On Azhar Ahmed, free speech, state censorship and anti-racism

19-year-old Azhar Ahmed has been arrested and charged with a racially aggravated public order offence for allegedly having an offensive facebook status about British troops in Afghanistan. Now, looking at what he’s supposed to have said, I can certainly understand where’s coming from, but I can’t really agree with it – saying “all soldiers should die” is the same sort of failure to distinguish between innocent and guilty that leads soldiers to massacre civilians. Still, we’ve all said stupid things at one time or another, especially in our teenage years, so what’s really worrying about this is West Yorkshire Police’s opinion that if you don’t make your point very well, you should be arrested and charged with a serious offence. If expressing yourself badly is a criminal offence, I should probably be serving life in prison by now. I thought that a “racially aggravated public order offence” was when you did something that was illegal anyway, and your actions are seen as being racially motivated, but apparently I’ve got it wrong, and it really means “saying something a bit silly while being Asian”. So: solidarity with Azhar, drop the charges, that seems like all that needs to be said, right?
Actually, things aren’t quite that simple: In his article on the subject, Richard Seymour goes out of his way to deny any relationship between this arrest and the anti-racist legislation that made it possible. According to a certain school of anti-fascism, the correct way to deal with the far right is to push for the police to be given greater powers to deal with racist behaviour and attitudes. The point where this argument falls down is that we don’t control the police, so any powers they gain will inevitably be used against us: from the Public Order Act of 1936 brought in to deal with the Blackshirts and then used against striking miners to the Home Office using the threat of the EDL as an excuse to ban all protest in five London boroughs for a month, an increase in the state’s powers is always an attack on us. Anti-racists who call for the cops to be given new powers are effectively calling those powers to be used against us every bit as much as liberals who support the Kony 2012 campaign are calling for US troops to start carrying out massacres in Uganda as well as Afghanistan. This isn’t to say that we should start calling for the abolition of all race relations legislation and putting our energy into defending racists when they go through the courts, just pointing out that we shouldn’t be actively supporting any increase in police powers.
I’m not interested in “free speech” as an abstract concept, because it’s so vague as to be meaningless: having a conversation with a friend and writing an editorial for the Sun are both equally acts of free speech, but one is hundreds and thousands of times louder than the other, so having the freedom to say what you want doesn’t mean much when there’s no guarantee anyone will hear it. There’s a third option, beyond calling for state bans or defending the free speech of racists as an absolute right: the no platform tradition of militant anti-fascism from below. This can take many forms, from posties refusing to deliver BNP leaflets to shutting down white supremacist rallies or wrecking Nazi stalls. The important thing is that whatever action is taken against fascism and racism has to be controlled directly by ordinary people opposed to them: when people mobilise to take direct action against fascists, they’re not strengthening a force that can be used against us, the way they are when they call for the police to be given more powers.
To quickly deal with two objections I can see being raised by supporters of state-based anti-fascism: yes, it is true that we’re a long way off having the kind of militant mass movement we’d need to shut down groups like the EDL, whereas the police are strong enough to stop them tomorrow if they wanted. But this objection again fails to take into account the fact that the state doesn’t do things just because we ask it to; it takes a huge amount of pressure to make the state act in a certain way, so the strategy of calling for state bans is no more realistic than calling for mass direct action. To influence the police’s behaviour, you’d first need to build a mass movement capable of putting very serious pressure on them, so there’s no shortcut that can get around that problem. I’m sorry if Richard Seymour finds the idea of building up an independent working-class anti-fascist movement that doesn’t rely on the state boring, but it needs to be done. Secondly, people who defend useless or counter-productive tactics often do so by talking about the need to use every option open to us – why not call for state bans and take direct action as well? But this argument still basically boils down to the idea that we should spend some of our time and energy asking for our enemies to be made stronger, it only works if you think we can pass anti-racist laws and then expect the state to just use them against racists and not against anyone else it considers a problem. As the case of Azhar Ahmed shows, that’s a dangerously naive view to take.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Bit more thinky, Debate, Internet, Racism, Repression, Stuff that I don't think is very useful, The left and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to On Azhar Ahmed, free speech, state censorship and anti-racism

  1. Philip Foxe says:

    Interesting that posts for example on Yahoo calling for ‘all Muslim scum to be killed’ seem not to be taken quite so seriously and may be referred to a moderator, but the police seem curiously disinterested.

  2. Pingback: Anarchist smear watch | Cautiously pessimistic

  3. Pingback: BNP racist wins in court. | Cautiously pessimistic

  4. Pingback: No platforming from above and below: on misogyny and state bans | Cautiously pessimistic

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