Let the American anti-Quran pastor visit Britain

Theresa May is being urged to ban him. Free speech demands she shouldn’t.

I'm sure we all remember Terry Jones, the Florida pastor with a novel and bracing approach to interfaith dialogue – he's the one who thought the best way to mark the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks this year was to declare it "International Burn a Quran Day" (although only, as you'll notice if you look at the poster he had made, between 6pm and 9pm).

The English Defence League has announced that Pastor Jones is due to address an event in Luton in February "on the evils and destructiveness of Islam". As a result, as today's Observer reports, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, is now "under intense pressure" to ban him from Britain.

The views of the EDL should be perfectly clear by now, as should the group's low opinion of Islam. (For those who require clarification, this report by my colleague Daniel Trilling, "God bless the Muslims. They'll need it when they're burning in effing hell", should suffice.)

As for Pastor Jones: although on one level his physical similarity to the hicks and halfwits who populate the town of Rock Ridge in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles inclines one not to take him too seriously, there was nothing remotely amusing about his hate-filled proposal, nor about the international furore it caused, earning him the condemnation of the US state department, the Vatican and the US army in Afghanistan.

Is he a welcome visitor? No, of course not. Neither was the Dutch politician Geert Wilders when he came to Britain in March. I find it sickening, and distressing, too, that they should propagate such an extreme and distorted picture of Islam – just as I find it sickening and distressing that there are some Muslim clerics who do the same.

But I am also alarmed at the alacrity with which many then jump to saying that this person or that – in this case Pastor Jones – should be refused entry into the UK. The Labour MP Jon Cruddas says, "We should not allow racial hatred to be whipped up in this manner in our country" and promises to table a parliamentary motion to ban Jones tomorrow, while the Hope Not Hate campaign has set up a petition to stop him coming.

I understand the feeling behind this, but it's just too easy a response – and a dangerous one, too. The same kind of sentiment lay behind the outrage when it became clear that Nick Griffin was to appear on Question Time. These opinions are repulsive, disgusting, beyond the pale – let's ban them.

But ban what exactly? You can't ban a viewpoint, at least not from being held in an individual's mind. And if the public, verbal or written expression of that viewpoint contravenes no laws, on what grounds would you curtail it?

I was absolutely for Griffin's right to appear on the Question Time panel, for instance, because he is the leader of a perfectly legal party (one for which over half a million people voted in this year's general election and nearly a million in last year's Euro elections) and an elected MEP. You cannot have one set of rules – still less laws – for "acceptable" parties and another for those we deem "unacceptable".

Griffin, however, is a British citizen, so there is no question of not letting him into the country. What of Pastor Jones? According to today's Observer: "The Home Secretary has the power to exclude or deport an individual if she thinks their presence in the UK could threaten national security, public order or the safety of citizens. She can also do so if she believes their views glorify terrorism, promote violence or encourage other serious crime."

Clearly Jones is not a threat to national security: but endangering "public order" and "the safety of citizens"? I find it rather unsettling that the Home Secretary is expected to justify excluding a citizen of a friendly country by using the kind of vague wording that authoritarian regimes the world over use to stifle free speech. It is clear, too, that this "Man of God" does not explicitly "glorify terrorism" or "promote violence".

We consider him to be distasteful, for sure, uncivilised, uncouth, the possessor of barbaric and ignorant views. But if we value free speech at all, those can never be reasons enough to ban him. David Allen Green recently pointed out on The Staggers for the NS that when the Quran-burning (non-)event became noticed, creating huge anger that could have put Americans abroad in harm's way, "even though it was plausible to contend that Pastor Jones was creating a clear danger to others, he was not arrested. It was the persuasive and not the coercive power of the US government which was deployed to stop the gesture happening." He then asked: "What would happen in the United Kingdom?"

We shall see when Theresa May chooses to act or not. One may well ask, as we are at it, why it is that we are so concerned with restricting people's free speech while the legislation that exists to punish them, should that expression constitute incitement to racial or religious hatred, is so rarely used. Surely that is the wrong way around?

So, say I: let Pastor Jones come to Britain, and if his speech breaks any law, then throw the book at him. Make it clear that such laws truly afford the mighty protection of the state to those they are meant to shield. But if his words do not, then I would ask this:

What has anyone to fear from a man so confused and deluded that, before his Quran-burning stunt, he could seriously declare that its aim was "to send a message to the moderate Muslims to stay peaceful and moderate"?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era