Last Saturday, all across this land thousands gathered in seven bustling cities to defend the rights and liberties of citizens and residents of the United Kingdom. In London, more than 1,500 ordinary folk fought for places and paid up £35 each to attend the Convention on Modern Liberty.
How many Primark items could they have had instead? On such a rare sunny day they might have lounged in outdoor cafes sipping cold wine or complicated coffees. Instead there they were, passion burning in their eyes, across all ages, regions, causes, political parties and classes. Wow. Engaging politics again! Stimulated and buoyed up, I felt proud then to be British, and safer than I have for years.
The authoritarian state must be resisted as it invidiously deletes inviolable rights. A year ago the formidable journalist Henry Porter started his protest against the Government's endless draconian laws and surveillance. Blair, Brown and their knights and damsels at the round table warned ominously of a 21st-century catastrophe. The people, they hoped, would be hypnotised and consent to unprecedented control and curtailment of freedoms, checks and balances.
Stirred into opposition, a movement began, led by key campaigners including Anthony Barnett of Open Democracy, Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti, Baroness Helena Kennedy and Stuart Weir whose regular Democratic Audit watches over the civic health of our nation. Their challenge will ensure better protection for Britons – Muslims most of all, who are followed, spied on, arbitrarily detained and treated like pariahs.
So where were they on Saturday, those Muslims always out and about at the weekend, shouting and protesting – as is their right – shouting righteously from under their caps and hijabs?
Some of us Muslims were invited to speak. I was on a panel debating the nation, devolution, democracy and liberty. Fatima Bhutto, the fiery niece of Benazir was on the list, as was Moazzam Begg, previously of Guantanamo Bay, Ehsan Masood, a brilliant writer on science and Islam, and some more. So I ask again, where were British Muslim attendees whose rights were at the heart of this pulsating and vital event?
We can assume there was no plot to keep out anyone who had long beards and veils. Maybe it was the cost, and if so, organisers should have made provision for anyone who could not cough up the cash. I suspect the key reason so few showed up is that the word "Muslim" was not held up, a flag to call the brethren out. They ignore campaigns that want redress and progress for a greater good for all because to do otherwise would be to accept that non-Muslims are equals and part of God's design. Fanatic Wahabi women probably kept away because men – Allah! Allah! – would share the same rooms with them and their seats were previously occupied by male bums. Muslim men who claim to have all knowledge of divine intent would have thought such a "Western" call for action was haram, sinful by definition.
A high proportion of British Muslims are seriously under-educated – partly because of inner city deprivation and partly as the effect of certain religious orthodoxies that see education as a threat, as brainwashing, just as some English working classes once did and some still do. These Muslims are kept in the dark, kept in their place and as a result are both ignorant and easily filled with hostility and rubbish about democracy – something yearned for by millions of Muslims in undemocratic states. The idea of freedom and liberty is more alarming still for them and middle-class Muslims too. Their natural inclination is to bow to authority within families, communities, mosques, and political institutions. Islam means submission to Allah, a submission I commit to. It does not mean surrender to any chap who stands up and orders you about. That transference sadly happens too often. That is why Muslims recoil from the principles of personal autonomy and choice, and why every single Muslim in parliament voted with the autocratic measures of New Labour.
There is much to debate about liberty, its meaning and limits too. Take these two examples: libertarianism, the most extreme position claimed by some hardline liberals, can be a terrifying threat for others. Many Muslims believe too much freedom has led to a promiscuous society and the high levels of teenage parenthood. Those debates were incomplete without the presence of British Muslims at this convention. They should ask themselves what good their failure to participate does them or the country. There was another faction missing, only too noticeable by its absence: inglorious New Labour. A shuffling Chuka Umunna, Labour candidate in Streatham, and Lord Goldsmith (a recovering Blairite) both spoke. Jack Straw and Jacqui Smith were understandably not able to make it, seeing as they are on their high horses leading the assault on civil and human rights. Straw is indeed a disgrace to his office. But why didn't other Labour MPs attend, and why no Muslim parliamentarians and why, portentously, no Trevor Phillips, head of equalities and human rights? Happy to be there instead were the Lib Dems who have been beacons for justice and liberty for a long time. And what's this? The Tories? They, who after 9/11 voted in some of the most illiberal legislation, are born again as guardians of liberty, with David Davis and Dominic Grieve holding up the flame. I do not yet trust the conversion, but have to give them credit for understanding the mood of the nation.
Recently I received a letter from a British Muslim professional who spent a long time in prison on no charges and was eventually released to a life with no job and no friends because suspicion hangs on him like the smell of death: "They never told me why. I did nothing. They spoilt everything and the only person who understands is my neighbour, who is a human rights lawyer, Englishman. He says he will help me for free to get some compensation and an apology. These are our real friends." I wish he had been there on Saturday to see how many such friends he has.
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