Recently, the UK government has outlawed membership in extremist Islamist groups Minbar Ansar Deen and Boko Haram. They have been added to a list of groups, including Al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK and the Irish Republican Army, in which membership is illegal. The same attitude can also be seen in calls to ban ill-defined ‘Islamism,’ or ‘white nationalist’ groups such as the English Defence League, as well as in calls for laws restricting ‘hate speech’.
These measures presumably stem from good intentions. There is no doubt that there are beliefs and groups whose views are offensive and even dangerous, either through inspiration or provocation. However, whatever the circumstances, restricting the free association rights of any group is undesirable.
The burden of proof is always on the regulator regarding any benefits to placing such restrictions on organisations. This is especially the case with groups like Islam4UK, who merely preach extreme views, as opposed to those like the Real IRA, who are directly involved with violence.
Aside from the immediate affront to liberty and the dangerous precedent set, it is unlikely that banning a particular movement is likely to prevent proliferation of its views. For example, while illegal, both Al-Qaeda and the IRA have managed not only to recruit, but also to carry out effective attacks. The less sinister but also once banned movements Solidarity and the African National Congress still pursued their objectives with vigour and mass support after being prohibited. Indeed, it can be argued that, in all these cases, being banned actually bolstered their support, acting as something of a recruitment tool.
The issue is twofold. Firstly, it is extremely difficult to effectively prohibit anything. The war on drugs, for example, demonstrates this. Not only is it impossible to even track, much less control, the millions of interactions and exchanges occurring each moment, but prohibition itself also promotes counter reactions.
By actively curbing the rights of a certain group, government gives them grounds to portray themselves as being victims of the powerful. This can always provoke sympathy and interest. However, for Islamists based in Western countries, and for groups like the English Defence League, appearing as the violated underdog is an essential part of their identity and appeal.
Appearing to be controversial or ‘edgy’ can aid a movement’s effectiveness, particularly in recruiting the young. This may help to explain the popularity of radical groups like the Red Army Faction in the 1970s, just as it goes some way in explaining the counter-intuitive results of prohibiting substance use. Banning something only enhances its mystique.
This is not to say that extremism of any kind, particularly those who preach violence, should go unchallenged. Criticism, discourse and debate can go a long way in combating irrational views. It is also worth noting that tolerating the existence of offensive ideas in no way implies respect for such views, or even for their proponents. Tolerance does not imply support.
By definition, extremist ideologies tend to be irrational and unsympathetic. This is why humour and ridicule are such important and appropriate tools in combating them. Although offensive, Anjem Choudary ultimately has an embarrassingly poor understanding of the religion he claims to follow. Likewise, believing that martyrdom gives you a ticket to heaven is fundamentally comical.
Seeing these beliefs and their proponents for what they are does not mean ignoring the seriousness of their crimes. The fact that EDL members tend to be ignorant thugs does not absolve them of responsibility for adding to racial tensions. It does, however, put their actions in context. Refusing to take extremist ideas too seriously, and granting their proponents only pity or contempt, undermines any attempt on their part to craft an appealing image of themselves.
Combined with intellectual dissection of their beliefs, lampooning anyone who promotes violence, or holds extremist views, is far more effective at combating their influence than government regulations could ever be.
Image credit to: hughgolden.blogspot.com