Proscription Powers and the Banning of Islam4UK
Last week the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, announced that he was taking steps to ban the group Islam4UK in the wake of the conviction of several of its members for public order offences relating to their protests at a parade of soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment returning from service in Iraq in 2009.
Islam4UK, fronted by Anjem Choudary (left), is the offspring of Omar Bakri Mohammed’s al-Muhajiroun, which infamously referred to the 9/11 hijackers as “the magnificent nineteen”. The group denounces “Western Values”, supports the implementation of Sharia law, and has argued that British Muslims owe no allegiance to the United Kingdom. Although in this latest incarnation the group claims not to publically promote violence in the support of these causes, members have been convicted in relation to terrorism and public order offences. It has been adept at attracting media coverage, particularly amongst the British tabloid press, to its extremist views.
The group recently courted controversy by announcing that it planned to stage protests against the involvement of the British Army in Afghanistan in Wootton Bassett. This small town, near RAF Lynham (the base where the bodies of UK service personnel killed in action overseas are repatriated to the United Kingdom), has in recent years become a focal point of remembrance in the public’s consciousness. That no such demonstration would have been permitted under the Public Order Act 1986 did not diminish the chorus of disapproval that followed.
On 5 January, this outcry provoked an Early Day Motion in Parliament calling for the group to be banned. Ordinarily, such motions carry little weight (the same day saw a motion in recognition of “Blackpool’s Entertainment Heritage” attract more than three times as many signatures from MPs), but the presence of Andrew Dismore, MP, Chairman of the respected Joint Committee on Human Rights amongst the signatories added considerable weight to these efforts.
‘The Prime Minister and I have publicly commented Islam4UK’s recent announcements appear intended to provoke anger and division between communities. They have not succeeded. Last week we saw local Wootton Bassett residents and the Wiltshire Islamic Cultural Centre united in opposition to Islam4UK’s “irresponsible and irrational” actions.’
A day later, and with a banning order covering the group laid before Parliament, Alan Johnson made the following announcement:
“I have laid an order which will proscribe al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK and a number of the other names the organisation goes by. It is already proscribed under two other names: al-Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect. Proscription is a tough but necessary power to tackle terrorism and is not a course we take lightly.”
This order, made pursuant to the Home Secretary’s power under section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000, emphasises how rapidly the British Government can tackle emergent extremist groups, but also raises questions as to how important the list of banned groups is to the United Kingdom’s system of proscription. Such a list (contained in Schedule 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000), has the benefit of ensuring the maximum possible clarity for members of the public, enabling them to know definitively whether a group they are involved with is illegal. Under section 3(5) any group which, ‘commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes or encourages terrorism (including “glorifying” terrorism), or is otherwise concerned in terrorism’, can be proscribed in this manner.
This use of a list of banned groups can be compared with the use of proscription in Ireland under section 18(d) of the Offences Against the State Act 1939, where an “unlawful organisation” is stated to include any group which, ‘engages in, promotes, encourages, or advocates the commission of any criminal offence or the obstruction of or interference with the administration of justice or the enforcement of the law’. The Irish Government can publically issue a “suppression order” under section 19, allowing them to tackle the illegal organisation.
In the instant case, however, the terms of the United Kingdom’s proscription legislation meant that Islam4UK was likely a banned group even without this statement by the Home Secretary. Under section 3(9) of the Terrorism Act 2000 a group which can be proven to be, ‘the same as an organisation listed in Schedule 2’, is treated in law as being proscribed. This measure was intended, in part, to prevent groups from repeatedly changing their name, whilst retaining their composition and aims, in order to avoid criminal sanction. Given that Islam4UK emerged out of al-Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect, it would have been covered by this provision. Nonetheless, this provision undermines the clarity of the criminal law, in that an individual who became a member of Islam4UK would not, prior to its public proscription, have been aware that he was committing a criminal offence. Moreover, Alan Johnson’s public banning of the group shows more commitment by the Government to a headline grabbing effort to indicate that it is tackling extremism than it does to ensuring the clarity of the criminal law.
Eager to become engaged in a game of “one-up-manship”, Chris Grayling, MP, teh Conservative Party’s Shadow Home Secretary, announced that if the Conservatives come to office after the next General Election they will ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group which has rejected violence in the United Kingdom but which ultimately aims to establish unitary Islamic state. The group has been prominently linked in recent reports to the radicalisation of the attempted Detroit Plane Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Interestingly, these claims surfaced in the same week as far-right British National Party member Terrance Gavan was jailed for eleven years for possession of 54 improvised explosive devices including nail bombs and 12 firearms. Although Mr Justice Calvert-Smith noted that Gavan was a “lone operator” in passing sentence, his is not the only conviction linking the party to political violence against racial and religious minorities in the United Kingdom.
Whilst few British Muslims support the aims of either Islam4UK or Hizb ut-Tahrir, banning such organisations raises obvious questions as to what differentiates the BNP from these groups and why it remains able to operate without such question-marks over its legality.