Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Beware the libel boomerang

The ugly phrase 'suicide by cop' speaks to the violent side of American culture. Perhaps the English equivalent might well be self-destruction by lawsuit. There are many things wrong with our libel laws for those defending lawsuits, but just occasionally they blow up in the face of those pursuing them.

The most famous - though extremely unjust - example is the martyrdom of St Oscar Wilde - among our famous Fabian forebears.

A rather happier example was Jonathan Aitken's self-immolation on "the sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play" in his case against The Guardian. This can now be celebrated in good conscience since we did not just lose one of the most arrogant members of the Tory regime, but have now gained an eloquent new voice for prison reform, now winning praise from Guardianistas.

There may be another valiant attempt at legal self-harm in the offing from Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain. It was reported at the weekend that he is now suing Hazel Blears for defamation after the Communities Secretary challenged his signing of the Istanbul Declaration, a deeply offensive document which goes well beyond any legitimate scrutiny or criticism of Israeli policy with its racist denunciations of the "Zionist entity".

The communities secretary may be only five foot tall but I predict that this may end up a serious mismatch. It will be interesting to see whether Abdullah pursues the case (and I have my doubts) but I find it hard to belief that Blears is going to give an inch if he were to be looking to back out. (I should be clear that I write without having spoken to anybody at DCLG about this).

So here is an issue where I can heartedly agree with Shiraz Maher, recent author of the Policy Exchange report, whose comments sparked the recent Nick Cohen-Fabian row. (Indeed Abdullah might even now note the discretionary wisdom in the apparent legal inaction of Dean Godson of Policy Exchange, among the MCB's chief antagonists, after his blustering threats to sue Newsnight "relentlessly to trial or capitulation" in the row over the Hijacking of British Islam report).

My only hesitation is that the government challenging the MCB specifically could slightly play into the old "community leadership" model, when the MCB is but one of many voices reflecting different arguments within the deeply contested debates within British Muslim communities. But that is somewhat irrelevant once Abdullah puts the matter into the courts.

I am not sure this one will ever make it to court. Though it may barely merit a historical footnote compared to the tragedy of Oscar Wilde or the hubris of rehabilitation of Jonathan Aitken, were it to do so, then I predict another cautionary tale for those who resort too readily to law.

UPDATE (Thursday, 12.45pm): Martin Bright suggests on the Spectator blog that the liberal-left should be doing more to ride to Hazel Blears' defence. He suggests another letter writing campaign. I am less clear whether or not he is offering to organise this, or wishes others to do so.

And Iain Dale has (beaten Next Left to) the scoop of Hazel Blears' characteristically robust and rather appropriate response to the lawsuit.


Calix said...

It will be very interesting to see how this plot of threats and counter threats plays out. From a popularist point of view it is surely in Blears interests to meet this accusation head on, but from a community point of view she should dampen it.

As for Aitken, I don't think he really has much to say about prison reform apart from the obvious (i.e. prison doesn't work at present and we must rethink rehabilitation not only for the sake of prisoners but for society at large). Still, it makes a change to find a Conservative who will contemplate progressive solutions in this field, albeit from selfish motives. The sword of justice cuts in unexpected ways...

Coventrian said...

You see racist denunciations of the "Zionist entity".

Israel is an Zionist entity, how is racist to use the term?

Chirimolla said...

I'd have to agree with Coventrian. I think we can all agree Israel is an entity. And it is one that was established by the Zionist political movement. So calling Israel a Zionist Entity doesn't strike me as being racist.

Perhaps you can point out other things in the declaration which you would consider racist?

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for comments. I found the tone of the Istanbul Declaration document to be racist, but perhaps that is a qualitative judgement that others do not agree with. A broadly similar view that it involves " a slip into racialised language" was taken by a Guardian editorial which is critical of Hazel Blears position and rather sympathetic to both Daud Abdullah and the MCB: "It is also true that a document signed by Mr Abdullah at a recent international conference is in many ways offensive, with sweeping threats against those who stand with Israel and a slip into racialised language in relation to the Jewish state".

I certainly find the document objectionable for several reasons, including and beyond that issue of what I felt to be racialised language. In my view, a strong statement challenging Israeli policy and insisting on international law being upheld would name "Israel" as the subject of the statement. I think what I take to be a deliberate refusal to do this is significant and deeply unconstructive.

In my view, the Istanbul statement does nothing to make a constructive contribution to Middle East peace or the cause of a Palestinian state. In particular, I think the attack on the Arab League peace initiative is bizarre and hopeless; I take the references to the "whole of Palestine" to again signal the refusal to recognise any status of the state of Israel; the concern to stress the illegitimacy of the Palestinan authority too suggests it is not simply Hamas but pro-traditionalist Hamas (when many observers believe there is an opportunity, with Hamas engaged in electoral politics, for it to drop the death to Israel position of its founding charter).

The tonality of 'Muslim waters' seems to me to imply some geopolitical entity, such as a Muslim Caliphate. (I appreciate I am not an expert on what that means, but it seems to me to go well beyond the idea of the ummah as a global community of Muslims, which is undoubtedely compatible with democratic citizenship, in an analogous way to how Roman Catholicism is, even if some in Britain once doubted that too).

I don't deny the right of Mr Abdullah to take or voice any of these views which I think are deeply regressive. I think it does create problems for the Muslim Council of Britain for a leading elected office-holder to do so, as no group which expected to be taken seriously in British civic society would be voicing such views. My understanding (others may have better information) is that the MCB does not support the views in the Istanbul declaration, and that its official policy is the opposite of it on many of these points.

There were a great many statements and protests of the Israeli action in Gaza, taken by the MCB and many others, which avoided all of these objectonable features of the Istanbul Declaration, and I think it is a confusion or excuse to say that the aim is to censor criticism of Israel. I personally will not take seriously the contributions of those who make them in the terms of the Istanbul Declaraton, because I see such contributions as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

(I set out what I think those who want to be part of the solution should be doing during the Gaza crisis).

I think it is right to say that these are issues for the MCB itself, but also that its standing in democratic civic society will depend on what it chooses to voice. I think it is more difficult when Abdullah has such a senior role (compared to, say, being one member of an advisory network or group of fifty people). The sensible approach would be for him to withdraw his signature and support of the Istanbul Declaration, perhaps then making clear his opposition to the Israeli action in Gaza in terms consistent with the positions and policies of his own organisation, which I think could be done loudly and clearly.

There is a legitimate debate about whether Hazel Blears was right to challenge the MCB in the way that she did. I would not have taken that approach in her position. I think it rather too much implies that the government treats the Muslim Council of Britain as a representative group which speaks for British Muslims (as if it was analogous to a quango). My position has always been (for a decade) that there many be many sources of civic pressure from within different communities, but that this is an outdated model of 'community leadership. To some extent, I think the Blears approach may somewhat reinforce that model.

So my post was not an unqualified defence of Blears' position ahead of the legal threat against her - but rather noted that, in my view, Abdullah's threat of legal action is both daft and might well be subject to the advice "stop digging".

Of course, this is complex. The government has an important role in engaging with various faith and interfaith groups for different purposes. But I don't think the government ought to be regularly intervening in the internal politics of civic society groups of different faith communities. I think it would be acceptable for government to take the view, in some cases, that it would not see the value of engaging with particular individuals or pressure groups.