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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?