PREVENT free speech: For governments, it’s easy

This letter appeared in the Independent (UK) today:

We, the undersigned, take issue with the government’s Prevent strategy and its statutory implementation through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 for the following reasons:

1. The latest addition to the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism framework comes in the form of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (CTS Act). The CTS Act has placed PREVENT on a statutory footing for public bodies to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism by tackling what is claimed to be ‘extremist ideology’. In practice, this will mean that individuals working within statutory organisations must report individuals suspected of being ‘potential terrorists’ to external bodies for ‘de-radicalisation’.

2. The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.

3. However, PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism. This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.

4. While much of the PREVENT policy is aimed at those suspected of ‘Islamist extremism’ and far-right activity, there is genuine concern that other groups will also be affected by such policies, such as anti-austerity and environmental campaigners – largely those engaged in political dissent.

5. Without due reconsideration of PREVENT’s poor reputation, the police and government have attempted to give the programme a veneer of legitimacy by expressing it in the language of ‘safeguarding’. Not only does this depoliticise the issue of radicalisation, it shifts attention away from grievances that drive individuals towards an ideology that legitimises political violence.

6. PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, PREVENT will make us less safe.

7. We believe that PREVENT has failed not only as a strategy but also the very communities it seeks to protect. Instead of blindly attempting to strengthen this project, we call on the government to end its ineffective PREVENT policy and rather adopt an approach that is based on dialogue and openness.

The full list of signatories is here.

PREVENT (originally Preventing Violent Extremism) is the UK’s government’s flagship program for winning hearts and minds in Vietnam keeping people from going off and turning terrorist. Repeatedly revised and relaunched, it’s one of four prongs of the country’s post-9/11 domestic strategyThe prongs alliterate in a way suggesting bureaucrats with notepads and nothing else to do: “Prepare for attacks, Protect the public, Pursue the attackers and Prevent their radicalization.” (For attackers, the latter comes a bit too late.) The “P” that’s missing is Police. LIke the others, PREVENT is about police power. It works by surveilling marginal, distrusted, and brown communities. There’s no way of measuring how well it’s met its goals, because it has no concrete goals, no benchmarks. Its great success has been the one not mentioned in the glossy pamphlets: it’s contributed to alienating Muslims from society and state, one tenable definition of “radicalization.” A system of surveillance that publicly and legally singles out a minority inevitably makes that minority more marginal, less equal participants in public life: more subjects, less citizens. As in some shadow story by Paul Auster or Robbe-Grillet, the government seeks a criminal that is itself.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

This March, Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, told the BBC he fully endorsed the two most widespread criticisms. First, PREVENT places itself beyond bureaucratic standards of success or failure. “A huge amount of money has been spent on this. At a time when we have limited resources we really need to make sure that we measure it.” Second, it stigmatizes  the people whose hearts and minds good will it’s supposed to be winning. It’s a “toxic brand” among Muslims; counter-extremist programs  “should not be putting Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people”:

He said there was a “spectacular lack of diversity” in local safeguarding services and police forces that meant many of those involved in Prevent did not understand the communities they serve, particularly in cities such as London and Birmingham.

PREVENT has, however, built up a constituency for itself, by ladling out money. And this is perhaps its real goal: not to combat terrorism, but to cultivate support for the metastasis of governmental power. Between 2005 and 2011 alone, Dominic Casciani writes, “almost £80m was spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities,” almost none of them properly evaluated. Rivers of largesse ran to dubious “anti-extremism” groups like the Quilliam Foundation, which claims to combat terrorist instincts among benighted Muslim immigrants, even though most Muslims in the UK seem to regard it with bafflement or disdain. The money keeps Quilliam’s founder, Maajid Nawaz, in an “immaculate and expensive suit,” upscale hotels, and the occasional strip club; whether it keeps Britain safer is a different proposition.

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed by kids saying the darndest things

As with other insecure governments in repressive states, the UK regime’s response to failure has been to tighten the screws of repression. Rendering more people potential criminals makes their enemies your allies; with each opinion stamped Thoughtcrime, its opponents become your friends. The Cameron government is bidding for the gays’ support:

Children who speak out in class against homosexuality could be viewed as potential extremists under Government guidelines intended to prevent Islamist terrorism, Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has suggested. Mrs Morgan said comments by children that they consider homosexuality to be “wrong” or “evil” could “trigger” concerns from teachers under guidance designed to help schools detect possible radicalisation.

They’ll have to put a playground in Gitmo before these people are through.

