Cameron's censorship silences debate
British Prime Minister David Cameron is a calculated hypocrite on the question of Muslim radicalisation. In July, in the wake of the attack on British and other tourists in Tunisia, he announced a counterstrategy to stop the spread of extremist movements such as the Islamic State.
His four-pronged strategy includes delegitimising the ideology that underpinned these movements – especially those that argue for an Islamic caliphate – and emboldening the Muslim community to counter extremism from within. For Cameron: “The adherents of this ideology are overpowering other voices within Muslim debate, especially those who are trying to challenge it.”
Yet, in a self-defeating move, his government has prevented one of the most prominent voices countering radicalisation of the Islamic State variety from entering Britain: Na’eem Jeenah, a South African.
In April 2015, in a delayed response to a visa application made in 2014, a Home Office entry clearance officer said in a letter that they were not convinced Jeenah’s reasons for travel “were of a sufficiently compelling nature to override my belief that your exclusion from the United Kingdom is conducive to the public good on national security grounds”. The officer was not satisfied “on the balance of probabilities” that Jeenah satisfied British visa regulations.
Jeenah had been invited to a round-table meeting hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. At this meeting, policymakers and academics intended to discuss appropriate responses to the Islamic State, among other issues.
At times, such discussions can be very useful. Because Chatham House rules apply, participants from conflicting perspectives can open up and explore problems in ways that are not possible under ordinary circumstances. British citizens could have benefited from a genuine exchange of ideas on these issues, which makes the Home Office’s banning of Jeenah all the more shortsighted, because he was unable to bring his perspective to bear on these discussions.
And what precisely are his perspectives? Jeenah is the director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (Amec), based in Johannesburg. He is also a prominent Muslim scholar and left-wing activist.
He has the political and theological knowledge to make the arguments, with great authority and authenticity, that Islam cannot and must not be reduced to the perverted ideology that the Islamic State and other, similar organisations propagate in the name of Islam.
Jeenah holds no brief for the Islamic State; he has argued that it needs to be isolated, including by military means. Yet he says these interventions must be led by state and nonstate actors in the region, not the coalition forces (including Britain), because the latter will inevitably put their own interests before the interests of the region’s citizens. Jeenah has also argued that the Islamic State’s growth needs to be stopped at the level of its recruits, because its purpose is to attract Muslims into the self-declared caliphate.
For Jeenah, the Islamic State and its ilk “are the enemy of all reasonable people”. He goes on to argue: “You need to deal with [the problem] at the ideological level. You need to engage with the Islamic theological battle, and that needs to be conducted from within the Muslim community. You need to counter all the arguments outside of the territory that they hold, including in the West. Successfully conducting that battle will strangle the Islamic State.”
For Jeenah, the wisdom or otherwise of re-establishing a Muslim caliphate must be subjected to democratic debate, not censorship. The fact that such violence is being committed in the name of this idea makes a democratic response all the more urgent. Yet this response should come from all democrats, not just Muslims, because the Islamic State and what it stands for threatens all humanity.
If Cameron was serious about countering extremism, then what better person to allow into Britain than Jeenah? Arguably, such censorship serves the Conservative administration. By controlling the discourse, they can divide and rule the Muslim community, turning Muslims into what African intellectual Mahmood Mamdani has called “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” – and handpicking the “moderates”.
So, for instance, “moderates” must not be too critical of Britain’s policy fundamentals. It is these fundamentals that allow it to pursue its geopolitical interests to the benefit of its defence industry.
The Conservatives’ poodles must not be anti-imperialist in outlook, and Jeenah is. In fact, within his critique of Islamic State, Jeenah has a great deal to say about the contributions of the West to the problem, including that the Islamic State was a creation of the coalition forces’s folly in Iraq.
The countries of the “Five Eyes” or “FVEY” intelligence alliance – Britain, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – have pursued the “war on terror” outside the frame of human rights, thereby contributing massively to global insecurity and at least partly creating the very problem it was allegedly designed to solve. If Britain doesn’t want extremism, it shouldn’t create extremists.
Cameron’s administration, however, needs a simplistic narrative of radicalisation, in which its own contribution to the problem is ignored, and in which ideas it finds unpalatable are criminalised on the tenuous pretext that they create a climate for terrorism. This narrative makes the case for more securitised responses to the extremist threat, a massive expansion of the state’s surveillance capabilities.
