May plays into hands of poppy burning Muslims Against Crusades

Anjem Choudary and his trolling friends like the publicity.

Muslims Against Crusades, the attention-seeking troublemakers who have burned poppies to enrage people who write for tabloid newspapers, have now been banned.

Whether this move by the Home Secretary Theresa May will get rid of this group's trolling polemic remains to be seen; what's happened before is that the group has simply changed name, kept more or less the same personnel and continued.

Anjem Choudary and his friends are keen to get into the news -- under a previous incarnation of Islam4UK they promised a vigil in the former repatriation town of (Royal) Wootton Bassett, for example. Will anything different happen this time?

The timing is significant. Today is the 11 November, and we are approaching Remembrance Sunday. It is possible that another stunt may have been planned to disrupt the minutes of silence, which are now observed with more scrutiny and participation than was the case ten or 15 years ago, to get the group more hate-headlines and more publicity for their deeply unworthy cause.

What MAC have done, however, shows an unfortunately strong nous for PR, for we are living in a time when we are more sensitive than ever about our symbols of remembrance. After years of playing in football shirts without poppies to mark the week of Remembrance in November, the England team has been involved in a controversy surrounding their presence on the strip this week, with figures such as Prince William, Sepp Blatter of FIFA and Prime Minister David Cameron getting involved.

Poppies mean more to us than they used to -- whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate, but we are more sensitive about these things than we used to be.

As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of anyone provocatively burning anything that people find important or sacred in their culture -- be it a paper flower symbolising fallen heroes or a holy book -- banning MAC plays into their hands.

As with the hastily-withdrawn promise of a march through Wootton Bassett, the thing itself isn't the goal: the headlines and the outrage are the aim, and that has now been achieved. Muslims Against Crusades will be in your newspaper today, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

You get the sense that the likes of MAC don't even burn poppies because they want to burn poppies, or talk about marching through Wootton Bassett because they want to march through Wootton Bassett: they're simply picking the totems that will cause the greatest amount of outrage and upset possible.

Who would care about a well organised but completely non-outrageous protest which took place on 11 November? Probably no-one. Probably no-one would cover it either, and there's the problem.

That a few poppy-burning nitwits could manage to garner more coverage than many more Muslims going out to collect for the British Legion, for example, says something about how our priorities have become skewed. We seek out the challenging, the outrageous, the relentlessly controversial, often at the expense of the reasonable, the community-minded, the positive. And I think that's a shame.

What I realise, of course, is that in writing this article about Muslims Against Crusades I've just played into their hands even more, giving them more of the limelight they're so desperate to get.

So instead of that, I think it's time to stop mentioning them altogether, and just let them get on with their sad little protests, putting them in the context of much larger, more positive activity that hardly ever gets a look-in.


Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Why a group of Brunel students walked out on Katie Hopkins instead of no-platforming her

"We silently walked out because Ms Hopkins has the right to speak, but we also have the right to express our discontent."

Earlier this week, columnist and all-round provocateur Katie Hopkins turned up to Brunel University to join a panel in debating whether the welfare state has a place in 2015. No prizes for guessing her stance on this particular issue

But as Hopkins began her speech, something odd happened. Around 50 students stood up and left, leaving the hall half-empty.

Here's the video:

As soon as Hopkins begins speaking, some students stand up with their backs to the panelists. Then, they all leave - as the nonplussed chair asks them to "please return to their seats". 

The walk-out was, in fact, pre-planned by the student union as an act of protest against Hopkins' appearance at an event held as part of the University's 50th anniversary celebrations. 

Ali Milani, the Brunel Student Union president, says he and other students knew the walk-out would "start a conversation" around no-platforming on campuses, but as he points out, "What is often overlooked (either purposely or as a result of the fanfare) is that the conversation at no point has been about banning Ms Hopkins from speaking on campus, or denying her right to speak."

Instead, students who found her appearance at the welfare debate "incongruous" and "distasteful" simply left the room: "We silently walked out because Ms Hopkins has the right to speak, but we also have the right to express our discontent."

Milani praised the student body for treading the line between freedom of speech and expressing their distaste at Brunel's decision: 

"They have respectfully voiced their antagonism at the decision of their institution, but also . . . proven their commitment to free of speech and freedom of expression."

The protest was an apt way to dodge the issues of free speech surrounding no-platforming, while rejecting Hopkins' views. A walk-out symbolises the fact that we aren't obliged to listen to people like Hopkins. She is free to speak, of course, albeit to empty chairs. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.