In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Toulouse, France, Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he would criminalize frequenting internet sites of groups that support terrorism. France, in addition, banned the radical preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi from entering the country with the stated hope of combating the radicalization of French Muslim youth. These measures have created somewhat of an uproar (for “going too far” or being “disproportionate”) but as I will argue, neither measure is new to Western countries, nor are they likely to accomplish their respective desired ends.
In terms of internet censorship and free speech rights, France banned web auctions from carrying Nazi memorabilia in 2000. Similarly, Australia ordered Fredrick Toben to remove material from his website which denied the Holocaust and vilified Jews. In December of last year, a British man was found guilty of disseminating through his bookshop an edition of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones and was sentenced to three years in prison. Since at least 1994, Germany has outlawed the “dissemination and use of propaganda by unconstitutional and National Socialist organizations.” In the US, Tarek Mehanna was recently convicted of “using his knowledge of Arabic to translate and distribute documents promoting al-Qaeda’s ideology, to inspire others to violent jihad.”
Banning radical individuals from entering a host country is also not a new phenomenon. Canada banned George Galloway, a radical member of the British parliament, from entering the country on the grounds that he presented a security threat. The US revoked the visa of controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan – who called the Toulouse terrorist “soft-hearted” - in 2004 (but lifted the revocation in 2010). In 2009, the UK Home Office denied entry to Geert Wilders – a Dutch MP whose anti-Muslim rhetoric landed him on trial in his own country for inciting hatred – on security grounds. Australia actually banned Snoop Dogg from entering the country after failing a “character test” in 2007.
But are such regulations and curtailments effective in accomplishing the desired ends? Will McCants, an analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses, recently told a US Subcommittee Hearing that “the vast majority of youth who watch and read al-Qaeda propaganda are either unaffected or choose not to act, as attested recently by one anonymous online recruiter . . . By his reasoning, ten thousand people out of a population of one billion Muslims, or 0.00001%, would go out to fight for al-Qaeda and even fewer would carry out a suicide operation.” Although McCants admits that conclusive data is lacking, the available evidence seems to suggest that criminalizing the visiting of sites that support terrorism is indeed disproportionate, not likely to accomplish the desired end (i.e. stopping radicalization and preventing terrorism), and may actually be counterproductive (valuable intelligence can be gleaned from such sites by counterterrorism analysts and law enforcement on these sites).
Banning an individual from entering a host country may also have the opposite effect. George Galloway, for example, received an array of press for being banned from Canada and also skirted the ban by addressing the audience on live video feed.
Benjamin Franklin famously said (in an oft-misquoted adage), “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” If Hilary Clinton is right that internet freedom is as fundamental as free speech itself, than the little Temporary Safety purchased at the expense of this Essential Liberty is probably not worth the cost.
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