The Russian government claimed on February 20 that the London School of Economics was being used as a recruitment ground for "Chechen terrorists". The suggestion is patently absurd and was largely treated as such by the British press and government. Muslims, however, cannot afford to be blas about it, in view of Britain's Terrorism Act 2000, which came into force the previous day.
Under the new legislation, virtually any contact with armed groups abroad or expressing sympathy with or support for such groups can be construed as a criminal act, and those involved are liable to prosecution. Imagine, for example, if the institution involved had been a little-known Muslim college instead of one of the most prominent colleges of Britain's largest university; also that the allegation had come not from the Russian government but from the American CIA, based on information provided by the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Would the reaction in the British press and establishment have been the same? Or would there be a witch-hunt against the college concerned, with wild allegations and demands that all those implicated be prosecuted to the full extent of the law?
Experience tells us the answer. Even without the new legislation, Muslim activists in Britain, as in the US, France and other western countries, have been subject to persecution. In America, the cases of Shaikh Omar Abd al-Rahman, Dr Mazen al-Najjar and Imam Jamil al-Amin are well known; there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of less-known cases too. In Britain, the government deported a Kashmiri alim last year after accusing him of recruiting mujahideen to fight in Kashmir. In February, police raided an Islamic bookshop in Birmingham, arresting three men for interrogation and confiscating cash, documents and electronic equipment, after Russian intelligence alleged that they were involved in fundraising for Chechen mujahideen. Going further back, community groups that raised funds for the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain's Bosnia Jihad Fund in the early 1990s received warnings from the British police. Nowadays, numerous Islamic movement dissidents and Islamic groups operating in Britain are accused of terrorism by foreign governments, particularly by Russia, India, Israel, Egypt, Algeria and other Arab regimes. In virtually every case, the activists involved -- such as the Saudi intellectual Dr Muhammad al-Massari -- have no links with any militant groups, but are involved in opposing repression in their home countries. Another example is that of Interpal, a Palestinian charity whose assets were frozen in 1995 after it was falsely accused by the Board of Deputies of British Jews of funding Hamas.
According to the government, the Terrorism Act 2000 is intended primarily to counter domestic terrorism linked to the Northern Ireland issue. But such terrorism, as Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London, points out, has been virtually unknown since the Ulster peace process began in 1994. The legislation has also been linked to animal-rights protestors and anti-globalization dissidents. Few doubt, however, that Muslims are its main target. The new legislation makes it illegal to call for rebellion against foreign governments, or for their overthrow by force, regardless of how despotic and repressive they are. It also makes it illegal to campaign for the armed liberation of occupied lands, such as Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir. It is also illegal to collect funds that might be used by groups committed to any of the above activities, or even to voice support for them. British organizations and groups, which fall foul of the law, can be declared illegal by the Home Secretary.
The Act defines terrorism as the use of 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." Anybody in Britain with any links whatsoever with groups anywhere in the world that fall foul of this definition can be prosecuted.
This effectively criminalizes all those who collect money outside mosques for jihad anywhere in the world, or even for charitable purposes in areas of the world where jihad is also underway. It also criminalizes rallies and protests in support of any jihad, or against the governments that the jihad is against. It also criminalizes expressing support for such jihads, for example through a newspaper such as Crescent International or at conferences of the sort regularly organized by the ICIT and other Islamic groups. Indeed, an imam who prays for the success of the mujahideen in Chechnya after juma' prayers could be subject to prosecution.
The Act also empowers police to stop, question and arraign people they suspect of being in breach of this legislation. In 1998, after the MacPherson inquiry into police harassment of black communities, the police right to stop and search suspects on suspicion alone was ended. This legislation re-introduces it under a new guise, and one, which is likely to be used disproportionately against Muslims.
It is a principle of law that legislation should be enforced consistently against all those who breach it, without any political or other consideration. If the new legislation were applied in this way, Britain's already-crowded jails would soon be packed six-deep. Clearly that is not the intention. For one thing, those who speak out in support of militant or dissident groups that are approved by the West -- such as John Garang's People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in Sudan -- are likely to be above the law. The application of the legislation will, therefore, clearly be based on political considerations.
In fact, even many Muslims who breach the new laws are likely to be ignored. (This author, for example, feels reasonably safe, even though Crescent regularly advocates and supports the use of force against repressive regimes and occupying powers, and for the cause of Islam, and will continue to do so.) Instead, the legislation is likely to be used selectively against marginal and 'extreme' groups and leaders, in order to intimidate others and create dissension within the community.
'Moderate' leaders will be expected to condemn those who are affected, and the debate within the community about what forms of protest and action are acceptable and wise is likely to prove divisive. Experience already shows that many Muslims, through fear or in the hope of gaining government favor, tend to distant themselves from Islamic activists who are radical or vocal. Dividing the community in this way is clearly part of the British government's strategy, and this legislation will be used for this purpose.
Despite its numerous serious implications for human rights, the new legislation has attracted little concern from western liberals. Presumably they are aware that it will not affect them, but will be used only against those whom they also disagree with. Muslim reaction to the legislation has been more pronounced. The Islamic Human Rights Commission has spoken out repeatedly, and the Muslim peer, Lord Nazeer Ahmed, spoke out frankly in the House of Lords when the Bill was being debated last year.
Had the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain still been in place under the leadership of the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, Muslim opposition to the legislation would undoubtedly have got a good airing. (The Muslim Parliament and Dr Kalim would probably also have found themselves in trouble.) In their absence, Muslim activists in Britain will have few spokesmen and fewer friends when the state comes after them.
The West is fighting a war against the Islamic movement and its supporters, wherever they are. Muslims in Western countries will inevitably come under increasing pressure as the confrontation between the West and Islam intensifies.
Iqba,l Siddiqui is, editor of Crescent International, a newsmagazine of the Islamic Movement.