Don’t let the coalition crush Democracy Village

Protest is sometimes messy and sometimes inconvenient, but it remains a fundamental freedom.

It may strike readers as rather ironic that, on the day the Queen arrived at the seat of our democracy to deliver her speech at the State Opening of Parliament, police outside in Parliament Square made their presence felt in the Democracy Village that has sprung up there, searching tents for "bombs" (peace campaigners armed with bombs? The ironies just keep on coming!) and arresting the long-term peace campaigner Brian Haw -- all amid echoes of our new government's commitment to civil liberties.

Even before taking office, David Cameron declared that a Conservative government would attempt to remove Haw and his fellow protesters. But he was also at great pains to point out that he is "all in favour of free speech and the right to demonstrate and the right to protest". However, it's the "shanty-town tents" in the square that have led him to conclude that "enough is enough".

The appearance of Democracy Village has meant that others have joined in the call to clear the square. Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster City Council, has been particularly vocal. This is the same Colin Barrow currently facing calls for an inquiry over business dealings of his which have left the council owed £20,000.

I don't know about you, but I'm reassured by the constant declaration by those who want the protesters gone of their commitment to the principle of free speech -- that's the one enshrined in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to give it its full title. And I think we can safely assume, too, that these same people cherish just as fervently the right to freedom of assembly and association, also enshrined in the convention.

"Fundamental freedoms". "Fundamental" -- defined by the dictionary as "vital", "elemental", "crucial" and "indispensable". These freedoms are rightly considered the very bedrock of a healthy democracy. They are its lifeblood, because, without them, democracy dies. In fact, so important are these rights that constant vigilance is required, lest they be eroded by those for whom protest is inconvenient or threatening. And we must recognise that those who would attempt to do this immediately bring their fidelity to the ideals of democracy into question.

But what might our politicians find so threatening about Democracy Village? Let me see . . . perhaps that it is prominently protesting against the war in Afghanistan (which all the main parties support) and is vowing not to leave until British troops are brought home? Let's not forget that anyone opposed to the war was not represented by any of the three main parties during the election, and that a recent poll revealed 77 per cent of the British public want the troops brought home. Who, then, is more aligned with democracy? The politicians in parliament -- or the protesters outside its hallowed walls?

"Democracy" -- this is defined as "the common people, considered as the primary source of political power". "The people" -- hey, that's us! We are the "primary source of political power" in our democracy.

But alas, we have lost sight of the direction in which power should flow. So brainwashed are we that we allow our servants to dictate to us when and where we can protest against them! They even draft laws making it illegal to do so without their permission! Absurd!

The residents of Democracy Village however, have not lost sight of the real definition of democracy. They understand it very well -- and far better than those wishing to sweep them away in order to silence critical voices. They are giving us all a precious lesson in its true meaning if we only had eyes to see and ears to hear. They are safeguarding our democracy for us even in the face of insult, ridicule, ignorance and state oppression. Brian Haw, the man who has sat in wind, rain and snow for nine years straight to protest the slaughter and carnage of our wars has the kind of integrity that those who have tried every trick in the book to evict him will never possess.

You see, protest is sometimes messy; it's sometimes noisy and inconvenient, but weighed in the balance any disruption pales into insignificance compared to the priceless freedom it represents -- a freedom that protects us all. Parliament Square: what better place to fight for democracy, in the shadow of Mandela and among the ghosts of suffragettes? As the film-maker and long-term reporter on protest there, Rikki Blue, commented this week:

Protesting in Parliament Square is not a party, it's not a joke -- it's a hard-won, heart-felt struggle in the face of draconian laws put in place by arrogant and so-far untouchable politicians (who) are seeking any excuse to clear the square of the protest that daily reminds them what war criminals most of them are.

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Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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