Democracy in the dock

Fight the BNP but defend freedom of speech too - Eddie Ford comments

To much media rejoicing, Abu Hamza al-Masri - or "Captain Hook" - has been jailed for seven years on multiple charges of "soliciting murder", "inciting racial hatred", possession of a "terrorist encyclopaedia", etc. Furthermore, Hamza also faces the prospect of extradition to the United States on charges of trying to set up a "terrorist training camp" in the state of Oregon.

Sentencing him, the judge remarked that he had "helped to create an atmosphere in which to kill has become regarded by some as not only a legitimate course but a moral and religious duty in pursuit of perceived justice". In response, Hamza'a lawyer said that the former Finsbury Park mosque preacher considered himself "a prisoner of faith" who was now undergoing a "slow martyrdom".

Communists find this verdict deeply troubling. Of course, we do not say this out of any affection or political sympathy for Hamza - far from it. He is no anti-establishment freedom fighter, but rather an obnoxious, loud-mouthed, reactionary bigot whose crazed rhetoric promulgates a violent hatred of anything and anybody deemed inimical to the 'laws of Allah' - such as Jews, homosexuals, democracy, women's liberation, and so on almost endlessly. Hamza is a virulent anti-communist who condemns muslims that participate in elections or lend any sort of credence to democracy and secularism. He hankers for a terroristic dictatorship that would crush all those who demur from his harsh and anti-human interpretation of what constitutes a model islamic state.

In many respects, Hamza has a near perfect counterpart in the British National Party's Nick Griffin - except, of course, that Hamza is a member of Britain's demonised muslim minority, while Griffin wants to ride to power with the support of the white majority. Unlike Hamza, Griffin walked away a free man last week after the jury at Leeds crown court cleared him and fellow BNPer Mark Collet of various counts of using "insulting or abusive words intended to stir up racial hatred". Now facing a retrial on four similar counts - particularly his inflammatory assertion, caught on a BBC documentary, that islam is "a wicked, vicious faith" - Griffin, just like Hamza, uses every opportunity to stir up hate against those sections of society that he and the odious BNP regard as a threat to the 'British way of life' (like asylum-seekers, immigrants, gays, Jews, muslims, leftists, etc). Self-evidently, Griffin is working towards the day when his rhetoric is translated into action, either by unofficial squads of goons or, preferably, by the state-bureaucratic machine itself.

In this respect, words do matter - they cannot be neatly separated from actions, for the simple reason that there is such a thing as cause and effect and under certain circumstances this can take a baleful form. Communists are not 'anything goes' libertarians and hence have no inherent objections to the idea of the state being forced to take legally sanctioned actions against individuals or groups that are clearly intent on encouraging murder and causing general mayhem. But such actions would have to be through the courts and under full public scrutiny.

However, communists are also militant defenders of free speech, and we oppose all measures which give the authorities the right to decide what can and cannot be said, or to adjudicate as to what is 'correct' or not, or to decree what is 'hateful' or not.

To put it even more bluntly, we do not trust the existing state one iota - whether it is headed by Tony Blair, David Cameron or even those 'nice' Liberal Democrats. Indeed, communists fearlessly say that it is the British state, not the likes of Abu Hamza or Nick Griffin, which is the main enemy. Britain forcibly colonised, savagely oppressed and ruthlessly plundered Ireland, India and half of Africa in order to further enrich the already fabulously rich. It mastered the art of divide and rule. Religion was pitted against religion, tribe against tribe and people against people. Communists will never forget this - even if social democrats and liberals find it convenient to do so.

Nor has the beast changed it nature, whatever the nowadays 'democratic' or anti-racist/fascist spin. Today the British state both uses and blames migrants and poor foreigners - whatever their skin colour, ethnicity or religious-cultural background. It stands before the world as the most loyal ally of US superimperialism, a thug nation-state, ever ready to use nuclear, chemical or other such WMDs. Hypocritically and criminally, it helped the US starve, bomb and then invade Iraq - and is now sabre-rattling against Iran because it wants to develop its very own WMDs (hardly surprisingly when it looks next door to Iraq and sees what happened to a state not in possession of WMDs).

And, ultimately, it is the state which stands guard over the whole rotten system of inequality and exploitation, breeding alienation, poverty and the social sickness that produces the BNP, the July 7 bombers and the Abu Hamzas of this world. In extremis the very same state, and, of course, the class that stands behind it, would energetically promote and, if need be, unleash groups like the BNP - just as the Italian capitalists did with the blackshirts and the German capitalists did with the Nazis.