Quite a few prominent “free-speech advocates” in the UK are not signatories to the Independent letter. One wonders why.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.49 PMCAGE, founded by former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg, mobilizes advocacy and activism in British Muslim communities against war-on-terror abuses. HT is the nonviolent pan-Islamic group Hizb ut Tahrir. You see the problem!  A letter complaining about repression of Muslim communities was signed by Muslims, the believing kind. If only it had been restricted to Church of England vicars, like a Barbara Pym novel! But once they’ve put their greasy fingerprints on the doc, the text goes straight to hell, like Tower Hamlets. Tom Holland, who is a sort of expert on why he dislikes Islam, agrees:

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.21 PMThe whole point of PREVENT is: Muslims must not speak for themselves.

But some non-signatories simply had better things to do. Nick Cohen, for instance — the hero columnist who defends to the deadline to the death a writer’s right to Cohen’s an opinion — spent today Tweeting about a couple of columnists fired by a provincial newspaper.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.49.36 PM

Peter Tatchell, that free-speech martyr, ignored the Independent letter. He was fighting the brutal goons of Sainsbury’s for oppressing a gay magazine.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.39.58 PM

These guys tread gingerly round Muslims when the UK government threatens their free speech, particularly if the excuse is “extremism.” What upsets them way, way more are infringements in their own little pigeonholes or professions — a journalist sacked, a newsrack missing a magazine that headlines them. Such misplaced priorities miss the point. True, states have have less power relatively in this globalizing age, and non-state actors more. But regime upon regime compensates for its impotence to superintend its economy or decide its budget by clamping down on what it can control: privacy or opinion, patrolling intimacies, gagging voices. Those are the spheres where state power rampages unmitigated and unharnessed, in London as much as Lahore. The police are the true menace to free expression around the world. The supermarkets aren’t even close. Ignoring the Ideal-Typus of evil and focusing on its marginal manifestations only abets the repression. (Conspicuously, such freedom paladins also paid no attention to the WikiLeaks release this week of horrifying documents from an EU-based Internet-surveillance company, showing its sinister dealings with dictatorships on several continents. This is where private enterprise really kicks in, selling technology to the censors and torturers. Governments’ power to monitor what you say and think grows faster than Moore’s Law, thanks to their corporate accomplices.)

For some advocates, the threat to free speech is governments jailing, silencing, torturing people. For other advocates, the threat is a student club no-platforming their friends.

I know where I stand. Do you?

IF YOU SEE THIS WORD IN THE DICTIONARY, CALL THE POLICE NOW: Staffordshire Police banner for PREVENT, at http://www.staffordshire.police.uk/

IF YOU SEE THIS WORD IN THE DICTIONARY, CALL US NOW: Staffordshire Police banner for PREVENT, at http://www.staffordshire.police.uk/

A Turkish victory, and some questions

Zafer Üskül

Congratulations to my friends at the Ankara-based Turkish LGBT group KAOS GL for a major victory in court.   In 2008, the right-wing paper Yeni Akit (New Contract, now known as Vakit or Time)  printed a column by Serdar Arseven about the then head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, Zafer Üskül, attending a meeting organized for the International Day Against Homophobia. The story was headlined “Üskül prefers perverts”  (“Üskül’ün tercihi sapıklardan yana”). Üskül, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), had promised that the government would not segregate gay and lesbian people or their rights. The paper called this “giving assurances to she-males.” KAOS GL sued the writer and the newspaper for injury.

The group lost two lower-court decisions, with judges finding the comments “within the limits of criticism.” This week, though, Turkey’s High Court of Appeals ruled against the publisher and author, holding that “The freedom of the press does not encompass the freedom to insult the personal freedoms of individuals.”  It fined the newspaper 4000 Turkish Lira (about US $2150) and Arselan 2000.

It’s a notable decision because there’s only the thinnest paper trail of precedents in Turkey for minorities and marginalized groups challenging the powerful, and winning.  It’s also heartening to see a leftist group engaging with the state’s institutions in order to claim rights: the general strategy of the Turkish left for decades — at least since the 1980 coup — has been to give the state  a wide berth, on the expectation that it will offer no protections and can accomplish no real good. In this sense, it’s also a small victory for the AKP itself, a party which, in a halting and highly limited way, has struggled to institute the rule of law in Turkey and eliminate the dominance of undemocratic forces, especially the military. Üskül, a professor of constitutional law, is a bit of an outlier in his party, where the commitment to human rights (especially on the Kurdish question) remains troublingly partial. But a court decision supporting the “personal freedoms” of LGBT people would have been inconceivable a dozen years ago, and not just the courageous activists of KAOS, but Üskül and the AKP deserve some of the credit.

Radikal quotes Ali Erol of KAOS as saying, “”The case has a symbolic significance.” It’s certainly not going to shut down Vakit or shut up Arseven. At the same time, some questions strike me about where it leads. Turkey has a terrible record on media censorship — as bad as its longstanding record of ignoring or persecuting minorities.   In early 2011, the government handed Internet service providers a list of 138 words that should raise red flags for blocking.  In a nice Orwellian touch, Yasak, meaning forbidden, was forbidden — presumably to cut short criticism of the censorship; so were free and pic, for perhaps more obvious reasons.

Some of these strictures were later dialled back, but the Internet filtering system still blocks some 20,000 websites, including political as well as erotic ones. Meanwhile, laws on insult and hatred are a running threat to free expression in the country. Article 312 of the Criminal Code provides a three-year prison term for inciting “racial or religious hatred” if it threatens “public order.”  The current Prime Minister, then mayor of Istanbul, served ten months in 1999 under this provision, for reading a poem aloud; the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association was jailed in 2000 for urging understanding between Turks and Kurds.   Article 301 of the Code still criminalizes “insulting the Turkish nation”; in its pre-2008 iteration, penalizing “insulting Turkishness,” it was used to prosecute dozens of prominent critics of government policy, including Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk. You get the idea.

Hell's kitchen

It would be unfortunate if hate speech regulation were revitalized as an excuse and umbrella for the Turkish government to punish arguments it doesn’t like. There’s an old proverb: “If you sup with the devil, bring a long spoon.” (I think it’s German; if it’s not, it ought to be.)  The same caution applies to enlisting the power of a still-repressive state on your own side. Beyond question, the state needs to defend all its citizens. Sign it on to a progressive cause it if you can; but bring not just a long spoon, but a heavy-duty microscope for the menu’s fine print.

KAOS GL, of course, has also faced attempts at censorship, which gives it a certain moral authority on the subject. In the most famous case, from 2006, the authorities confiscated copies of the group’s magazine, claiming they were obscene.  KAOS has pursued this case to the European Court of Human Rights, where the Turkish government asserted they acted on a permitted exemption to the right to free expression — endeavoring to protect “public morals” from harm.  As I’ve noted here before, I helped draft a third-party intervention in this case, in which we argued that the concept of “public morality”

must reflect the diversity of interests and populations comprising the public sphere and not just that of the majority. A secular democracy, espousing ideals of pluralism, including freedom of expression, cannot assert or promote a singular and incontrovertible vision of public morals, and censor materials that dissent from that perspective….  The idea that a state can justify repressive measures merely by pointing to a “public morality” without evidence, definition, and elaboration has been largely discredited. Council of Europe member states, countries around the world, and international and regional bodies have recognised—expressly or implicitly – that “public morality” arguments are acceptable only where some real and specific harm to society can be shown. In the face of this growing international trend, authorities may not criminalise and confiscate publications without demonstrating what harm it causes to what part of the “public,” when, and where, and tailor any restrictions to any specific harm. Authorities cannot evade that responsibility by postulating a “public” and its hypothetical values as a pre-emptive and dangerously free-floating excuse.

I would contend a similar standard should apply for laws on insult and “hate speech”: the harm that an act of expression causes must not be a general, broadly postulated, hypothetical one. It must be capable of specification. You should be able to say who was harmed, and how.

I haven’t seen the Turkish High Court decision, and I don’t know what precise arguments it (or the appellants) made. Nor do I have any clear conception of what its broader implications are.   But as LGBT groups in many countries become both bolder and more empowered in claiming rights through litigation, there are still questions that deserve to be thought through.

FREEDOM FOR RAZAN GHAZZAWI: Statement by human rights activists and defenders

Link to statement in Arabic

Authorities in Syria arrested Syrian blogger, feminist, and activist for free expression Razan Ghazzawi on December 4, 2011. She was at the Jordanian border, traveling  to attend a conference on media freedom in the Arab world. She was representing the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), where she works as a coordinator.

Razan, a poet and critic as well as an activist, studied English literature at Damascus University and comparative  literature at Balamand University in Lebanon. Since 2009, she has blogged on human rights, international solidarity, and Syrian politics at http://www.razanghazzawi.com. She is one of very few bloggers in Syria who writes under her own name; and she has consistently spoken out for women, for ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and for all victims of discrimination or abuse.

