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In a Democracy, Protesters Should be Free to Burn Poppies

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POPPIES
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Do I support the Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) planned 'surprise' intended to disrupt the two minute silence on Armistice Day? No. Do I support their burning of poppies while chanting "British soldiers burn in hell"? No.

I have no sympathy for this small group of attention-seeking agitators, who lack a coherent political message and seem broadly to exist to fuel contemporary fantasies about the rise of militant Islam in the UK. Should they have undertaken the protest, I would have found it completely understandable that people wanted to argue with them, tell them they are disrespecting the war dead and encourage them to move on (politely or otherwise).

However in one fell swoop the chance for this situation to have been resolved informally has been ripped out of the hands and mouths of British citizens by home secretary Theresa May, who made the quickfire decision to ban the group Muslims Against Crusades entirely as of this morning using the Terrorism Act 2000. From now on, being a member of the group, holding meetings or demonstrating support for the political group by wearing clothing or 'other articles' means you can face up to 10 years in prison. It appears that now simply planning to protest in a fashion that the home secretary deems to be unacceptable can be deemed to be a criminal act of terrorism.

Of course, this is a particularly odious group of individuals, many of whom were members of groups which have been banned before such as Islam4UK and it's understandable why - on the face of it - there isn't much sympathy for MAC and their planned disrespectful protests.

However this is not just about MAC (much as I'm sure they'd like it to be). This is instead about the fundamental democratic freedom to speak and express oneself freely, regardless of content. As John Milton demands in his seminal work on freedom of speech Areopagitica: 'Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.'

Much as those commemorating the Glorious Dead may feel that Muslims chanting "British soldiers burn in hell" during the two-minute silence is comparable to giving them - and their loved ones - a slap round the face, there is a fundamental difference: The first is speaking your mind, the other is a physical act of violence. The first is an articulation of an idea - albeit a repulsive one - the second is a result of an individual deciding to physically act upon an idea. A blurring of the two would have grave consequences for freedom of speech.

It would also be a mistake to suggest that feeling offended is in any way equivalent to being physically attacked. Increasingly now there is a tendency to value feelings above thought and emotions above ideas. Feeling offended is often put on a par with acts of physical violence. But the old adage "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" should still hold true.

We should see ourselves as resilient enough to be able to cope with words and ideas, even if they offend us. To live in an free, open and adult society, what is far more important than feeling offended is feeling free to say what you think; without fear of criminal prosecution.

This does not, of course, mean that defending freedom of speech for all entails that views people find repulsive or disrespectful should go unchallenged - it is not to encourage the relativistic view that everyone's opinion should be respected equally. We should indeed challenge those who have opinions that offend us - engage in a battle of ideas and show those articulating them and (often more importantly) the public, why they are wrong.

In casually banning them, Theresa May has snubbed out the possibility of such a battle of ideas taking place. Anyone explicitly representing Muslims Against Crusades in future faces jail. This should be something that any campaign group - including those most vehemently opposed to them, such as the English Defence League - should oppose. Who is Theresa May to decide what views the public can or can't hear? Will the EDL be next?

Many claim the greatest achievement of the war dead over the past century was to preserve freedom and democracy in Britain against forces attempting to rid the country of them. Ironically by banning Muslims Against Crusades from speaking freely, Theresa May has done more to disrespect the idea of a free, democratic Britain than a few boneheaded Muslim extremists burning poppies.