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The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

Tomorrow's planned visit to the UK by the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders follows an appeal that overturned a banning order issued by then home secretary Jacqui Smith earlier this year. It marks a humiliating defeat for the Home Office, who had defended their ban saying that Wilders's presence in the UK would not be "conducive to the public good". By contrast, the asylum and immigration tribunal who heard Wilders's appeal ruled that it was more important to protect freedom of speech and said that there was no evidence that a previous visit to the UK by Wilders had caused problems.

Wilders is without question a rabble-rouser; he has provocatively referred to the Qur'an as a "fascist book" and likened it to Hitler's Mein Kampf, but surely it makes more sense to allow him in to the UK while making clear that he will be prosecuted if he breaks any of our laws.

It is not the first time the Home Office has acted in such a draconian manner. Almost exactly a year ago, it announced the introduction of new measures including creating a "presumption in favour of exclusion" from the UK in respect of all those who had "engaged in spreading hate". Earlier this year it actually named and shamed some of these individuals who were accused of "fostering extremism or hatred" and published a list of 16 of the 22 people excluded from the UK in the five months to March 2009. The Home Office's actions had all the hallmarks of an ill-thought-out PR exercise designed to make it look as if it was being tough on extremists.

After all, the presumption in favour of exclusion meant that it would now be up to the individual concerned to prove they would not "stir up tension" after arrival in the UK. As Brian Whitaker observed on Cif: "Why not a presumption in favour of free speech?"

In any case, how many of the 16 people named had even expressed an interest in visiting the UK? The BBC noted at the time that two of those individuals were currently serving time in a Russian prison. There are potentially millions of people around the world who may hold views that the government believes are unacceptable. Is the Home Office seriously going to maintain a register of all of them? It all just sounds farcical.

We already have a whole host of laws that are perfectly capable of dealing with incitement to violence or racial hatred. Why not allow the foreigners to visit the country (provided that they satisfy our visa requirements) and then, if they happen to break our laws, prosecute them, rather than create what are, in the terminology of the Spielberg movie Minority Report, "pre-crimes"?

If visitors come to this country and step over the line and break the law, then it is at that moment that the law should be enforced, not pre-emptively. If people keep their odious views to themselves, that's their business. Our government should not be attempting to police people's minds.

How effective are the government's actions anyway? Groups in the UK have already begun to get around the banning orders simply by distributing speeches from overseas across the internet, thus making the government look inept as well as authoritarian.

And at a time when there is already a great deal of public concern over the manner in which local councils have been abusing anti-terrorism laws to take the opportunity to spy on citizens can we really be sure that the government will not similarly abuse its powers to decline entry to those figures it deems problematic or who could cause it embarrassment for whatever reason?

It is almost always a very bad idea to allow governments these kinds of arbitrary powers to ban visitors, whether it is Geert Wilders, or the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan or the Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, especially when we have legislation on the statute books to deal with the very situations they claim to be trying to protect us against.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 15th October 2009.

When mainstream politicians sit down next to the BNP's Nick Griffin on Question Time next week, they will be facing a monster of their own creation. The main parties' constant pandering to rightwing agendas, their failure to speak up for the benefits of immigration and their devotion to the interests of the wealthy have all contributed to the far right's electoral success.

As if to sum up Labour's distorted view of race and economics, the communities secretary John Denham yesterday launched an initiative aimed at the "white working class". He claims that migration has led to "resentment and a rise in insecurity" which threaten to create support for extremists.

The expression "white working class" implies that this is a group for whom race is important. Nearly every time I hear the phrase, it is linked to an assumption that working class white people are racist. Nor is this attitude found only on the political right. I've belonged to many leftwing campaigning movements that have included individuals with staggeringly prejudiced perceptions of working class people as racist, as well as sexist and homophobic.

This is not the reality. The BNP has won council seats from the Tories as well as Labour. I grew up in a white working class family that was not especially political, but it was clear to me from pretty early on that the people who differed from me the most were those who had plenty of money while my family scraped by not people whose skin happened to look a bit different.

The Daily Telegraph, reporting Denham's speech, suggested that ministers wanted to target the white working class "after years of focusing on minority groups". But millionaires are the only minority group consistently supported by this government.

Ministers threw up their hands in horror at the devastation caused by the bankers but allowed them to keep their plunder. Despite their desire for crackdowns on benefit fraud, both Labour and Tories supported the cancellation of a criminal investigation into the far more serious corporate fraud allegedly committed by BAE Systems. The introduction of a 50p top tax rate was regarded by some as a "lurch to the left" rather than a belated and feeble attempt to require those who take most from society to give a small bit of it back.

