Sometimes it helps to restate the obvious. So when Jack Straw, who served as a minister for both domestic and foreign affairs in Tony Blair's Labor government in the UK, recently told an audience at a literary festival that the "point about living in a democracy is that you have to put up with people expressing views you really disagree with," he struck exactly the right note in a country still traumatized by the brutal murder, in broad daylight on a south London street, of a British soldier by an Islamist fanatic.
Sadly, Straw's observation was not heeded by his successor as Home Secretary, Theresa May, who announced today that two prominent American opponents of Islam, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, have been banned from entering the UK. The pair had been due to address a rally convened by the English Defense League, an extremist right-wing organization, this Friday in the same neighborhood where the soldier, Lee Rigby, met his gruesome end.
One does not have to an admirer of Geller and Spencer–to my mind, their views are terrifyingly shrill and bigoted–in order to consider this decision outrageous. The letter which Geller received from the Home Office informed her that she was being excluded by the "British government's measures for excluding or deporting extremists under the Unacceptable Behaviour policy." It expressed concern at two remarks made by Geller, one in which she equated Islam with al-Qaeda, the other in which she claimed that the survival of Muslims depends on "constant jihad," before concluding that her espousal of such views on UK soil would not be "conducive to the public good."
No explanation was offered as to exactly how Geller and Spencer's presence in Britain might "foment or justify terrorist violence" or "foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence in the UK." There will be those who argue that their sledgehammer rhetoric encourages violence, but that same slippery logic could be applied to almost anyone, including the myriad Islamist organizations for whom the UK is a convenient base. According to Student Rights, a British group that monitors Islamist extremism in universities, over the last year speakers with "a history of extreme or intolerant views" addressed meetings at 60 different institutions, many of which were gender-segregated.
Is it, then, reasonable to accuse the UK government of operating a double standard, especially as there is a long-standing anxiety that the policy of keeping out Muslim extremists is faltering? It's true that Geller and Spencer are not the first rabble-rousers to be banned from Britain. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, was famously prohibited from entering the country back in 1986, a decision which led to a 20-year court battle that finally resulted, in 2008, in the ban against him being upheld. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi was eventually banned in 2008, four years after he was feted by the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, a key proponent of an alliance between the far left and Islamist organizations.
The problem with these bans, however, is that they are reactive–and frequently imposed after the offending individual has spent substantial time in the UK. For example, Omar Bakri Mohammed spent several years in the UK advocating jihadist violence against Jews, gays and other groups before being deported to Lebanon, while the Jordanian-born cleric Abu Qatada still remains in Britain despite government efforts to have him thrown out once and for all. In marked contrast, neither Geller nor Spencer has a criminal past, nor a track record of involvement with groups promoting violence. Their sole offense appears to be the promulgation of ideas and beliefs that are indecent–exactly the sorts of beliefs that any healthy democracy should be able to withstand in the name of freedom of speech.
The real challenge for Britain is that extremism of all stripes is homegrown. Just as the EDL doesn't need Geller and Spencer to promote its message, neither do British Islamists–whose proclivity for violence has been amply demonstrated over the last decade, from the London subway bombings of 2005 to the murder of Lee Rigby this year–require foreign-born clerics to fire up their own supporters.
In the weeks since Rigby's death, the country has engaged in a furious debate about whether to ban Islamist preachers from the airwaves and block Islamist websites. As Shiraz Maher and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation pointed out in their paper "Jihad at Home," the case of a Muslim couple arrested for conspiring to attack Jewish targets in the north of England:
highlights the ongoing threat of 'self-radicalisation' through the internet, and the continued influence of jihadist publications, such as Inspire magazine, which are aimed at Westerners. It also demonstrates the lingering potency of deceased ideologues such as Anwar al-Awlaki, whose ideas continue to present a challenge to Western security agencies.
Banning Geller and Spencer will not mollify those British Muslims already on the path to self-radicalization. Nor is it likely to end the disturbing spate of attacks on mosques in the wake of Lee Rigby's killing. The main result of Theresa May's decision will be to make British democracy look weak and spiteful at precisely the time it needs to look strong and confident.