In August 1966, Egyptian thinker and writer Sayyid Qutb was convicted in Cairo of conspiring against the State. The evidence used to incriminate him consisted primarily of extracts from his book Milestones, a treatise on Islamic governance written by Qutb during a previous stint in prison. For Egyptian President Nasser, the ideas contained in Milestones were as threatening to his position as the birth of Moses was to the Pharaoh thousands of years earlier. Nasser’s solution to his dilemma was little different from that of the Pharaoh. Kill the ideological revolution in its infancy. Qutb was executed in prison on 29 August 1966. All known copies of the book were confiscated and burned by military order, and anyone found in possession of it was prosecuted for treason.
Almost half a century later, on 13 December 2011, British Muslim Ahmed Faraz was sentenced to 3 years in prison in London after being convicted of disseminating a number of books which were deemed to be terrorist publications. One of those books is Qutb’s Milestones. In a trial which lasted over two months, jurors had the entirety of Qutb’s thoughts and ideas, as expressed in his book, read out to them to decide whether or not such ideas are permissible in 21st Century Britain. They ultimately concluded that they were not and Milestones has now been criminalised as a “terrorist publication” and effectively banned in Britain.
Milestones is also published by Penguin Books, who previously found themselves in the dock in 1960 (around the same time that Qutb was writing Milestones) after publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the last case of its kind until now.However, the CPS case was that the Milestones special edition published and sold by Faraz contained a number of appendices intended specifically to promote extremist ideology. Yet these appendices merely consisted of a series of articles about Qutb by contemporary thinkers and writers and a syllabus of three books taught by Hassan al-Banna, the founding ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, the very party that has recently been democratically elected in Egypt - following similar trends in Tunisia - after enduring decades of dictatorial rule.
Other books Faraz was selling which are now also effectively banned include those of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian scholar who became one of the leaders of the jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation. Azzam’s Defence of Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan were essentially Islamic edicts that received the highest validation at the time and were heavily promoted in the Western and Muslim world to encourage Muslims to join the Western-backed jihad against the Soviet Union. Both books were readily available to purchase from mainstream booksellers Amazon and Waterstones until very recently, neither of whom it seems will be similarly prosecuted.
The case has extremely serious implications for issues of freedom of speech and freedom of thought in Britain today. In the land of Shakespeare and Wordsworth where more books are published every year than in any other country in the world, books will now be banned and ideas prohibited. It has always been a principle of freedom of speech, especially within academia, that the best way to defeat ideas is to debate them, not prohibit them. Perhaps it is for this reason that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf remains available in bookstores and libraries today. It is probably the same reason that the prosecution’s expert witness Bruce Hoffman admitted under cross-examination that none of the books would have been banned in the United States under the First Amendment.
Many will argue that since Faraz was also convicted of possessing information likely to be of use to a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism, the books ought to be viewed through this prism. The reality is that over the course of three years, the police seized and examined 19 computers, 25 hard drives, 15,000 books, over 9,000 DVDs and videos and millions of documents, all of which belonged to a busy bookstore. Out of these, they could only find four documents which the jury concluded fell afoul of this specific law and which it could not even be proven had ever been read by Faraz. Were the police to trawl through the entire stock and database of any bookstore, it is highly likely that they would find a handful of similar items.
The case also has wider implications for the Muslim community. Faraz’ case is the latest in a series of cases before the courts, buttressed by prejudicial statements from senior politicians, in which efforts have been made to criminalise Islamic political thought. To believe or to even discuss an Islamic mode of governance, the political union of Muslim countries in a Caliphate and the issues of military jihad have become synonymous with glorifying terrorism, what Tony Blair notoriously described in 2005 as an “evil ideology”. Now that the books from where those ideas come are being banned, the logical next step may be to ban the very source of those ideas – the Qur’an itself. For those who may accuse this writer of scaremongering, investigative journalist Yvonne Ridley was met with the same incredulity five years ago when she announced to thousands of Muslims that the government would try and ban Milestones.
The last time that a political treatise like Milestones was considered such a threat to national security in this country that it needed to be banned was in the late 18th Century when Thomas Paine was sentenced to death in absentia for seditious libel for his book The Rights of Man. The book was burned by the public hangman. For years after, whenever men were tried for treason, invariably the Crown offered as evidence to the jury the fact that these men possessed a copy of The Rights of Man. Now that Milestones and Join the Caravan have been similarly criminalised, it follows that like in Nasser’s Egypt, they will be destroyed in their thousands by the State by way of burning. But will all of us who possess copies have to burn them ourselves or risk being arrested and prosecuted for possessing “un-British” books, a crime now equivalent with terrorism?