Last week, Britain saw the first conviction of a woman under new anti-terror laws. Samina Malik, a 23 year-old from west London who worked in a bookshop in Heathrow Airport, had a wealth of literature in her home on such topics as bomb-making and hand-to-hand combat, as well as weapons manuals and something called "The Mujaheddin Poisoner's Handbook". Perhaps most revealing was her poetry; under the nom de plume of "the Lyrical Terrorist", Malik wrote poems like "How to Behead" and "The Living Martyrs" which explored her fascination with Islamic extremism:
I always sit alone to think and ponder how it would be to unite with the Muslim ummah and to go shoot rocket-launchers, help them load their ammunition, nurse the wounded, and what the atmosphere would be like…
The clincher was a handwritten note on the back of a shop receipt which read, "The desire within me increases every day to go for martyrdom." She was found guilty of possessing material likely to be useful in terrorism and will be sentenced next month.
Should she be on her way to jail? A lot of people aren't convinced. This case seems to straddle the blurred line where the harmless meets the dangerous; no one wants to see poets imprisoned for conjuring up violent imagery, but the extensive list of "how-to" terrorist manuals and bomb-making information found in her apartment surely vindicate the authorities' decision to act. For those, like me, whose commitment to free speech is near-absolute, cases like these present real difficulties. Not having seen all the evidence for myself, I can only assume that the jury's decision was correct and that our streets are a little safer, but our anti-terrorist legislation is so broadly phrased that it is hard to read about this case without feeling some misgivings.
Others are clearer in their view of the case. Inayat Bunglawala, the ubiquitous spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), was in no doubt that this would have a chilling effect on freedom of thought in this country. "It is to be hoped that this case may yet serve as a demonstration of just how badly-framed some of our anti-terror legislation actually is", he wrote earlier this week. "In a truly free society, it should not be a crime to merely download and read such material." Groups such as the MCB brandish the banner of ‘free speech' quite frequently these days. When the think-tank Policy Exchange published a report into some of the copious Saudi-funded hate literature to be found in Britain's mosques, up popped Bunglawala on cue to unfurl the standard of civil liberty on their behalf. You wouldn't shut down a bookstore that sold Mein Kampf or Lolita, went the argument, so why pick on Muslim titles that explain how Jews are like pigs?
Bunglawala's passion for free speech bears all the zeal of the born-again. It wasn't so long ago that he was calling for The Satanic Verses to be banned and demonstrating in favour of Khomeini's fatwa – youthful hot-headedness he now regrets. Even now, though, he shows regrettable lapses. As the pseudonymous English blogger Gracchii notes in a recent post, the MCB's commitment to free speech seems to fizzle out when considering recent changes in British law that ban "religious hatred" which they're all in favour of. You can write screeds and screeds about how you would like to cut my head off for not being a Muslim and they will defend you to the hilt; but dare to criticise a religion that can order the victim of a gang-rape to be given 200 lashes and 6 months in jail, and you are on shakier ground.
More troubling still is the trope that pops up again and again in the discourse of Bunglawala, the Muslim Council and similar bodies. "The MCB considers [the knighthood for Rushdie] yet another example of insensitivity to Muslim opinion that will only result in their further alienation." The extradition of a computer programmer who ran terrorist websites would contribute to "further alienation" among Muslim youths. Publishing the Danish cartoons will have the "unfortunate outcome… that extremists are best placed to benefit from the situation". In all these cases the subtext is clear, because since home-grown suicide bombers hit the London Underground, we all know what "alienation" leads to, don't we? Engage with us, the MCB are saying, because if you don't listen to us we can't be responsible for what happens. The fact that they, like so many other "community leaders", are utterly unrepresentative of their constituents, is conveniently ignored. Until recently the British government humoured these people. No more, I'm glad to say; and their pride has been suitably dented.
This week, two Spanish cartoonists were found guilty of offending the royal family for depicting the Crown Prince and his wife having sex; fined over $4000 each, the magazine in which the offending cartoon was published pulled from newsstands all over the country by the police. I don't see bloggers sporting banners in defence of the Spanish cartoons; no sign of them on Michelle Malkin at time of writing. This antediluvian Spanish law shows that freedom of speech is never 100% safe even in a modern Western democracy, but has constantly to be safeguarded and fought for. I have no argument with the suggestion that freedom of speech should apply consistently and to all; that's just obviously true.
But you'll forgive me if I take the commitment of Mr Bunglawala and his ilk to free speech with a hefty pinch of salt. The term means something different, I suspect, to the Muslim Council of Britain.