Many socialists believe that we should deal with the Islamic fundamentalists now recruiting among Asian youth in Britain — notably Hizb-ut Tahir — by a policy of “no platform” for such bigots. We reprint an excerpt from Dave Landau’s argument in Jewish Socialist no.33 and a response by Mark Osborn
The left, specifically the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and Socialist Organiser [Workers' Liberty], have campaigned against bans on Hizb-ut Tahrir, declaring themselves in support of their right to free speech.
What should we do about Hizb-ut Tahrir? I believe that organisations that incite racist violence, advocate genocide against Jews, and promote violence against women, lesbians and gays, should not be allowed a platform any more than fascist organisations like the British National Party. This is not an abstract question about where the line would be drawn regarding free speech. Jewish, Hindu, lesbian and gay and Muslim women students who are not prepared to conform to rules of “modesty” genuinely feel under threat. In colleges of further education in areas like Tower Hamlets the threat to Asian women is very real.
This is a question of self-defence.
Does this mean that we should campaign for bans by the state or college authorities? There is a grave danger in this approach. We would, in effect, be forming, or trying to form, a block with the racist state, part of the same European machine which is launching a massive repression against Algerians in France in the name of anti-fundamentalism. I believe this plays into the hands of Hizb-ut Tahrir, confirming their propaganda lie that Jews, lesbians and gays, feminists and other “degenerates” are lined up with imperialism against them. It polarises the issue in the way they want it — fundamentalism v imperialism — rather than the way we want to expose it — the oppressed v racism and fundamentalism.
Organise, campaign, debate, educate!
1. It is perfectly true that Socialist Organiser-Workers’ Liberty stands for free speech. For us this is a basic matter of political health.
2. It is also true that the SWP, the RCP and ourselves are all opposed to state, student union or college imposed bans on Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Nevertheless we have a different assessment of the fundamentalists than the SWP and RCP. We are quite clear that these groups and movements are utterly reactionary. And we say so, as loudly as we can.
3. The mere fact of Hizb-ut Tahrir being utterly reactionary is not a sufficient justification for the suppression of their right to free speech. Because, as Rosa Luxemburg rightly wrote:
“Freedom is always freedom for those who think differently. Not because of any ‘fanaticism’ about ‘justice’, but because all that is wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and ‘freedom’ effectively loses all meaning once it becomes a privilege.”
4. One difference between Hizb-ut Tahrir and the BNP is that it is perfectly possible for socialists to leaflet Hizb-ut Tahrir meetings and talk to their members.
The problem with the fascists is not so much that they hold filthy views — which they do — but that they are on a “war footing” against the left and Black and Jewish people.
If it was just a matter of discussion, surely we believe we could win the arguments.
5. Do Hizb-ut Tahrir say bigoted things? Yes, of course! They are bigots, what do you expect? The point is that they do not — now, in Britain — have the same policy as the nazis, of physical attacks.
So, in these conditions, what should our response be? Why not argue with Hizb-ut Tahrir? Sure, we may not convince the hard-core of their membership, but we can aim to offer a socialist alternative to the alienated youth that turn up to hear their message.
6. We are debating Hizb-ut Tahrir at our Workers’ Liberty summer school in July. Are you intending to break up this meeting? If not, why not?
Why are we bothering to discuss with them? Because Muslim fundamentalism is a real issue in the colleges and elsewhere, and we want our members and the left to be well acquainted with their ideas, in order to be able to tackle them adequately.
7. What is the problem with banning groups?
a. Limited “gains” from denial of free speech are often, in the end, counterproductive — even in their own terms.
The actual issue — the politics of the fundamentalists — becomes muddled up with another issue — the question of free speech.
The offended party is offered the opportunity to organise a backlash, under the very powerful, emotive banner of defence of free speech.
b. We have no interest in creating a precedent for the banning of “extremists.” Generally these bans are used against the left.
c. Most importantly there is an issue of political principle: we should not — especially after the experience of Stalinism — educate the left in the spirit of stopping people speaking if we do not like them.
There is a lot of this degeneracy about already (go to an SWP meeting and try to sell Socialist Organiser, then try to speak in the “discussion”). It is deeply unhealthy. After all, what sort of socialism are we actually fighting for? Another gulag?
8. Student unions run or influenced by members of Workers’ Liberty certainly do demand that colleges refuse fascists meeting rooms.
However there are two points that should be made about this:
a. It is subordinate to a policy of mass mobilisation against the fascists.
b. It is not done in the name of denial of the fascists’ right to free speech. It is demanded in the name of our right to defend ourselves from the immediate threat of physical attack.
9. What if lesbian and gay, Muslim or other students are ‘intimidated’?
Well, it depends what we are talking about. Physical attacks or saying things that are unpleasant? My attitude depends on what you mean by ‘intimidated.’
And what next? Do I try to stop students who favour immigration controls (the vast majority, outside a small group of left activists), from speaking in union meetings? Someone might say something offensive. Someone’s feelings might be hurt. Yes, that might happen. And what’s the answer? Organising, campaigning, educating. That’s the answer, not banning.
10. How to tackle Hizb-ut Tahrir?
In March our members organised a large meeting with Bengali feminist Taslima Nasrin as part of a political campaign against the fundamentalists inside the student movement. We wanted to show the modern, secular alternative to fundamentalism.
We leaflet and lobby the fundamentalists’ meetings.
We must not give up the socialist struggle for free speech by making free speech conditional!