UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has taken it upon herself to release a list of undesirables for the public, banned from entering the United Kingdom since October for ostensibly fostering extremism and posing a threat to social stability. In doing so, the government has stirred up more trouble than is worth. What is striking is that the majority of those sixteen named never sought to travel to Britain in the first place. Motives and considerations in entering the country have played no part in the decisions.

The list is heavy with political and religious figures — the preacher Amir Siddique, the Hamas MP Yunis al-Astal; Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps Snr and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper. The last two are described as follows: “Pastor of the Westboro Baptist church and his daughter. Considered to be engaging in unacceptable behaviour by fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence.” Ditto the radio host Michael Weiner (“controversial daily radio host” also known as Michael Savage), inciter of “serious criminal acts” and fomenter of hatred.

Options of course, vary in how to deal with these figures under any circumstances. Condemn, punish, or even ignore feature as possible responses. Admittedly, states have an assortment of duties under international human rights law to take action against inciters of violence or hatred. Some have taken this prerogative further, criminalising such things as holocaust denial within their borders.

These measures, along with such lists as those of the Home Secretary, are problematic, assuming that the debates have been had and the answers found. It also allows bureaucrats to meddle in the business of determining what speech should be free and what isn’t. Public dialogue is stunted in the name of public safety. And what of the choice of people? Bracketing “radio shock jocks” in the same category as Hamas officials may be, at the very least, questionable.

Even more perplexing is the Home Office’s open advertising for those on the list. It has given prominence to individuals and consequently their views precisely by making such a fuss about them. The Westboro Baptist Church has received global publicity as a result. Weiner may well have a spike in audience numbers.

The most constructive response would be to engage, even if some argue that nothing can be gathered from talking to closed books. Religious preachers shelter behind a god who has decidedly picked an undeviating path for them; racist groups feel that the case of blood and soil is an issue beyond question and contamination. They can, nonetheless, serve a useful purpose. They may never be convinced, but they do serve the rather useful function of asking the awkward question and testing problematic issues. Why martyr them?

The UK Home Office has become less the office of domestic affairs than the free advertising bureau for individuals who will be relishing their publicity and receipts. More ominous for White Hall officials, some of the figures on the list may even seek legal action.

Weiner has promised a suit in defamation against Smith, who he has described before his audiences as a “lunatic”. “To link me up with skinheads who are killing people in Russia, to put me in league with Hamas murderers who kill people on buses is defamation.”

Lawyers will be licking their lips in anticipation, with one legal eagle suggesting that Smith be sued personally for the handsome sum of £200,000. And that may be just be the beginning.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey