First, they came for …
The ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstrates that our rulers have no effective way to control the Gaza narrative other than by legally silencing critics, argues Paul Demarty
When I first heard that Hizb ut-Tahrir, a long-established and rather astringent Islamist political party, had been proscribed by the home office, I admit I was a little confused. Hadn’t they been banned already?
Apparently not, although the group’s legal status has been threatened repeatedly. After the 2005 London bombings, the Blair government sought to designate it as a proscribed terrorist organisation, but could not in the end get the idea past its lawyers. David Cameron criticised Labour for this failure on the campaign trail in 2010, and the question arose again towards the end of his time as prime minister, when the rise of Islamic State and the proliferation of sympathisers in the west - and most of all the vicious massacres carried out in Paris and London - once again turned the home office’s mind to the general territory of ‘doing something’ about ‘terrorist sympathisers’. Still, in the end, nothing was done about HT, which had managed to avoid the almost childish provocations of al‑Muhajiroun, together with those of the Westboro Baptist Church of global Islamism, which split from it in the 1990s (remember those “butcher those who insult Islam” protest signs?). It could look respectable if needed.
It is, unsurprisingly, HT’s participation in struggle against the Gaza genocide that has finally given a home secretary the excuse to bring the hammer down. HT leaders are accused of cheering on Hamas (itself a proscribed organisation whom we are not permitted by law to ‘glorify’); of denouncing “the monstrous Jews”; of calling on the Muslim powers of the region to militarily conquer Israel, which - were HT’s various international branches in charge - one imagines would not be an especially pretty process.
According to leader Abdul Wahid - recently revealed by the Mail on Sunday to be a pseudonym for Wahid Asif Shaida, a London GP, who has now been suspended from his job by NHS England - HT will contest the ban legally, as well it might, and proposes to defy it in the interim. Yet the ban is a clear indication of the way things are going. We face a ratchet (indeed we already did before the Gaza war), whereby the space of acceptable speech on the question of Israel-Palestine slowly shrinks.
It is here that we should probably take a closer look at Hizb ut-Tahrir, to see exactly what has been added to the dozens of proscribed organisations on the home office list. It was founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, when the West Bank was under the control of the Jordanian state, but spread slowly to encompass chapters in many countries - other Muslim-majority places, of course, but increasingly in countries where Muslims form a significant minority. The British branch is especially important, precisely because it has been able to operate openly here for so long, and it has a second headquarters in London, with a major role in coordinating the group’s international activities.
Its goal is straightforward: the unification of Muslim lands into a new caliphate, and ultimately the victory of a renewed Islam over all who oppose it. Its strategy is focused on recruiting ‘elites’ - meaning educated sections of society, who will dedicate themselves to jihad in both its senses. As with most reactionary religious organisations, it has decidedly fixed ideas on the proper relations between the sexes, and a grim view of homosexuality.
HT, clearly enough, is the thin end of the wedge. And it is a very thin end indeed. For good old British conservatives, there is the insult of an international organisation, whose leadership is concentrated in Jordan, waging war against ‘our values’: an enemy within. For liberals and leftists, it is difficult to deny that its stated programme is repellent to our objectives. Nobody, surely, can defend Hizb ut-Tahrir from this fate without a lot of throat-clearing, or else sliding into incoherence.
That is precisely why it must be defended. In order to get them on this list, James Cleverly and company have inched the line of acceptable speech further in the direction of tyranny. The most ‘violent’ piece of rhetoric anyone has adduced to HT recently is the idea that Muslim countries in the Middle East should intervene militarily against Israel. Its objective is clearly the removal of what it views as a foreign body in the Muslim heartlands. Yet one could equally argue for such an intervention on the basis of the various genocide conventions, the ‘responsibility to protect’, etc. Indeed, many protestors - not all Islamists by a long chalk - welcome the Houthi blockade for this reason. So, surely, that will be the next thing to be proscribed. It will not be long before it is not only Islamists, but leftists, who are under attack in this way.
Indeed, putting that in the future tense is already misleading. We have had the whole period of the witch-hunt against anti-Zionists in the Labour Party. That at least did not very much involve the use of criminal law. But several leftwingers, notably associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), have been lifted on demonstrations for ‘hate speech’. The CPGB-ML is, admittedly, a quirky organisation, ultra-Stalinists of the 1933 vintage. It is the thin end of our own wedge.
Tony Greenstein, a regular correspondent in these pages, was arrested for social media posts, his computers and phone confiscated. Student supporters of Socialist Appeal in Nottingham were threatened with a visit from the police for calling for “intifada until victory”. It remains ticky-tacky stuff for now. The police are plainly reluctant to ban demonstrations outright, since - at least in London - they are plainly not staffed in sufficient numbers to enforce a ban (as has also turned out to be the case on many occasions in French and German cities). That is the logic, however: keep moving that line. Keep throwing people into the mincer.
As with all the lawfare conducted against the Palestinian movement, this is a sign of a certain weakness. At no point have the allies of Israel - never mind Israel itself, which was reported by Ha’aretz to have assembled a huge social media psy-op at vast expense - truly got ‘control of the narrative’, as they say nowadays. Technological explanations of such shifts have definite limits, but in the age of the smartphone camera, it is devilishly difficult to sweep 25,000 corpses under the carpet. October 7 recedes further into history; fresh outrages afflict Gaza every hour of every day. All that is left to Israel’s defenders is the police.
Indeed, the scope of proposed ‘police actions’ seems to get ever wider. Nikki Haley - the last ‘best hope’ of never-Trump Republicans in the United States - attracted ridicule for claiming that, for every 30 minutes spent scrolling through TikTok, a user became “17% more anti-Semitic” - a statement that seemed to have gone wandering off from the set of Brass Eye. Nonetheless, the threat to what limited freedom of expression exists on the internet is quite real. Like American bombers and Vietnamese villages, it will be necessary to destroy the narrative to control it.
If they are weak, however, so are we. As we have argued ad nauseam around these parts, many of the reactionary and authoritarian instruments being deployed against the friends of Palestine today were done precisely in the name of broadly liberal, progressive ideals - of marginalising forces opposed to multiculturalism, women’s equality and tolerance of sexual minorities. Thus laws against hate speech, religious hatred and so forth. This legal creep has been cheered on by large sections of the broad left, including ‘official communism’, but also its notional Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist critics. The Socialist Workers Party happily supported Tony Blair’s law against religious hatred; the Socialist Party in England and Wales supports freedom of speech … except for racists.
Once such instruments are in the hands of the state, of course, the state gets to define religious hatred, hate speech, racism, and so forth. It turns out - who’da thunk it - we’re racists! Because we oppose the state of Israel, therefore we hate Jews, whether we say so or not. I do not mean to overstate the role of the organised left here - we might have all the same laws on the books anyway, had we taken a firm stand in favour of free expression. But we would be in a better place now to fight back. We could say - as I do here - this is where it leads! In the name of anti-racism, the state chooses to illegalise - piece by piece - protest against a genocide. Instead, the left is forced into ducking and weaving, and above all special pleading. ‘You’re the real racists,’ Socialist Worker tells the state, the cops and the media. ‘No, you are,’ replies the state - but it has the media to amplify its version, and the cops to enforce it in the end.
We cannot win this way. Our job is to delegitimise the state and its media outliers, to reject its right to police what is permissible. That means opposing restrictions on racist, etc speech on principle. And it certainly means demanding the abolition of this absurd, ever-growing list of proscribed organisations that now, finally, includes the name of Hizb ut-Tahrir.