We’re all familiar with the standard restrictions on freedom of speech in the UK: for starters we can’t incite violence or hatred against a race or religion. Yet a new social and legal precedent is emerging that says you cannot make ‘grossly offensive’ comments online.
Azhar Ahmed may look like a normal youth, but he’s facing an extraordinary reality. He is a politically active Muslim and like many millions of people all over the world, he is intellectually, emotionally and spiritually disturbed by British foreign policy in Afghanistan; a policy that has violently cost the lives of thousands of innocent people.
It is widely believed that Azhar, a 19-year-old British Asian from Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire, posted a publicly-visible Facebook status on 8 March, reading:
“People gassin [venting off] about the deaths of soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmless familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F*****N SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soliders grave & wish him hell because that where he is going..”
This posting was an emotional response to the distressingly overblown media coverage regarding the six British occupation troops killed in Afghanistan, coupled with fresh reports of civilian deaths. Surely this Facebook posting was an only-just-comprehensible personal ranting that was misfortunately made publicly accessible on Facebook? Following the humane, anti-war rhetoric, the status generalised about ‘all soldiers’ (of any denomination) being ‘scum’, inviting them to die and visit hell. The linguistics indicate the writer is frankly altogether poorly literate. The 19-year-old’s initial moral outrage and rare empathy for the victims of state violence 6000km away is surely admirable.
Unlike most of the 300k status updates posted every minute, Azhar’s posting didn’t end its life in cyberspace. Members of the English Defence League, a crypto-fascist protest movement, were watching Azhar’s Facebook. They quickly flagged up his posting for political outrage amongst their Islamophobic supporters.
Within days private citizens had commanded that the police get involved. Azhar was then arrested, interviewed and charged for ‘a racially aggravated public order offence’. Other than Azhar’s own ethnic minority status, there is no racial relevance to his posting. This absurd charge (a blatant injustice) led to a storm of outrage, led mainly by politically active online youth, that blew over the Crown Prosecution Service and police.
Within 10 days the CPS had changed the charge to ‘racially aggravated harassment’, which was also totally inappropriate. Even those offended by Azhar’s posting begun to see the CPS’ incompetence.
On 20 March Azhar promptly appeared before Dewsbury Magistrates Court. The building was surrounded with obtuse public order police who refused me entry for 15 minutes on the simply false pretence that the court was full. Fifty EDL supporters protested against Azhar, who they characterised as “scum”. During the 25-minute court proceedings the prosecution refreshed the charge a second time, initially losing the (bizarre) ‘racially aggravated’ line; later dropping the charge of public order disruption altogether. After a lengthy recess the prosecution then settled on a fresh charge of ‘grossly offensive internet messaging’, under a different and relatively obscure statute, §127 of the Communications Act 2003.
Azhar’s case will be heard on 3 July, where he will face the charge of ‘posting grossly offensive’ content, for his outraged Facebook posting. The Crown will utilise three witnesses who’ll claim to have been ‘grossly offended’, and at least another three whose written testimony will apparently substantiate the ‘grossly offensive’ nature of the posting. Azhar’s Defence lawyer Mr Iqbal will argue that the Facebook posting was not ‘grossly offensive’. Since Azhar’s Facebook posting was an impersonal Facebook rant, it seems impossible for the prosecution to successfully satisfy the legal requirement that Azhar’s posting would be grossly offensive to “reasonable members of society in general”. Even if Azhar is found not guilty, a generation of politically active Muslims who were exposed to the case will be one inch closer to self-censorship when it comes to expressing their frustration with NATO atrocities in Afghanistan.
In 2010 Oxford-educated novelist Martin Amis who earns an £80k salary incited:
“The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order: not letting them travel; deportation, further down the road; curtailing of freedoms; strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or Pakistan — discriminatory stuff — until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.”
Amis’ comments, which he made in an interview to The Times newspaper, were not enraged fantastical abstractions, like Azhar’s statements about ‘all soldiers’ dying and going to hell. Amis’ statements contained no raw language of mourners crying at graves; rather Amis’ comments were clear and constituted an intellectually coherent incitement to collective punishment, masquerading as a public policy proposal. Amis was criticised in a few outraged newspaper articles but his plainly racist and grossly offensive targeting of an ethnoreligious group didn’t land him in court.
Considering the sort of foul language that Azhar used is frequented by ineloquent teens on a daily basis, the prosecution case seems weak and petty, hence politically charged. The anti-Muslim EDL campaign was the element that led to Azhar facing these charges. If a white non-Muslim had expressed similar frustration in an equally illiterate manner, would he have landed himself in court?