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be careful what you think

bergens tidende, 27 december 2007

Perhaps, by the time you read this, I will have had a knock on the door from the police. For I am confessing to an offence. I recently downloaded from the internet the Al-Qaeda Manual which sets out, among other things, 'The principles of military organisation' and the 'Necessary qualifications for the organisations members'.

There are several versions of the manual available on the web. The copy I downloaded was made available by that well-known jihadist organisation, the FBI. Under Britain's Terrorism Act, I am now liable to ten years' imprisonment for having collected 'information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing as act of terrorism'.

Earlier this month 23-year old Samina Malik, a shop worker from West London, received a nine-month suspended prison sentence for downloading the manual. She was no researcher trawling the net for information about the war on terror, but a 23-year-old fantasist who dreamed of jihad, and combined an intense hatred of Britain with a kind of adulation for Islamic terrorists that teenagers usually reserve for pop stars. She also wrote awful poetry under the moniker of the 'Lyrical Terrorist'. 'Let us make Jihad / Move to the front line / To chop chop head of kuffar swine', gives a flavour of her talents.

Malik is clearly no TS Elliot. But neither is she an Osama Bin Laden. She might, as the writer Sebastian Faulks observed, rightly be convicted of crimes against poetry. But of terrorism? She is a young woman with some disturbing thoughts in her head. But apart from writing doggerel, her only action was to download inflamatory material from freely available websites. The idea that this would aid terrorists is laughable. If would-be terrorists were unable to download the material themselves, I doubt if they would have the wit to commit an outrage. The real crime for which Malik was convicted were the thoughts and desires in her unhinged head. And that should worry everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim.

The case should never have come to court, let alone Malik convicted. Yet there was barely a ripple of outrage at the verdict. And that is what was most shocking about the case - the acceptance, even by liberals, that not just harmful actions but bad thoughts and evil ideas, too, are a matter for the criminal law.

The silence about the Samina Malik case contrasts with the mountain of outrage that has grown in recent months about supposed Islamophobia in Britain. In November the Mayor of London published a report that surveyed press coverage of 'Muslim issues' and lambasted journalists for fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment. It was a fatuous self-serving report. One of the instances of Islamophobia highlighted was the imprisonment of boxer Naseem Hamed for dangerous driving. Because it was a negative story about a Muslim, the report labelled all reporting of the Hamed story as entrenching Islamophobia. Perhaps the Mayor would have preferred journalists to have ignored the Hamed case entirely? Similarly, reporting of suicide bombings in Iraq was seen as fomenting anti-Muslim hatred because it associated Muslims with reprehensible acts. It is difficult to know how suicide bombings could be reported in any other way. The report shows how inane has become much of the discussion of Islamophobia and how the label is now often used as a way of silencing criticism of Islam.

The same figures who are up in arms about the exaggerated threat of Islamophobia have been virtually silent about the real threat to liberty posed by the conviction of Samina Malik. Malik's conviction was in fact just the latest of a series of cases in which Muslims have been convicted for their thoughts. Mizanur Rahman, Umran Javed and Abdul Muhid were recently sentenced to six years inprisonment for inciting racial hatred and 'soliciting murder' during a rally in London against the publications of the Danish cartoons. They had been chanting 'bomb, bomb Denmark'. Last year the controversial Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza, was jailed for seven years for 'soliciting murder' and 'inciting racial hatred' in his sermons at the Finsbury Park Mosque.

All these cases show how elastic have become the notions of 'incitement' and 'solicitation' in recent years. The law can and should criminalise the planning and instruction of acts of violence. But there has to be both a direct link between speech and action, and intent on the part of the speaker that that particular act of violence be carried out. Hot-headed protestors who chant 'bomb, bomb Denmark' or muddle-headed young women who write doggerel telling 'Kaffirs your time will come soon' may be moronic. But the idea that they are inciting murder or terrorism is equally moronic.

These cases might suggest that Britain is indeed Islamophobic. But it is not just unacceptable Islamic thoughts that are being silenced. In a high-profile court case earlier this year, the actor Chris Langham received a ten-month sentence for downloading child pornography from the internet. There was no evidence that he had abused children. Like Samina Malik, Langham was convicted for possessing unacceptable desires.

If the Samina Malik case showed how certain Muslim views have become criminalised, other cases show how criticism of Islam is also deemed unacceptable. Earlier this year the police investigated Channel 4 for broadcasting a programme called Undercover Mosque in which reporters had taken hidden cameras into mosques to expose hate speech from the pulpit. The police accused the programme makers of 'stirring up racial hatred' though, perhaps unsurprisingly, they could not find the evidence necessary for a prosecution. Is it really the job of the police, the critics asked, to stifle investigative journalism in the name of protecting 'good race relations'?

Television writers and theatre directors are increasingly wary of anything that might be deemed irreligious or anti-Muslim. The identity of terrorists in an episode of the popular BBC hospital drama Casualty was changed from Islamists to animal rights extremists. The Barbican, one of London's principal public arts venues, cut out sections of its production of Christopher Marlow's Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims. Another London theatre, The Royal Court, cancelled a reading of an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata which was set in a Muslim heaven.

Meanwhile, Brighton council has proposed a ban on any art exhibition or music concert that 'incites racist, homophobic or sectarian violence'. The first targets are ragga and rap artists whose songs have homophobic lyrics. Other councils intend to follow suit. Last week BBC's Radio 1 attempted to censor the word 'faggot' from the Pogues' 1984 Christmas classic Fairytale of New York - until a torrent of derision forced it to change its mind. Nevertheless it is still conducting a review of the lyrics of all the songs it plays to ensure that none is 'offensive'.

What all this shows is that the conviction of Samina Malik was less a case of Islamophobia than the product of a culture in which the authorities increasingly take it upon themselves to decide what is acceptable and unacceptable thought. The British government, like many others, has certainly used the so-called 'war on terror' to criminalise dissenting Islamic views. It has defined 'good' and 'bad' Islam, and placed bad Islam beyond the pale while attempting to institutionalise respect for good Islam. One of the reasons that critics of Islamophobia have been less than vocal about the Samina Malik case is that such critics are also in the business of defining what or may not be rightly said of Islam.

It is not just Islamic views, however, that are being policed. In almost every sphere of life there is a growing attempt to regulate not just speech, but thoughts and desires too. We are developing a culture in which the line between what is properly the preserve of the individual and what is the rightful business of the state is rapidly eroding. That is why the silence over the Samina Malik case is so troubling.