Do books "prime people for terrorism"?

This week's terrorism conviction has serious implications for freedoms of speech and thought in mode

This is a guest post from human-rights lawyer Fahad Ansari

In August 1966, Egyptian Islamist thinker and writer Sayyid Qutb was convicted in Cairo of conspiring against the state. The evidence used to incriminate him consisted primarily of extracts from his book Milestones, a treatise on Islamic governance written by Qutb during a previous stint in prison. For Egyptian President Nasser, the ideas contained in Milestones were as threatening to his position as the birth of Moses was to the Pharaoh thousands of years earlier. Nasser 's solution to his dilemma was little different from that of the Pharaoh. Kill the ideological revolution in its infancy. Qutb was executed in prison on 29 August 1966. All known copies of the book were confiscated and burned by military order, and anyone found in possession of it was prosecuted for treason.

Almost half a century later, on Tuesday 13 December 2011, British Muslim Ahmed Faraz was sentenced to three years in prison in London after being convicted of disseminating a number of books which were deemed to be terrorist publications and thereby "glorifying" and "priming people" for terrorism (despite, as the judge conceded, having had no role in any specific terror plots). One of those books is Qutb's Milestones - which is considered by some to be one of the core texts of the modern Islamist movement and the ideological inspiration for Al Qaeda. In a trial which lasted over two months, jurors had the entirety of Qutb's thoughts and ideas, as expressed in his book, read out to them to decide whether or not such ideas are permissible in 21st century Britain. They concluded that they were not and Milestones has now been deemed a "terrorist publication" and effectively banned in Britain.

Milestones is also published by Penguin Books, who previously found themselves in the dock in 1960 (around the same time that Qutb was writing Milestones) after publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover, the last case of its kind until now. However, the CPS case was that the Milestones special edition published and sold by Faraz contained a number of appendices intended specifically to promote extremist ideology. Yet these appendices consisted of a series of articles about Qutb by contemporary thinkers and writers and a syllabus of three books taught by Hassan al-Banna, the founding ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is on the verge of being democratically-elected in post-Mubarak Egypt .

Other books Faraz was selling which are now also effectively banned include those of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian scholar who became one of the leaders of the jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation, as well as a teacher and mentor to Osama Bin Laden. Ironically, Azzam's Defence of Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan were ideological and theological texts that were heavily promoted in the Western and Muslim worlds to encourage young Muslims to join the Western-backed jihad against the Soviet Union . Until very recently, both books were readily available to purchase from mainstream booksellers, Amazon and Waterstones, yet neither company seems to have been threatened with prosecution.

Whatever your view of Qutb or Azzam's works, the Faraz case has extremely serious implications for freedoms of speech and thought in modern Britain . In the land of Shakespeare and Wordsworth where more books are published every year than in any other country in the world, books could now be banned and ideas prohibited. Yet a core free speech principle is that the best way to defeat ideas is to debate and discuss them, not prohibit or criminalise them. Perhaps it is for this reason that Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf - the ideological inspiration for the most violent political movement of the 20th century - remains available in bookstores and libraries today. It is probably the same reason that the prosecution's expert witness, US-based terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman, admitted under cross-examination that none of the books would have been banned in the United States under the first amendment of its constitution.

Many will argue that since Faraz was also convicted of possessing information likely to be of use to a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism (including military training videos and bomb-making instructions), the books ought to be viewed through this prism. The reality is that over the course of three years, the police seized and examined 19 computers, 25 hard drives, 15,000 books, over 9,000 DVDs and videos and millions of documents, all of which belonged to a busy bookstore. Out of these, they could only find four documents which the jury concluded fell afoul of this specific law and which it could not even be proven had ever been read by Faraz.

The case also has wider implications for political debate inside the British Muslim community. To believe or to even discuss an Islamic mode of governance, the political union of Muslim countries in a caliphate and issues related to military jihad and foreign conflicts seem to have become synonymous with "glorifying" terrorism. Now that the dissemination of books which promote and advocate such ideas is being criminalised, the logical next step may be to try and ban the ultimate source of all Islamic political thought - the Qur'an itself - as Dutch politician Geert Wilders once proposed. (For those who may accuse this writer of scaremongering, journalist Yvonne Ridley was met with the same incredulity five years ago when she announced to thousands of Muslims that the government would try and ban Milestones.)

In Nasser's Egypt , thousands of copies of Milestones were destroyed and burned by the state. In 21st-century Britain , will all of us who possess copies of it now have to burn them ourselves or risk being arrested and prosecuted for possessing "un-British" books and glorifying terrorism?

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue