The rights and freedoms of Abu Qatada must be protected, no matter how politcally odious he personally may be, says James Turley.
Born in 1959 or 1960, his rise to a certain level of international notoriety has coincided with the trajectory of Islamist extremism from a peculiar reactionary creed of some use to US and allied imperialism as a bulwark against the spread of communism to its current status as a putative epochal threat to western civilisation. Certainly, his affiliation to a particular brand of Salafist insanity cannot be denied; and some version of Osama bin Laden’s dream of a global caliphate no doubt drives his political activities.
Abu Qatada is also an asylum-seeker - after the conclusion of the first Gulf War, he was deported from Kuwait to the country of his birth, Jordan. From there, he fled in 1993 under a false passport to Britain to claim political asylum, which he was duly granted. Those, after all, were the days before September 11 2001; and before the rise of the asylum-seeker to the status of public enemy number one in the eyes of the reactionary press in this country.
Then, everything changed: he and his wing-nut comrades were declared to be a global enemy as threatening as any that had faced down the west. Following 9/11, his days of liberty, like all those who share his odious goals, were numbered; the London bombings in 2005 gave the authorities the excuse, and a whole host of new authoritarian legislation gave them the means, to prepare to deport him. For the last seven years he has languished at her majesty’s pleasure, in one form of custody or another.
Now, he has finally been released, but only into the waiting arms of a whole new mode of state harassment. He suffers a 22-hour-a-day curfew; his two precious hours away from house arrest will see him, no doubt, at the head of a 20-strong conga line of special branch agents, and electronically tagged for good measure. He is banned from attending a mosque, preaching in any capacity or speaking to 27 named individuals.
All this, however, is a poor runners-up prize for the authorities, who were desperately keen to dispatch him to the tender mercies of the Jordanian Hashemites. The immovable obstacle in their path has been the European Court of Human Rights - satisfied though it was with British assurances that Abu Qatada would not be subject to torture upon his return, the court decided, somewhat wisely, that no reasonable assurance existed that evidence used against him in a Jordanian court would not itself have been extracted through torture. He had no chance of a fair trial.
Indeed, that is almost certainly true. The Jordanian kingdom is of a piece with the regimes that surround it - a corrupt and brutal autocracy, and a willing patsy for imperialism in the region. When king Hussein, the previous head of state, was at death’s door, the ‘international community’ was fulsome in its tributes to his role in the Middle East ‘peace’ process - prompting some hacks to remind their readers that he was, after all, a dictator (whose ‘legitimacy’, let us not forget, derived in part from a supposed genealogical link to the prophet Mohammed). As ever, one is never a dictator when one does the US state department’s bidding.
This story, of an Islamist asylum-seeker who cannot be deported thanks to the whims of a Brussels judge, is almost tailor-made to send the Daily Mail into that curiously libidinous outrage that is its trademark. It is the sort of thing, in other words, that its journalists normally have to stitch out of whole cloth. Sure enough, bourgeois and petty bourgeois opinion has greeted this ruling with, to put it mildly, some distaste. The Mail itself rather ingeniously characterises that 22-hour curfew as “round the clock protection” for Abu Qatada’s family (February 13).
Certainly, as far as the state is concerned, the fight is not over. They have three months to seek further assurances from Jordan; after that time, Abu Qatada’s bail conditions will have to be relaxed, and he will be at liberty to bring on the collapse of the west, or whatever it is he is supposed to be doing. Theresa May and her underlings will spend the intervening time frothing at the mouth over the Brussels diktat; perhaps the Jordanian monarchy will find the right wording to delude the ECHR into agreeing the deportation.
It may appear faintly ridiculous (at least, to those who have not swallowed the absurd overestimation of Islamism’s destructive potential put about by our leaders) that the British state is going to such lengths to commit Abu Qatada to the tender mercies of a Jordanian jail. Yet, having made such a fuss over him, there is possibly no other option. Consider the political ructions over detention without charge; the last New Labour government wanted to detain terror suspects for 42 days, while some brave and principled libertarians such as the Tory rightwinger David Davis considered 28 days quite sufficient to gather the necessary evidence.
Abu Qatada, however, has been in British custody not for 28 or 42 days, but for seven years. If he is all - indeed, any - of the things of which he is accused, surely the criminal justice system and the combined might of MI5 and MI6 ought to be able to prove it by now. If he is somehow implicated in the 7/7 bombings, then somebody should have managed to demonstrate that to the satisfaction of judge and jury. If he is, as a Spanish dignitary claimed, the lynchpin of al Qa’eda’s European activities, then some paper trail or other ought to establish that.
The conclusion is inescapable. Even by the increasingly baggy standard of contemporary anti-terror legislation, under whose terms it is inadmissible even to protest peacefully within a certain distance of parliament, it is obviously impossible to convict him of anything. Impossible, that is, without torturing supposed associates until they sing like the proverbial canary. For Theresa May, it is Jordan or bust.
We must be clear: Abu Qatada is a repulsive individual. The Islamist ideology he espouses seeks to bury all appeals to reason under theocratic repression; it seeks to return women to a condition of existence for which ‘mediaeval’ is too generous a term; it seeks, needless to say, to extinguish any hopes that remain for socialism, which represents the very antithesis of his reactionary utopia.
That his views are so repugnant, however, does not alter the essence of the matter. Abu Qatada must be defended. Communists - indeed, anyone with the most elementary concern for political liberty - should fight for his right, and indeed the right of all the 57 varieties of Islamism, to the most extensive political freedom we can wrest from the bourgeois state.
There are many reasons why the workers’ movement, and especially its revolutionary contingent, has a direct interest in this case. The first is the very character of Abu Qatada’s views. Despite its reactionary character, Islamism fills a certain void which was once occupied by one or another form of leftist politics. In order to reclaim that space, we will have to defeat these ideas - and the only means we have to do so is to tear them apart, openly before the eyes of all who may be attracted to them, with the time-honoured weapons of reason and sharp polemic. Before the informed gaze of almost any observer, radical Islamism wilts like the absurd fantasy it is. The escalation of state repression has the paradoxical effect of making it more attractive - it offers a false sheen of attraction to the least liberatory politics imaginable.
Secondly, and most importantly: if they can do it to him, they can do it to us. Abu Qatada is not a threat to western civilisation: communism, and the organised self-activity of the working class more generally, is a real threat to the people who spuriously claim to defend that civilisation. The examples from history are innumerable - we might mention the Public Order Act of 1936, ostensibly aimed at Mosley’s Blackshirts (and criminally supported by parts of the left for that reason), but in practice employed overwhelmingly to suppress the left.
More recently, there was the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. The story of that struggle was the story of a state machine in full, almost military mobilisation against the strikers. Pickets were attacked with incredible violence; the internal movement of National Union of Mineworkers activists was restricted; the secret state tapped every relevant phone; and the BBC, along with the rest of the media, happily parroted Number 10’s line on every clash.
This looked very familiar to those, like this paper’s forerunner, The Leninist, who had any experience of the contemporaneous Irish liberation struggle. The machinery of oppression, designed in the laboratory of the Six Counties with (again) the criminal silence of parts of the official left, was brought home with terrifying enthusiasm and brutal effectiveness.
It is not hard to imagine a situation in the near future where struggle between the authorities and the left reaches such a pitch that an unlucky rabble-rousing speaker, invited over from Greece or Egypt, finds herself peremptorily dispatched to the slammer, facing deportation for a slew of phantom crimes, amid the screeching hysteria of a pliant media. Indeed, the more successful the left is, the more likely such scenarios become.
Abu Qatada must be defended, not because his views are our views, but because his freedom is our freedom.