With the skill of a seasoned securocrat, Cameron has seized on the Islamic State attacks in Tunisia in June this year to justify greater censorship. But he is taking Britain, and in fact the world, down a dangerous path. It is one that Britain has been down before, and it is one that has created more terrorist threats than the country and its allies can ever hope to deal with.
For instance, Britain and other countries cannot ward off the threat posed by so-called self-starting terrorists or lone wolf attackers using state security agencies without waging a protracted, divisive war against its own citizens. Its spy machine has shown that it cannot even get the basics right in protecting national security. In fact, several recent terrorist attacks in Britain and elsewhere have been made possible by basic intelligence failures. Yet it and other “Five Eyes” countries continue to seek ever more invasive spying powers.
The denial of Jeenah’s visa is a form of censorship, because it prevents him from contributing to exchanges of views on an issue of great public importance. But Britain’s drift towards punishing words – and not just deeds – to counter extremism has been developing for some time now.
Cameron’s speech deepened the drift. He has committed his administration to disallowing ideas, even those that preach nonviolence. They accept the anti-democratic premise that there doesn’t have to be a causal link between terrorism and extremism for extremism to be criminalised.
Cameron’s administration still has to present evidence that Jeenah has engaged in any actions that threaten national security. If such evidence exists, then they should do so. But then probably, to their minds, they don’t need to. Given the mindset prevailing in Whitehall, the fact that Jeenah’s views are disagreeable is reason enough.
Jeenah has made, and continues to make, a significant contribution to the struggle to bring about a democratic South Africa. At a time when Cameron’s conservative predecessors, such as Margaret Thatcher, were propping up apartheid, Jeenah contributed to the anti-apartheid struggle at great personal cost. His brother was killed by the apartheid police in 1994.
The postapartheid South Africa that he and others have helped to bring about is by no means a perfect country, and these imperfections extend to its intelligence agencies. But at least South Africa has had the good sense not to align itself overtly and consistently with the “war against terror”. In its national security posture, the country remains critical of how this war has been prosecuted.
In South Africa, Jeenah can speak freely. The country faces no major terrorist threat, and there is little Islamophobia. It is a country where Jeenah’s contributions, and that of his organisation, are valued greatly. Government officials often participate in Amec’s events, and relations are cordial and constructive, although this does not prevent critical engagement.
Its own problems notwithstanding, perhaps South Africa needs to teach the British a lesson or two in democracy. Its current crop of political leaders certainly seem to need it.
Professor Jane Duncan works at the University of Johannesburg. She is author of Rise of the Securocrats (Jacana). She worked with Na’eem Jeenah at the Freedom of Expression Institute from 2005 to 2008
Civil rights, civilians wounded in ‘war on terror’
The British Home Office, on the basis of national security, recently denied a visa to South African academic Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre. Shortly after that, South African author Ishtiyaq Shukri was deported when he tried to visit his wife, a British citizen, and has now had his permanent residence in Britain revoked.
More and more, power structures are policing people’s freedom of movement and thought, using visa regulations. It makes little sense that critical thought is deemed a threat to national security, and even less sense that the individuals targeted often belong to a single religious group. It suits governments such as Britain’s for the masses to believe that these restrictions are part of the “war on terror”, but what we see is the abolition of every moral and ethical discourse the West has claimed to abide by.
In its quest to eliminate terror, defined singularly by one religion, the West has led a global rampage that every democracy-loving individual should decry. Documents such as the 6 000-page Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture show the extent of one of the greatest disgraces of our time.
Detailing the murders of inmates never officially charged, experiments on humans and grotesque living conditions, the report also contains admissions of torture. These torture techniques were not isolated or limited to any one person – they were implemented on a broad, general scale. Based solely on their religion, people were robbed of all freedoms the United States claims to champion.
These gross human rights violations have not been limited to men. The “war on terror” has also imprisoned women and children without charge and it has murdered them. This monster, bred of fear, has not distinguished between civilians and combatants, and knows no principle of proportionality.
Perhaps the most disturbing issue is most people in the West see nothing wrong with what is happening. Citizens need to ask: Where do we draw the line between “national security” and the abolition of certain individuals’ rights to freedom of movement, speech and thought?
Aayesha J Soni is a medical doctor and vice-chairperson of the Media Review Network