On Friday, it was reported that the Metropolitan Police have paid £10,000 in damages to Hatun Tash – an ex-Muslim Christian of Turkish origin – whom they wrongly arrested twice at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. You can read the story here (paywall).
There are several astonishing features that lie behind this policing decision. First, Ms Tash had told the police that she was being harassed and threatened by Muslim protestors. She has been a regular at Speaker’s Corner, speaking particularly as a Muslim convert on Islam. The police chose to do nothing about these threats.
Second, rather than take seriously the expressed threats of violence against her, the Metropolitan Police then decided to arrest Ms Tash for breach of the peace. In an area expressly designed for free expression, their grounds for arresting her was that they found what she was saying to be problematic. Rather than arresting those who were threatening physical violence against her, the police instead decided to arrest her for non-violent words she was speaking.
Third, though this is an after the fact reality, the threats against Ms Tash were clearly live and real because in 2021 she was stabbed in the face by a Muslim knifeman. The police failed to apprehend her assailant and have not made any arrests since. However, it is not unreasonable to surmise that the lack of interest with which they treated her initial complaint – and, indeed, the fact they arrested her rather than those threatening her – sends a message that violence from certain parties may be tolerated in a way that opinions from other parties will not be. There is surely a case to be made that the subsequent stabbing – though not caused by the Metropolitan Police – laid the framework in which somebody was emboldened to act in that way. If overt threats of violence from Muslim protestors lead to the arrest of a person saying the things they don’t like, the police enabling them in it, what is someone prone to physical violence and taking those threats seriously going to think?
We don’t need to get into the whys and wherefores of Hatun Tash’s message really to see the point. You don’t have to agree with her message to get it. You don’t have to like her methods to understand it either. Even the Metropolitan Police have finally agreed that they were in the wrong to arrest her here. As somebody who has been to Speaker’s Corner a number of times to share the gospel, in truth, there are rules by which we were bound as Christian speakers that were most definitely waived by the police for others. There was a preferencing of different groups – albeit potentially for broader policing reasons – that ultimately undercut the whole purpose of Speaker’s Corner and why anybody goes there at all.
It is tiresome to have to keep saying the same things over and over again on this sort of issue. But they come up with such regularity you can’t really do anything else. It doesn’t seem to take a genius to see that the law protects free speech and actively forbids harassment and threatening violence. Yet routinely, the police seem to make the decision to arrest those voicing non-violent views and do nothing to those making aggressive gestures, engaging in harassment and making threats of violence. Any honest onlooker can see – no matter whether we like the message and the way it is put across or not – this is not fair and reasonable application of the law.
I am grateful that the Metropolitan Police have accepted that they were wrong in this case. But the frequency with which spurious arrests of street preachers and evangelists keeps happening suggests they are not learning the appropriate lessons. For fear of offending certain groups of people, even as they are actively threatening violence, non-violent speakers sharing views that are more often than not unfashionable at best, and mildly offensive at worst, are frequently arrested to keep the peace. But if police are really there to enforce the law without fear or favour, they ought to allow people – whoever they are and whatever their views – to speak freely and seek to arrest those who threaten violence and, worse, appear intent on carrying it out.
Where our sympathies should lie in these cases is not with whomever happens to voice the views we agree with. Nor with those whose views we find least offensive. It should be with those who are merely speaking, but are not being allowed to do so, and against those who go beyond mere words to threatening violence, encouraging it or, worse, carrying it out. The reason for this should be obvious enough too: the only confidence we can have to say what we want is if we defend the right of others to say what they want, no matter how unfashionable and offensive we may find it. Otherwise, we may just find ourselves on the wrong side of a truncheon because we dared to say something that fell out of fashion and someone else deemed to be blasphemous, whether we meant it to be or not.