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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.