It's wrong to strip Abu Hamza of his citizenship

Philip Hensher
Thursday 03 April 2003 00:00 BST

Abu Hamza is not, admittedly, a very attractive character. The radical Muslim cleric, who used to preach at Finsbury Park mosque until his expulsion in February, has continued to use every opportunity to rouse opposition and distaste among Muslims for Western civilisation, and has been under close observation by the authorities in case his sentiments spill over into incitement to violence.

It is to be presumed that he himself has not been found to be directly linked to acts of violence. He is wanted on charges relating to terrorist activities in Yemen, but denies any such involvement. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he has not dissociated himself from extreme acts carried out by those who identify themselves as acting in the name of Islam.

Despite his personal abhorrence of Western and British culture, he holds a British passport. He came to Britain in 1980 and acquired UK citizenship after marrying a British national. That, however, is about to be forcibly altered with the introduction of what are described as "more stringent citizenship rules". Under these measures, British citizenship may be stripped from immigrants whose activities "seriously prejudice" British interests.

The Home Secretary said that "We must ensure those who acquire [citizenship] by deception or prove to be abusing the privilege of that citizenship by acting against the UK's vital interests are not able to retain it." There is no suggestion that these stringent powers should apply to those whose UK citizenship has been held from birth. I presume that if I should take to using this column to advise my Muslim readers to bomb government offices, or if Abu Hamza has any sons born in this country who are inclined to pass on their father's convictions, these laws may not be stretched to expel us from the country.

However, it should not be assumed that such conduct would necessarily go unpunished. If it could be shown, for instance, that a British national had actively plotted to damage the state in such a way, the authorities might be able to take steps against him. There is a very ancient offence that might, here, have been committed: treason. Treason has its quaint aspects, such as the fact that it is (I believe) still applicable to anyone attempting to seduce the wife of the heir to the throne, but it is still on the statute book, and still perfectly viable.

The point is that if Abu Hamza has been committing a treasonable offence, then as a citizen of this country he should be tried for it. If he has been stating extreme and unpalatable views, then, painful as it may seem, and as profoundly as we may wish to disagree with him, this country has a long and strong enough history of commitment to freedom of speech, and we should put up with it.

Between the active, culpable plotting to assault this country's institutions and the impotent loudmouth, I think there may be no criminal offence. What is extremely worrying about this step is that it places the acquisition of British citizenship on a provisional basis. Like Roman Catholics in previous ages, immigrants are obliged to go on proving their loyalty even after citizenship has been granted.

The unacceptable nature of this step is that it it proposes legal measures against one class of British citizens, but not another. Mr Blunkett provided a neat definition of an ancient offence in his words "acting against the UK's vital interests". I sincerely hope that he meant exactly what he said, and did not silently include "speaking against" within the word "acting".

If that is proved, then the person has committed treason, and should be dealt with accordingly. It is objectionable to say that if such a person has acquired his citizenship, and not been born with it, then in such cases the law may deprive him of his citizenship. Once citizenship has been granted, it should be unconditional, and admit the individual to the full range of rights enjoyed by all other British citizens, as well as imposing various obligations and duties on him.

The danger of this law is that it isolates the immigrant, and excludes him from that full range of rights, as well as asserting that he is less likely to accept his duties. He will be subject to punishment beyond that imposed on most British citizens; his rights of free speech will be more circumscribed. He may not, as Englishmen have done for centuries, say that things would be greatly improved if someone blew up Parliament. He must watch his step.

It is a startling racist move: no-one can suppose for a second that this law will be invoked against, say, a former French national who protests against the conduct of the war in even the most virulent terms. It is, quite clearly, directed only at a certain class of person who holds a British passport; one with a brown skin and a non-European religion, and if they could extend these measures to apply to second and third-generation immigrants, there is no doubt that they would.

But the important point is that there cannot be different grades of Britishness in the eyes of the law. You are either British, or you are not. If you are committing treason, or actively inciting violence, then the law can deal with you. If, on the other hand, you are only exercising your right of free speech, then there is nothing to be done, and there is nothing that should be done. The law can decide which of these categories Abu Hamza falls into; it doesn't need invented and specific categories of semi-Englishmen to address his case.

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