jones to inspire them. Jones does not call for violence. He doesn't like Islam, though, and can usually be relied upon to say so. For many, though they don't quite admit it, this is precisely why he should be banned. Demanding his exclusion, though framed in terms of avoiding social strife, is a form of moral grandstanding: it is a way of expressing disapproval for his opinions. That's what always troubles me about such campaigns. It elides what should be an important distinction, between disapproving of someone (or something) and wanting them to be banned.

The high-minded principle of disagreeing with what someone says yet defending their right to say it has been eroded in recent years. For one thing, it's too subtle for an easy headline. It has even come to seem inconsistent. If you really disagree with something, the implication seems to be, how could you not want it to be banned? At a deeper level, the Voltairean principle conflicts with the tenor of the times. The desire to ban Pastor Jones comes from the same psychological place as the desire to ban airbrushed adverts or the open display of cigarette packets.

This is why, when Jones is banned, the decision will be framed in terms of a noble defence of British values. We will be told that his message of intolerance is unwelcome on these shores, that he represents a threat to social cohesion and to the good community relations that allegedly prevail here. We will also be warned of the dire consequences that would follow were he admitted - it is probably as a threat to "public order" that he will technically be denied entry.

The real reasons will be slightly different. There is little or no political advantage to be gained from a principled defence of free speech, but some to be gained from a demonstration of distaste for Pastor Jones and his ilk. Banning Jones will secure him in some eyes the status of a martyr. More to the point, though, letting him in (theoretically the default option, but in this situation it looks like a positive decision) would land the Home Secretary with personal responsibility for any trouble that occurred at the EDL rally he addressed. EDL rallies always end in trouble, either from EDL members themselves or from the "anti-fascist" demonstrators who turn up to oppose them. Pastor Jones would attract larger crowds, on both sides, than is usual. Some sort of incident is inevitable.

No doubt there will be a demonstration against the ban, which will also attract anti-fascist counter-demonstrators, and will lead to almost as much trouble. But the Home Secretary is unlikely to be blamed for that - she did what she could to defuse tensions, after all, by banning Rev Jones - so it won't matter.

Banning someone because you don't like their views is always wrong in principle, and rarely justified on security grounds. But it has become the default option and, for that reason, the easiest one for a politician to take.