For many of us in Egypt, in the region, and around the world, Razan is a mentor, an ally, and a personal friend.  Her principled commitment to human rights has been an example to us. Her courage and her willingness to face danger head-on have been an inspiration.

In one of her last blog posts before she was arrested, Razan wrote: “I do not believe in a ‘national consciousness,’ I don’t believe in nationality …Once we drop hyphenations, we become as one.” In that spirit, we say: Razan’s struggle is our struggle. The Syrian people’s battle for freedom is our battle. Now we ask you for your solidarity and support.

What can you do?

1) Contact Syrian diplomatic representatives in your countries immediately.  In faxes or phone calls, urge:

  • that Razan Ghazzawi be released unconditionally;
  • that she be protected from torture or ill-treatment  while she remains in detention;
  • that all political prisoners in Syria be released;
  • that Syria end  arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and  violence  against protesters and opposition members.

A list of addresses and phone numbers for Syrian embassies and consulates can be found here, or here.

2) Organize peaceful vigils or demonstrations at Syrian embassies or consulates calling for the release of Razan Ghazzawi and all political prisoners in Syria.

Below you will find statements (translated from the Arabic) a) by Syrian bloggers and friends of Razan, and b) by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

Additional resources:

This statement is signed by:

  • Ahmad Ragheb – Human rights activist-Executive   director (Hisham Mubarak Law Center)
  • Dalia Abd El Hameed – Human rights activist – Gender officer (Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights)
  • Mona Seif – Human rights activist  (No to Military Trials)
  • Mozn Hassan – Feminist, human rights activist- Executive  director (Nazra for Feminist Studies)
  • Scott Long – Human rights activist  (Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School)
  • Tarek Moustafa – Feminist, human rights activist  (Nazra for Feminist Studies)
  • Yara Sallam – Feminist, human rights activist   (Nazra for Feminist Studies)

A. STATEMENT BY RAZAN’S FELLOW SYRIAN BLOGGERS AND FRIENDS: “FREE RAZAN GHAZZAWI”

We hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief after our friend Hussein Ghreir was set free, before the choke of rage and sadness reminded our hearts once more of our reality: oppression, suppression, and worshipping the silence that we live within. This took place when we learned that our friend Razan Ghazzawi was arrested. Razan is a devoted Syrian blogger. She is a Syrian by her passionate work for the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian refugees in social media in both Arabic and English.  Razan is a Syrian by her commitment to the causes of progress, social justice, and equality. She is a Syrian by standing for all free souls in their struggles for freedom and dignity.

Razan’s is a voice that only the enemies of rights, dignity, justice,  and freedom want to silence.

We demand that the Syrian authorities set Razan free immediately, along with all prisoners of conscience and dignity. We also hold them responsible for any harm to which she may be exposed. We also demand that the Syrian authorities stop the policy of terrorist oppression that they are practicing against the Syrian people.

We ask all those who support justice and freedom to show solidarity with Razan Ghazzawi, with us, and with Syria.

We hope that all our friends will help publishing this statement on blogs, pages and social media platforms. #FreeRazan

B. STATEMENT OF THE SYRIAN CENTER FOR MEDIA AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: DETENTION OF THE SYRIAN BLOGGER RAZAN GHAZZAWI

Syrian blogger and activist  Razan Ghazzawi has been arrested this afternoon at the Syrian-Jordanian border, where she was heading to Amman to attend a conference for defenders of media freedom in the Arab world. There, Razan was scheduled to represent our organization.

Razan works as a media coordinator in the Center: she is a graduate of the English literature department of Damascus University, and also holds a Master’s degree in comparative  literature  from Lebanon. Razan’s Master’s thesis focused on the short stories of Shamoun Ballas, an author living in Paris and Palestine; she discussed how colonial occupation affects the process of creating an identity in the post-independence modern state. Razan has published many articles on literature .She also started her own blog. Razaniyat, in 2009 .

Razan was a member of the cultural committee  “A Place for Everyone,” 2005-2007. She also won second prize in a poetry contest at a Lebanese university.

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression gravely denounces the detention of our friend, blogger Razan Ghazzawi. Arresting her is another way to restrict and eliminate  civil society in Syria—and a desperate attempt to stifle freedom of expression in Syria.

The Center also urges Syrian authorities to stop the systematic crackdown on Syrian bloggers and journalists, and to free Razan unconditionally— along with  all other dissidents detained and arrested in Syria. Syria should respect its international commitments,  based on the international agreements Syria has signed. The Center also warns the Syrian authorities  that they will be held responsible for any physical or psychological harm that the blogger Razan Ghazzawi may endure.