Muhammad Cartoons: A weekend in London

By Chris Pope
Head of Intelligence and Communications
Homeland Security and Resilience Department

The worldwide protests over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad intensified over the weekend, with Danish embassies being attacked in some Islamic countries and rallies taking place across Europe. In the UK, there were a number of protests, with one in London in particular drawing criticism from across the political spectrum.

On Friday 3 February, a demonstration, which was orchestrated by members of al-Ghuraba, the organisation that replaced the extreme group, al-Muhajiroun, included slogans held by protestors such as: "Europe, your 9/11 will come" and, in an apparent reference to the four July 7 suicide bombers, "Europe you will pay, fantastic 4 are on their way". One protester, a student from Bedford, was dressed as a suicide bomber.

The only arrests were of two counter-demonstrators, who police said were held after apparently attempting to hand out caricatures of Mohammed. Both were released without charge after a few hours.

Anjem Choudhary, one of the leaders of the demonstration and formerly of al-Muhajiroun, refused to condemn the threat of another suicide attack in London on the scale of the July 7 bombings as a result of the perceived insult to Islam. He told The Guardian: "I am not in the business of condoning or condemning," he said. "The fact is that 7/7 was brought upon the people of London and Britain by the foreign policy of Tony Blair. There is no reason why there should not be more suicide bombings in London."

Muslim groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, which the government has deliberated banning, were quick to condemn these comments and instead, held their own, more peaceful protests.

While the government is fearful of further upsetting Muslim sensibilities, the slogans and the costumes worn by some of the protestors in the UK seem to have contravened laws relating to incitement to murder or to commit violence. There is little doubt that if, say, a Far Right group had openly declared acts of violence, there would have been some kind of police action, indeed, the offences that the CPS unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Nick Griffin and Mark Collett, of the BNP with, are certainly less inflammatory.

However, the protestors in the UK have so far failed to commit any acts of violence and instead, those that turned up dressed as suicide bombers or putting "I love Al-Qa'ida" slogans on children, are viewed by the majority of the population, Muslims including, of being part of a lunatic fringe.

Letting this small, albeit vocal, group vent their spleens, may well be the more sensible option. Arresting them could have further inflamed tensions and while their actions will, with the help of some frenzied tabloid reporting, drive some people into viewing Islam as something it isn’t, letting them hold a non-violent protest, even if it is vocal and offensive, may mean that this hysteria will soon burn itself out.

The government was slow to voice an opinion on the cartoons, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was one of the first to come forward, attacking the decision of some media outlets to republish the images. He said:

"There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not an obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory."

The Conservatives however, seized on the lack of action by the government with Shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve questioning why no-one was arrested at Friday's protest, while shadow home secretary David Davis called on police to take a "no tolerance" approach".

Meanwhile Labour MP Shahid Malik, who is on the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, called on Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair to make prosecutions.

Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said there would be "no sympathy" among Muslims for those who waved "incendiary" placards or banners.

"Those extremists who were inciting violence were trying to hijack genuine feelings amongst Muslims for a more violent agenda," he said.

The Saved Sect, another al-Muhajiroun successor group, was quick to criticise these comments. A statement on their website, under the title of "You are either with us or with them," declared: "The call of moderate and apostate 'Muslims', such as Inayat Bunglawala and Iqbal Sacranie of the MCB (Mushrik Council of Britain) and Asghar Bukhari of MPAC (Munaafiq Public Affairs Committee), upon the Metropolitan Police to take action and arrest the 'extremists' (Muslims) behind last Friday's peaceful protests in central London was indeed a call of apostasy and betrayal." (sic)

They went on to say: "Apologies from those who mock and insult a Prophet of God are not acceptable, and the only punishment for the one who does so is death."

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