Sweeping new legislation, designed to curtail the activities of foreign opposition groups based in Britain, was slipped quietly on to the statute book last month, without raising so much as a whimper of protest from civil rights groups or Muslim activists.
There ought to have been an outcry. At a stroke, the Terrorism Act reshapes the landscape in which opposition groups can work. It is now illegal to call for rebellion against unelected, despotic governments like those of Egypt and Algeria, or for overthrowing them by force; to campaign for the liberation of occupied lands like Palestine; and to engage in weapons training for the purposes of jihad.
The British government says the Act replaces the 1989 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which dealt with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, bringing legislation into line with the changing nature of terrorism over the last decade. However, critics counter that its indiscriminate sweep is intended to harass and intimidate into silence all opposition deemed unhelpful by Whitehall.
On this occasion the truth does not lie somewhere in the middle. The Act's clear target is the multitude of dissidents who have set up home in London. Draw a line from Marakesh to Mindanao, and every Muslim country in between has dissident representation in the capital. Leaders of groups ranging from the militant Egyptian Gama-ah Islamiyyah to the pacifist Tunisian an-Nahda have all enjoyed the freedoms that have earned London a reputation as world safe-haven, a Beirut-on-Thames.
What has changed in the last ten years is not so much the face of terrorism but its definition. Increasingly, Middle Eastern regimes, along with Israel and the US, to whose regional hegemony such groups now provide the only resistance, have urged Britain to adopt a more draconian view of terrorism to stave off the opposition groups. That pressure has now paid off.
Whereas the PTA concerned itself exclusively with threats to the United Kingdom, the tentacles of the new Terrorism Act extend worldwide. It is an offence to campaign for (and this includes raising funds or otherwise promoting) the assassination of an Assad or Mubarak on the grounds that it represents incitement to murder, or to actively support other groups which do so. Even where the target of opposition precludes any threat to civilians, agitation is enough to land dissidents in prison for up to 10 years. The severity of the legislation is brought into focus by the consideration that agitators could find themselves in the shoes of Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman, jailed in the US merely for pronouncing a fiqhi opinion on the validity of the use of force.
The Terrorism Act also confers on the home secretary new powers to proscribe organisations he deems to fall within the new definition of terrorism. Before long Britain will have its own equivalent of the US state department's infamous list of terrorist organisations, which is, of course, dominated by Islamic groups.
In fact, the Act is so broad it may well prove unworkable unless the government is willing to fill its bursting prisons with yet more Muslim inmates. It defines terrorism as the use or threat of force "designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and advance a political, religious, or ideological cause." That effectively includes students who raise money outside the mosque each Friday, lately for the mujahideen in Chechnya and Kashmir. It also includes the imams who pray for their success in the khutbah. And it also includes those who rally in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere to espouse jihad as a method of achieving freedom and liberation.
Another damaging consequence of the Act is likely to be the powers it gives police officers to stop and question and arraign suspects. Although police forces have still to show, in the aftermath of the 1998 Macpherson inquiry, that they have put an end to the use of stop and search powers to harass minority groups, they are now getting additional powers of interrogation and arrest. Under the Act it is enough for a police constable merely to suspect that somebody is breaking the law in order to justify a stop and search or an arrest. Recent history has demonstrated that this may be a pretext for witchhunts against Muslim groups. In 1995, the Palestinian charity Interpal had its assets frozen after the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained (wrongly) that it was a conduit for funds for Hamas.
Of course, British jails are unlikely to be too severely strained by the new legislation, for it will not be used evenhandedly and strictly. It is far more likely to be used occasionally but effectively in order to threaten, target and silence groups and individuals saying awkward things at inconvenient times. The experience of similarly broad and stringent legislation in other countries - the US in particular - shows that it can be exploited to harass Islamic groups at the urging of friendly foreign governments, often on the most dubious evidence.
Some would argue that the Act is only the consolidation of other attempts by the executive to prevent London from being used as an opposition base against 'friendly' regimes. The new Act cements a working definition of terrorism set in May in the case of Shafiq ur-Rahman, a Pakistani imam who was ordered to be deported for his links to the Kashmiri liberation group, the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. Shafiq Rahman was given his marching orders after the judge in his case decided that his activities for Kashmiri separatists endangered the friendly relations Britain enjoyed with India. "The promotion of terrorism is capable of being a threat to our own national security," declared the judge.
Shafiq Rahman is appealing the decision, but even if he is successful in avoiding deportation, the adoption of the Terrorism Act means that he could in future face arrest and prosecution simply for continuing to voice his support for Kashmiri mujahideen groups. The outlook for Islamic activists based in Britain is grim indeed.
Faisal Bodi is a freelance journalist living in London. Permission to re-publish this article was obtained through Crescent International. You can visit their website at http://www.muslimedia.com