In other words, reactionary and backward ideas can only be genuinely eradicated by overturning existing social conditions. But, in the meantime, such views are generally best fought in the open, where they have no room to hide and fester. For instance, Jason Gwynne's The secret agent - the BBC documentary that prompted the Leeds trial - was a brilliant, and personally brave, exposé of the BNP and amply demonstrated once again that the organisation is a cesspit of racism, anti-semitism and thuggish violence.

This is surely the most effective way to deal with Hamza - using the weapon of open, democratic exposure. But thanks to this week's court verdict, his prestige will almost certainly rise, especially amongst young, alienated muslims - after all, Nick Griffin has boasted how his trial "brought us more donations than ever before, including one of £20,000 - the biggest in our history. We've never had such good publicity before."

The very real danger is that the government will use the Hamza case to make inroads into all our democratic gains. As well as being found guilty of "using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred", he was also convicted of "possession of threatening, abusive or insulting recordings of sound", and the "possession of a document or record containing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism" - namely, The encyclopaedia of the Afghan jihad.

This so-called "terrorism manual", which Hamza claims he received as a gift (Christmas present, perhaps?) apparently explains how to make explosives, organise a terrorist unit and, according to the prosecution team, "suggests potential targets such as Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower". This clearly sets a dangerous precedent, as he was not accused of actually writing the book; neither was he charged with using it to make bombs or even tell his followers which targets to attack. Rather, Hamza has been convicted for the mere possession of this 'encyclopaedia' (not that you need to be a genius to work out what kind of buildings might make good targets or how to make a bomb - all you need is access to the internet and a vaguely competent knowledge of Google).

For communists, this is alarmingly reminiscent of the recent Old Bailey conviction of six men belonging to the neo-Nazi group, Racial Volunteer Force. Five of the accused, all former members of Combat 18, were sentenced to a combined total of 15 years on the charge of conspiracy to stir up racial hatred - while the sixth man, 40-year-old Kevin Quinn, was given a two-year suspended sentence for possession of the screwball anti-semitic pamphlet, The longest hatred: an examination of anti-gentilism. Somewhat ironically, this would no doubt be a publication that preacher Hamza would thoroughly approve of, especially given his belief that the Jews "know how to control people" and "know how to control our leaders" - by keeping "a file for each one of these politicians, how much homosexual you are, how many money he has taken as bribe, whom his wife goes with, which child he has been abusing and they got all this against them". Of course, the author of The longest hatred proclaims her devout commitment to christianity.

So, no, communists certainly do not agree with Gordon Brown that the seven-year sentence slapped on Hamza shows "why we need laws against the glorifying of terrorism and why we need to stop extremist muslim clerics trying to enter the country".

Nor do we concur with the judgment of The Guardian, which points the finger at the more 'irresponsible' sections of the media: "If this conviction marks an end to the watchful tolerance of odious incitement against Jews, gays and other non-believers, there may be a lesson for the media too. It is regrettable that those with the loudest voices and most repulsive views are most often seen and heard. It was a misjudgement by the BBC's Today programme to broadcast a long interview about the Danish cartoons on Monday with Omar Bakri Muhammad, leader of the extremist al-Muhajiroun group, now happily in Lebanon ... Community relations in a democratic, multi-faith society need careful nurturing: it is good news that this disruptive voice of hatred has now been silenced" (February 8).

No doubt The Guardian would regard most of those on the far left as being in possession of "repulsive views" - including our comrades in the Socialist Workers Party, who have been so keen to mobilise protesters to demonstrate outside Leeds crown court, yet to date have not made a single critical comment about Abu Hamza or Omar Bakri Muhammad in Socialist Worker. Interestingly enough though, we read this in the latest issue: "Many people will be outraged that two confirmed Nazis with a history and record of poisonous bigotry against ethnic minorities can walk free on charges of incitement to race hatred. Griffin claimed he was attacking islam rather than muslims. The government's religious hatred bill, which was designed to close this loophole, was gutted in a Commons vote last week" (February 11).

Would this, by any chance, be the very same bill ("gutted" or not) that in all likelihood will lead to more convictions along the lines of the now safely imprisoned Abu Hamza? We eagerly await an answer on this from our SWP comrades.