To combat the BNP, we need to emphasise that the most important division in society is not racial, it is the division between the very rich and the rest of us. Patronising comments about the "white working class" serve only to reinforce the rhetoric of race while subtly distracting us from the realities of class division. Working class and lower middle class people of all ethnicities will always lose out from an economic system based on the whims of the wealthy. It is a system that neither Nick Griffin nor John Denham shows any sign of opposing.

Symon Hill is associate director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 15th October 2009.

This is a strange one and it starts with a mosque. A would-be mosque. Built, it would be one of the biggest in Europe. But the odds of that are lengthening because of money, planning difficulties and, some say, because of Alan Craig.

The leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance, he has been the very public face of opposition to what he slyly dubbed the Olympic Mega Mosque. There is scant logical basis for the slogan, he admits over coffee, save for the fact that the mosque would be quite close to the 2012 Olympic site in east London. Still, it raised the right spectre. Go with what works.

It is inflammatory stuff: a Christian politician with an HQ in a former Anglican church, leading the charge against a mosque on the basis that its backers are divisive, and claiming, despite denials, that they propagate extremism. Not a scenario designed to attract the sort of friends one might want. But there is also no accounting for human nature. This is where it gets strange. When the deeply partisan publicity battle was at its height last year, Craig, 62, noticed that the fiercest attacks came via websites. One posted his image next to that of Nick Griffin. Visitors were invited to tell the difference.

Craig was braced for confrontation. A few Muslim friends had cooled on him, but this was more aggressive. He noted the name of the man behind the site, Tahire Mehmood Faruk, and went to his home. "He was a bit shocked to see me on the doorstep," he says.

They retired to a cafe, neutral ground and argued. Then they met again. Then again. At Eid, Craig sent Faruk, 39 and an IT manager, an e-card. When Faruk's second child was born, he took sweets to Craig's home nearby. They have phone conversations. Faruk is planning what he'll send Craig for Christmas.

There has, though, been no resolution on the issue of the mosque. No Hollywood ending. Over samosas, Faruk tells me Craig is wrongheaded, and that, if anything, his stance on Islam is getting worse. But there is dialogue because both say they detect traces of humanity in the other, and both religions say that takes precedence. They are at loggerheads, but insist they are friends. If that's the future, it's not so bad.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on the 16th October 2009.

Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

Directed by Omar Majeed
With Michael Muhammad Knight, the Kominas and Secret Trial Five
Classification: NA
I am an Islamist. I am an Antichrist, sings Basim Usmani, the lead singer of the Kominas, a Pakistani-American band from Boston, putting a new twist on the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the U.K. for the post-9/11 era.

He's one of the musicians featured in Canadian filmmaker Omar Majeed's documentary, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam . The film follows the history of a hybrid cultural movement inspired by a novel.

The author, Michael Muhammad Knight, was raised in an Irish-Catholic family in upstate New York by an abusive, racist father. Inspired by Malcolm X, Knight converted to Islam in his teens and, a few years later, wrote and self-published the book The Taqwacores . The title is an invented word, combining the Arabic for God consciousness with the genre of hard-core punk.

The Taqwacores , about a Pakistani-American engineering student living in a house full of diverse Muslim punk rockers, was Knight's attempt to reconcile his sense of himself as both a Muslim and an angry young American. The book, which has been adapted into a feature film due out this year, has been called The Catcher in the Rye for post-9/11 North American Muslim youth. When some of those kids wrote to Knight asking where they could hear this music, he told them he made it up. In response, some of his readers created the kind of Islamic punk rock he imagined.

In 2007, director Majeed travelled with Knight and several of the bands in a green bus on the Taqwacores Tour. We learn a little about the backgrounds of the musicians, all of whom seem to be giving the finger to both conservative American and Islamist ideology. They sing rude, sardonic songs like Suicide Bomb the Gap .

There are other bands including Vancouver's all-woman band Secret Trial Five, whose presence on the bill leads to the most dramatic moment of the film's first half. When the bands manage to get booked at an Islamic Society of North America convention, the short-haired Sena Hussain opens with the protest song Hey Hey Guantanamo Bay . Shortly after, the organizers call the police onstage to send the Taqwacore bands home. As a young Muslim woman organizer explains, the bands violated the organization's policy that a woman should not sing and dance in public.

The movie's rambling second part takes place six months later, when the Kominas go to Pakistan along with author Knight. For the band, it's a chance to visit to their parents' homeland, and for Knight, to revisit the mosque where he had studied as a teenager.

The band members sleep a lot, play an unsuccessful show for a middle-class audience, and ingest copious amounts of hash. Taqwacore concludes with a free open-air concert, in which the band gets a rousing response from a big crowd of locals, who may have loved the empowering themes of the music, the anti-George Bush insults, or the fact that the concert was free.

Knight has a lot to say about Islam and punk, not all of which is insightful, but as a literary artist he's in rare company: He created a work of fiction so convincing that real people now live it.

This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on 16th October 2009.