Johann Hari: Islamists, their victims, and hypocrisy

On the day we allowed two al-Qa'ida members to remain, two other young people waited for the police to see them, and hand them over to men who will kill them

Thursday 20 May 2010 00:00 BST

Should Britain be giving refuge to Islamic fundamentalists, while sending the men and women who have been brave enough to challenge Islamism back to their deaths? This sounds at first like a straw man question. Who would ever suggest such a policy? Who would defend it? But the facts suggest we are doing it, every day.

On the day when the Special Immigration Appeals Commission decided to allow two Pakistani men they say are al-Qa'ida members to remain in London this week, two other young people were waiting for the British police to seize them and hand them over to men who will kill them. Their "crime" is to resist Islamic fundamentalism, in the name of human rights.

Kiana Firouz is a 27-year-old woman who grew up in revolutionary Iran, and slowly realised that if she ever acted on her natural impulses – to kiss and hold and love another woman – she would be subjected to a hundred lashes. If she did it again, she would be hanged, in a public square, before a jeering mob. But Kiana believed the freedom to fall in love was more important than her own safety. She stood up in Tehran and made a film showing that there are gay people there just as there are gay people everywhere, and they deserve to live and love freely. The police began following and threatening her. She knew what had happened to other gay Iranians – a bullet, a ditch, a lynch mob – so she came to a country she associated with freedom for gay people, Britain, and appealed to us to save her life.

We refused. The Home Office told her to go back to Iran and be "discreet" about her sexuality. But the law in Iran doesn't say discreet lesbians get out of jail free. They are tortured and killed just the same.

Dr Amit is a 29-year-old Pakistani who has asked me not to use his surname, for reasons that will become clear. He grew up in the Punjab, but since he was a young child, he found the religion that was relentlessly promoted by the state and the mosque and the schools absurd. Where was the evidence for this "God"? Why should we follow "His" dictates?

In 2008, he began to write a series of articles online, criticising Islam and all religions. He knew that people are jailed and tortured and executed for critically analysing Mohammed or the Koran or the power of institutionalised Islam within Pakistan, but, again, he believed somebody had to ask these questions, or no progress would ever happen. He knew the police would come looking. So he came to a country whose philosophical and intellectual traditions of scepticism towards religion he revered, and asked us to save his life.

We refused. He was told to go back and be "discreet" in his opposition to religious fundamentalism. But his articles are there, online, for the not-so-secret police to read and torture him for. By the time you read this, he will have been forced on to a plane. He told me: "I will try to hide myself somehow – change my name, not contact anyone I knew before. Maybe then I can survive. I'm terrified."

The courts have condemned Kiana and Amit, but at the same time, they have given a reprieve to Abid Naseer and Ahmed Faraz, who they say are strong al-Qa'ida sympathisers. (Remember though: this was a Kafka-trial where the defendants were not allowed to hear the evidence against them.) The judges ruled they cannot be deported to Pakistan, because there is a serious risk they could be tortured or executed by the Pakistani authorities.

Let's leave aside the repellent double standard for a moment and, for the sake of argument, assume the courts are correct about their affiliations. It is instinctively maddening to have to allow people to remain in Britain who despise many of the great things about this country – freedom for women and gay people and freethinkers – and pine for a theocracy that negates it all.

But that does not mean it is wrong. Would you ever hand a human being over to a torturer who was waiting with a blow-torch and a pair of pliers to take them apart? I doubt it. Our government mustn't do it either. No matter how despicable a human being is, they must be protected from torture and murder. That's why we can't send them back – although we should, of course, put them before a real trial immediately if they were involved in plots to commit murders of their own.

Far from showing us to be weak in the face of Islamism, this would show true strength. The Islamists say we are an empty materialist shell of a society, a brothel that believes in nothing but our own self-gratification. What better refutation is there than to say – here's what we believe in. We believe that torture is absolutely wrong. We believe it so strongly that even you – you, who hate us, and want to kill us – are protected from it.

This approach is far more effective than the neoconservative screeching for the water-board and the B-47. When I interviewed the growing movement of young Muslims in Britain who had been jihadis and trainee suicide bombers but have recanted and are now arguing for democratic values, I was struck by one thing. Every time we behaved like actors in an Osama Bin Laden rant-tape – by torturing and killing civilians in illegal wars – they became convinced he was right and resolved to kill us back. But when we refused to play to that script, doubt crept in.

To give one example of many, Majid Nawaz was in prison for being part of a hardcore Islamist plot to try to topple the governments of Egypt and Pakistan and seize its nukes – but when Amnesty International campaigned to protect him from torture, he realised the "Infidel" were rescuing him, because we have strong moral principles of our own. Now he is one of the most articulate campaigning enemies of Islamism. Of course, few Islamists will recant – but they are stripped of some of their most powerful recruiting tools and intellectual reinforcements when we sincerely oppose torture and murder.

So, yes, Naseer and Faraz should be kept safe from torturers and tried here because it is the right thing to do, and because it shows why the liberal way – if we follow it, instead of Bushite lunacies – is far better than their way.

But if we are going to protect them, how can we possibly not protect the people who are brave enough to stand up in Iran and Pakistan to denounce everything Islamist thugs try to force on innocent people? This isn't just about basic humanity. It is in our interests, too. There is a battle of ideas going on in Muslim societies between fundamentalists, and sane people who are happy to live alongside people who are different. At first, voices for secularism will be intimidated and small and scattered, as they were in the history of our country. But over time they will prick holes in fundamentalist certainties and bleed them. The more the fundamentalists are challenged – by their own countrymen, in their own language – the safer we become.

Brave, bold voices like Kiana's and Amit's do more to undermine Islamic fundamentalism than a thousand bomber-planes that only vindicate the Bin Laden narrative for so many. By sending these remarkable dissidents to die, we aren't only betraying them – we are endangering ourselves.;

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