The Islamist demonstrators in Luton who barracked soldiers returning from Iraq have been widely described as anti-war protesters. That is a big assumption. Their banners carried slogans including “Muslims Rise Against British Oppressors” and “Anglian Soldiers Go To Hell”. A local MP has claimed that they were linked to al-Muhajiroun – a now defunct organisation that applauded the 9/11 attacks and sought the establishment of a theocratic Muslim state. The protest appears to have been organised by a splinter from that group called Ahle Sunnah al Jamah, which promises more such events.
Whatever their formal affiliation, it is a reasonable inference that the protesters are not anti-war but pro-war. The war they favour is the one being prosecuted, in various parts of the world, by theocratic terrorism against open societies – and also closed ones that adhere to a different form of religious observance.
While the virulence of the Islamists## case consigns them far beyond the fringe of public debate, the notion that the Western democracies are at least dismissive of oppression against Muslims is surprisingly widespread. In the past 20 years, the United States and Great Britain have fought military campaigns to restore the sovereignty of Kuwait against Saddam Hussein##s imperialism; repel the aggression of Slobodan Milosevic against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo; and overthrow the oppressors of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Islamist extremists thus talk not some errant and zealous form of liberation theology: they talk complete baloney.
Moreover, the Islamist hostility towards the West is only incidentally about Western foreign policy, or Israel##s security policies in Gaza. It is at root an atavistic hostility to the principles of choice, pluralism, secularism and – consider the targets of the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 – mere sensual pleasures such as social drinking. As Osama bin Laden disclosed in an interview in 1998: “Every Muslim, the minute he can start differentiating, carries hate toward Americans, Jews and Christians: this is part of our ideology.”
The Muslim character of the world view of the Luton protesters is also selective. It demonstrably does not represent the mainstream opinion of British Muslims. And the protesters are far from being consistent in their supposed concern for their co-religionists## welfare. The massacre by the Taleban of the Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan elicits no protest, because the victims were of a supposedly heretical branch of Islam.
A liberal society by definition enshrines the right of dissent, and the freedom of speech and assembly. The response of politicians to the Luton protest has been, in the main, apt and lacking in platitude. The protest against the Anglian Regiment was grossly offensive to civilised opinion, but that is no reason for curtailing the right of protest. Freedom to offend is precious. Though the protesters may be uninterested in the point, the Armed Forces that they abuse defend the liberties that they exploit.
But there is a question about how far a bigoted, xenophobic and insurrectionist minority can reasonably expect tolerance. Voltaire never said that he would defend to the death the right to utter an exceptionable opinion. And it is a mere truism that even in America##s libertarian political culture, speech may be abridged when there is “clear and present danger”.
Al-Muhajiroun was banned because it glorified terrorism. While that legislation may appear expansive, it expresses a liberal impulse. The disaffection felt by groups that seek the overthrow of the State, and campaign for the defeat of Western forces in battle, is more than dissent. A liberal state cannot be a state unless it has the means to defend itself. (The Times, editorial)