So much for free speech

So much for free speech

Gordon Brown”s government has finally caved in to the noisy mob who have been angrily demanding that the elderly Islamic preacher, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, should be refused a visa to come to the UK for medical treatment.

Well, so much for free speech. You will recall that during the Satanic Verses and the Danish Cartoons row, British Muslims were repeatedly lectured to about the need to adapt to western notions of free speech. You may not like what is written or drawn, we were told, but as long as it does not break the law, you need to learn to put up with it.

The refusal of the government now to allow Qaradawi in has worrying implications for freedom in a society where voices are now being raised about the corruption of power in the UK.

Qaradawi has been visiting this country for over 30 years now and despite David Cameron”s shameless posturing last week in the House of Commons, when he falsely claimed that the former Tory government had banned Qaradawi from visiting the UK, we now know that Cameron himself was in fact working as a special adviser to the then home secretary, Michael Howard, when Qaradawi was given approval to visit the UK. Qaradawi went on to visit the UK five times while Howard was home secretary.

Whatever one may think of some of Qaradawi”s views, the way forward is surely to allow them to be aired and then, if appropriate, to challenge them openly. If Qaradawi was to break any of our laws by inciting racial hatred or violence then he could always be prosecuted here. Why do have to be afraid?

The fact is when Qaradawi last visited the UK in 2004, the Board of Deputies of British Jews handed to the police a dossier of Qaradawi”s alleged statements and called upon them to prosecute him. It took the Crown Prosecution Service less than 48 hours to decide that there was simply no case against Qaradawi.

The Mayor of London came under heavy fire for agreeing to meet Qaradawi during that same 2004 visit, but to his credit, Ken Livingstone refused to buckle despite the media frenzy and a few months later his office released a detailed report forcefully rebutting many of the criticisms made of his meeting.

The spokesman for the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, got it about right when he said: “Many of Yusuf al-Qaradawi”s views are repugnant; the job of a truly liberal society is to defeat such abhorrent ideas by arguing forcefully and persuasively against them.”

Would those who now accuse Qaradawi of promoting violence also seek to ban George Bush from visiting the UK, I wonder? Or perhaps, they would want us to enquire what the views of all visiting non-British nationals are on issues such as Israel and gay rights, before we allow them in?

The government – and Hazel Blears” Department for Communities and Local Government in particular – has behaved in a very cowardly manner over this affair and its inconsistencies are glaring. What basis can there be for preventing the US black nationalist Louis Farrakhan from coming to the UK while allowing in the French nationalist Jean Marie Le Pen? It seems the deciding factor is simply who has the loudest opponents within the UK media.

It is all quite unfortunate. We should be prepared to defend what are surely some rather important principles. Especially if we believe that they are universal ones that we would like to see spread across the world.