Banning ‘Extremists’ From France – What Would Voltaire Say?
AS a believer in ‘the domination of the world by Islam’ and a supporter of capital punishment for ‘whoever insults the message of Mohammed’, Anjem Choudary may not be the kind of guy most of us would have over for dinner. But in banning the so-called ‘preacher of hate’ from entering France, the authorities there must have got Voltaire, that staunch defender of freedom of expression, spinning in his grave.
Choudary, a British-born Muslim of Pakistani origin, was planning to attend a Paris demonstration against the French government’s controversial burka ban, which comes into effect tomorrow (Monday). But on Saturday he was stopped at the port of Calais and handed a legal notice informing him that the French Minister of Interior had decided to deny him entry into France on a permanent basis. Choudary told Sky News that he now plans to organise a protest outside the French embassy in London instead.
The whole affair is a snapshot of just how far France has gone in abandoning some key Enlightenment ideals that underpinned the fight for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ in the Eighteenth century. Not only is the ban on wearing the burka in public an attack on freedom of conscience – the freedom to practice one’s beliefs without fear of persecution or state diktat – but the barring of individuals who express ‘extreme’ views is also an attack on freedom of speech – the freedom to believe and utter anything no matter how despicable others may find it.
Yes, Choudary, the leader of the now-outlawed Islam4UK and formerly a key member of the banned Al-Muhajiroun, is a provocateur with despicable views. But no matter how much he and his ilk ‘glorify terrorism’ or call for the global implementation of Sharia law, they, like the rest of us, should only be punished if they commit unlawful acts and not because they have ‘unacceptable’ thoughts and opinions. It is not for governments to decide what we, the public, have the right to believe, say or hear.
Instead, the best way to contest Choudary’s ideas is to let him air them, and have them challenged, in public. As his many television interviews and speeches that are easily accessible online testify, this would show him up as the loony conspiracy theorist he is. Instead, by stopping Choudary and his coach-load of followers at the border, the French sent a signal that Choudary’s words are so forceful that his voice should be permanently blocked out.
In this way the French reinforce the idea that there might actually be some truth to Choudary’s ideas, and they help him and his coterie turn themselves into some kind of free speech martyrs. But of course a person who says he ‘hates man-made laws, secularism and democracy’, and who sees anyone who mocks Mohammed or burka-clad women as legitimate targets, can hardly claim to be a genuine defender of free expression.
In declaring Choudary a persona non grata, the French are repeating the mistakes of the UK authorities who have used so-called ‘exclusion powers’ to keep individuals deemed ‘not conducive to the public good’ out of Britain. Both the previous New Labour government and the current Lib-Con coalition government have imposed exclusion orders in order physically to bar individuals from the country but also as a symbolic act, to demonstrate that certain ideas are unacceptable and dangerous.
For instance, last summer, Conservative home secretary Theresa May decided to disallow Mumbai-based televangelist Dr Zakir Naik from giving a series of lectures in the UK. In saying that coming to Britain was a ‘privilege, not a right’, May echoed her predecessor, former New Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith. In October 2008, Smith announced that the then New Labour government would ‘take stronger action against those we suspect of stirring up tension’, by barring them from Britain and ‘naming and shaming’ those who ‘encourage violence or hatred in support of their ideology’. The government at the time drew up a ‘least wanted list’ of individuals, a motley crew including everyone from Muslim preachers and a Muslim-bashing American ‘shock jock’ to a white supremacist and an American-born Jewish settler.
But of course, national borders are not a barrier to the spread of opinions and ideas, and if either the French or UK authorities were to take the strategy of shutting out anyone deemed too ‘extreme’ then anyone already in the country who endorses similar views to those extremists would also need to be silenced and expelled.
Just as in the UK, the French authorities’ decision to send a message that ‘extremists’ like Choudary are not welcome is both impractical and illiberal. Ultimately, it is impossible to ban words, thoughts and opinions out of existence and in drawing up lists of personae non grata, the authorities are taking it upon themselves to decide what kind of words we, the public, are allowed to hear. They are treating us as incapable of judging between right and wrong, denying us the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether a person is telling the truth or spouting nonsense, and preventing us from accepting and rejecting opinions as we see fit.
Like the Enlightenment thinkers in France and elsewhere showed, in a civilised society people ought to have the right to say, think, believe and listen to anything they want. The contemporary leaders of France would do well to take a leaf out of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance and abandon their futile war on ‘extreme’ beliefs.