Paedophiles have a right to free speech, for example, much as we might loathe the content of what they're saying - but it's probably best they don't do it outside a primary school. If that were proposed - and I'm guessing it won't ever be, but stick with me - that would be provocative, inflammatory and would run the maximum risk of creating a violent reaction.
I have similar feelings about Al Muhajiroun and the idea posited on the Islam4UK website about holding a parade through Wootton Bassett to remember Muslim victims of the Afghan war. Now, as I strenuously try to point out at all times, I'm not a 'no platform' kind of person - but I think it's disingenuous to neglect the context of where the platform might be, and whether somewhere else might be a bit more suitable, and a bit less provocative.
Which isn't to say I don't find the Wootton Bassett parades mawkish and exploitative of service families' genuine grief, because I do. As Matthew Parris so eloquently put it a little time ago, there's a danger that we end up depicting dedicated service people as little more than victims, which isn't quite the case. Yes, these are underpaid, badly treated, underequipped public-sector workers, often young men barely out of school, but that isn't to say we should treat them with the kind of lachrymose sentimentality reserved for children with cancer or special-needs folk - they know the risks, they are dedicated to their job and they very often enjoy what they're doing.
What the repatriation ceremonies - streamed live on news channels with reporters describing the hearses' procession in hushed tones - have done is to distill the war into one set of casualties - specifically 'our' soldiers who have died. And I think that misses the point in two ways. Firstly, it's important to remember that war doesn't, unfortunately, kill good guys and bad guys, ie 'our boys' and the evil Taliban - mistakes can be made, soldiers can be killed by friendly fire and civilians can be caught up in it too. Secondly, it takes attention away from the living repatriations - those soldiers who come back to Britain injured, disabled or deeply traumatised. Also, I think it runs the risk of becoming a tool for propaganda - Nick Griffin, of course, has turned up at a repatriation, but there's another side, too. Who wouldn't want to harness the positive feeling towards service personnel, and try to ride on the back of it, however carefully? The BBC's Question Time even came from the town recently, showing that broadcasters recognise how the town's name resonates with the public. What better place to hold a protest - or worse?
Still, if these repatriation events give families a genuine chance to grieve in public when they want to, and for others to show their appreciation of the efforts of those fighting on the other side of the world, then it's not for me to stand in judgement, thinking I know better. I may not agree with the conflict in Afghanistan but I do understand how others do value its importance, and how it's important for families to make some ritual sense when a loved one dies, whether that's in private or public.
Is it right to allow someone to hijack the Wootton Bassett 'brand' (as it has now sadly become) for the purposes of furthering their own agenda? Even the odious Griffin managed not to be an inflammatory presence, but then he didn't announce his arrival with bells and whistles beforehand. You have to wonder whether the announcement on Islam4UK was really a well thought-out plan for a genuine march, or something to generate as much publicity as possible for the group - which of course it has ended up doing. A loud and noisy march through central London wouldn't have created as much heat and light as this intention to march through a sleepy Wiltshire town has done - so it's a propaganda win, in that sense, regardless of how much condemnation there has been.
You also have to bear in mind the idea of creating a precedent. If this group do get to protest through the town, others may see the huge amount of publicity generated and may want to as well. And I'm inclined to agree with Dave Osler, who says:
But context is everything, and this move is an obvious provocation from what is effectively a front organisation for banned Islamist faction Al Muhajiroun, who are manifestly not peaceniks of any description.
It has been suggested that the announcement is simply a stunt on the part of the publicity-savvy [Anjem] Choudary, and I very much hope that is the case. If it goes ahead, it will inevitably generate a huge counter-mobilisation likely to boost the fortunes of the fascist British National Party ahead of an impending general election. Choudary either does not care about this, or positively relishes the prospect.
And that's the real problem. If this whole business is about creating a punch-up rather than genuinely honouring Muslim war deaths, then it's pretty shabby. It brings to mind the English Defence League plans to protest outside mosques - provocative, nasty and downright stupid, leaving you with a suspicion that violence or an angry reaction wouldn't be entirely disapproved of, if it did happen. The people of Wootton Bassett didn't ask for troops to come through their high street in coffins, but that's what ended up happening due to their proximity to an air base. Do they deserve other protests cluttering their streets? I'm not so sure they do. This isn't 'no platform', it's 'maybe the platform shouldn't quite be here in such a provocative place'.
I note that the Islam4UK website appears to be down at the moment, presumably under the enormous weight of traffic this stunt has created. So it's a victory of sorts, without ever having to have the protest in the first place. I can't think that Al Muhajiroun will have garnered very much more support from this whole business, though.