Can anybody recall a political party or organisation being banned in modern Britain? I must confess I cannot. I can remember the ridiculous spectacle of actors speaking the words of Gerry Adams president of the Irish republican Sinn Fein party whilst we watched his lips move, but even at the height of the troubles, and its overt alliance with the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein itself was legal and membership of it no offence.
So it should send seismic waves throughout Britain that on Friday 5 August 2005, Tony Blair announced that he planned to proscribe a solely political organisation that, moreover, has a history of non-violence spanning more than fifty years. The group in question, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (party of liberation), has maintained that stance based upon a deep religious belief that it is prohibited for Muslims to use violence to try to establish their political goals despite immense persecution in many parts of the world.
Also in openDemocracy on British Muslims in the aftermath of 7/7:
Mohammed Sajid, The gap between us
Maruf Khwaja, Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures
What happened? What changed? What now? a transcript of the 21 July meeting in London co-hosted by openDemocracy and Q-News
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In the central Asian dictatorship of Uzbekistan, for example, it is Hizb-ut-Tahrirs members who have been boiled to death by the Islam Karimov regime; thousands more men and women, young and old alike, have been imprisoned simply for carrying membership. Even Craig Murray, Britains former ambassador to Uzbekistan, confirmed its non-violent character.
The goal of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, of which I am a member, is to re-establish by political work alone an Islamic form of governance in the Muslim world; and in so doing, to end the damaging interference political, economic and military that has persisted in the Muslim world from the colonial powers and their viceroys until today. Our frank words, and Islamic rhetoric for our Muslim audience, have provoked much criticism, but no serious person who has scrutinised our group has considered us violent.
In Britain, our work (which is frequently misreported) promotes the idea that Muslims should hold central to their Islamic beliefs and identity, and that this in turn confers further duties: to care and think about Muslims global concerns; to hold the government to account on its foreign policy; but also to protect the lives, honour, wealth, minds and beliefs of our fellow citizens.
Perhaps some in Britain are troubled by the fact that this duty of care to fellow citizens is built upon a higher duty to God, which leads them to call into question the loyalty of Muslims here. But if people (wrongly) believe that this will somehow endanger the society, are they then saying Muslims should be willing to accept political and legal martyrdom (if it is still legal to use this word!) as Thomas More (1477-1535) was literally martyred for refusing to accept the absolute supremacy of monarch over God?
An assault on liberty
The prime ministers proposed legislation including the possible use of treason laws dating from 1351, and secret pre-trial hearings to examine suspects may, it has been argued, lead to the expulsion of people from the United Kingdom, the closure of mosques, the banning of books and the silencing of criticism of British and United States foreign policy. Even the validation of the use of violence anywhere in the world to further particular beliefs could be criminalised. It is little wonder, then, if I hear both medieval and McCarthyite bells ringing in my head.
Some will ask themselves, with a trace of McCarthyite paranoia, whether there is a Muslim under their bed. But others will recall older episodes: the expulsion of Muslims from Andalusia in the 15th century, the royal closure and seizure of monasteries in England in the 16th century. Both were extremely bloody. The stifling and criminalisation of political expression has always been dangerous, whether by the Spanish Inquisition or the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Those for whom these historic comparisons resonate will realise the implications of such proposals in terms of civil liberties and community cohesion. Some will view it as an assault on their sacred beliefs about liberty, which repeats past errors and injustices.
If any reader thinks I exaggerate, and feels these comparisons to be misplaced, I would simply say this. Perhaps you feel no threat from these proposals, or believe the reassurances from British government ministers like Charlie (Lord) Falconer and Hazel Blears that under them, the likes of Nelson Mandela, Cherie Blair, George Galloway and Jenny Tonge would be free of prosecution. However, I can assure you that many educated, reasonable and rational Muslims do feel threatened by such changes in the law, and their potentially selective application. Their feelings, consistently ignored for many months, should be welcomed as a barometer of societys health and given due consideration not rejected as the noises of a moaning minority.
All of these proposed measures, including the ban on Hizb-ut-Tahrir (a ban which many Muslim organisations have opposed) should lead Muslim and non-Muslim alike to question the easy talk of freedom of speech, tolerance, human rights and democracy that falls from the lips of powerful men.