Deborah Orr: Mr Farrakhan should be heard

'He preaches family values and abstinence, and is a powerful campaigner against drugs, a scourge of black Americans'
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The Independent Online

Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam who has been banned from visiting Britain since 1986, is set in the weeks to come to invoke the Human Rights Act in a bid to have an exclusion order against him overturned in the courts. He, and his lawyer Sadiq Khan, will refer specifically to the right to free speech in British and European law. The case seems pretty unanswerable.

It can appear in times of racial strife and violence, such as we find ourselves in now, that free speech is a luxury we cannot afford. There can be no doubt that Mr Farrakhan's invective of racial hatred, alongside a whole raft of other outlandish views, is unwelcome to decent people. There can be no doubt either that tackling what the man says, rather than taking the easy way out and excluding his discourse on the grounds of who he is, is healthier and more constructive.

Mr Khan also suggests that the Government is hypocritical in its stance and cites Jean-Marie le Pen as a white racist who has been allowed into Britain. He also invokes General Pinochet as a regular visitor to Britain who should have fallen foul of similar prejudices to his client. This argument seems mistaken, since the current Government, and specifically Jack Straw, has acquitted itself rather well on the question of General Pinochet's little England holidays.

Indeed, on the subject of Pinochet, a man whose unspeakable crimes did nothing to stay the hand of friendship from previous governments, it may be just as well to look at the example of Mike Tyson. This man, surely, had less right under law to enter Britain than Mr Farrakhan. Clearly the economic possibilities of a visit by an extremist preacher have not so far proved as tempting as those surrounding a similarly minded and entouraged boxer.

It's worth mentioning as well that last year's notorious state visit of the Chinese leadership saw legitimate protest from British voters suppressed for fear of offending more oppressive sensibilities than our own. It does not look good that we will more than tolerate views we abhor for economic reasons, rather than principle.

Anyway, successive home secretaries, most recently Mr Straw, have upheld the ban on Mr Farrakhan because they fear that he is likely to stir up racial unrest. We've rather proved now that we can manage that quite nicely ourselves, without any input from the heads of US politico-religious sects. Whether that will make David Blunkett more or less nervy than his predecessors remains to be seen.

It's true that a visit from Mr Farrakhan would simply be another headache on the streets of Bradford or Oldham, where large swathes of people are presently ripe for unrest whoever – nationalist or anti-Nazi – is willing to stir it up. It is true as well that any appearance by Mr Farrakhan will be something of a security headache. Public pronouncements by Mr Farrakhan will have to involve a police presence, something that sticks in the craw of many taxpayers, and certainly irritates a Government already overstretched and overspending on crushing home-grown protest with soul-destroying regularity.

But it is indeed an odd democracy in which purveyors of racial unrest such as the British National Party can stand for election and gain shockingly high polls, while a visitor from America capable of organising an peaceful protest as successful as the Million Man March on Washington in 1995 can't discuss his opinions with his smattering of British devotees.

Mr Farrakhan essentially preaches that in reparation for slavery – presented as a conspiracy visited on the African nation largely by Jews – African-Americans should have eight or 10 states ceded to them, and supported by the government until it is able to function independently as a black USA. The fact that this dream is basically a dream of Zionism for African-Americans, and therefore in scope and ambition as Jewish as Hannukah, is just one of the many contradictions thrown up by the sect.

That's hardly the greatest paradox surrounding Mr Farrakhan though. He succeeded Malcolm X as head of the Nation of Islam, after the former had condemned the group's ideology of race hate. To this day the widow of Malcolm X insists that it was Farrakhan who had her husband killed. The family's belief runs so deep that his daughter, Qubilah Shabazz, was recently arrested on suspicion of having attempted to hire a hitman to avenge her father's death.

All the same, the Nation of Islam cannot be entirely dismissed as cranky, or else the thought of Mr Farrakhan in Britain would not be so terrifying to the Government. In the US, alongside this extreme ideology, the sect also appeals to African-Americans at the limit of their patience with tough, everyday life. In many respects, Mr Farrakhan is as conservative as they come. He preaches family values, and has nine children with his wife of many years. He preaches abstinence and is a powerful campaigner against drugs, which he rightly sees as a tragic scourge of black Americans.

His chosen lieutenants, highly committed young men who form his private army, the Fruit of Islam, patrol troubled areas of urban America, welcomed by local people because of their visibly successful vigilante stance against drug gangs and dealers. These young men also provide a menacing glamour, providing high-profile protection to Mr Farrakhan.

But far more powerful than any of this window dressing was Minister Farrakhan's organisation of the Million Man March on Washington. Estimates suggest that as many as one in 10 black American men took part. The march was multi-denominational, and attended by the mainstream of the political and religious spectrum. It continues to be regarded as a milestone in black protest, and not just for members of the sect.

The most recent of these manifestations in Britain was at the Macpherson enquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case, when a group of Nation of Islam members disrupted proceedings. Two were arrested although it was claimed that neither was at the time still a member of the sect. It was ostensibly this outing that persuaded Jack Straw that he should continue to uphold the exclusion order against Mr Farrakhan. But for many people, the real worry and fear generated by the sect is bound up with the word Islam, and the picture of extremism that this word now conjures. Another irony is that Farrakhan's version of Islam is as unrecognisable to most Muslims as the Taliban's.

Even so, the instinct whereby we demonise all that is modern and Muslim should be heartily resisted. It is true that there are some extremist Islamic groups gaining ascendency among a small amount of young British Asians, but what else can be expected in the climate that is presently being fostered?

Our tendency to regard all Muslims as extremists of some sort is now marked, and also disgustingly unfair and dangerous. Knee-jerk views such as these have to be guarded against, or before we know it, we will be violating a great deal more than the dubious, though important, politesse of freedom of expression for Louis Farrakhan and his like.