What does jihad mean and why wasn’t a pro-Palestine protester arrested for chanting the word?

What does jihad mean and why wasn’t a pro-Palestine protester arrested for chanting the word?
  • PublishedDecember 25, 2023

The Metropolitan Police stance created an apparent clash with the government.

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The Metropolitan Police’s decision not to arrest a man filmed chanting words including “jihad” at a pro-Palestine protest over the weekend has put the force apparently at odds with the government about what crosses the line between legitimate protest and breaking the law.

The force said specialist counterterrorism officers had not identified any offences arising from the clip showing a demonstration by the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamist group, which was separate to the main rally.

But Home Office minister Robert Jenrick said chanting the word on London’s streets is “inciting terrorist violence”, while the home secretary challenged Met commissioner Sir Mark Rowley over the force’s response to the incident.

What does jihad mean?

As the Met pointed out, the word, although sometimes associated with terrorism, has “a number of meanings”, which include struggle or effort but also holy war.

Nick Aldworth, former counterterrorism national co-ordinator, said: “That word has had an affiliation to terrorists, but actually has an enormous amount of legitimacy in the Islamic faith.”

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam in Leicester, said the word in Arabic means to “struggle” or to “strive” and has two strands.

He explained that greater jihad is an everyday struggle “to improve yourself, to be a better human being, a better Muslim – kind, caring, peaceful”.

“The lesser jihad is where you pick up a weapon and fight alongside your fellow Muslims or the group that’s fighting in self-defence or to remove an injustice or oppression,” he said.

But there are a number of rules about a military jihad, which can only be called for by a Muslim ruler or Khalifa who is ruling according to the Sharia, or Islamic law.

“The rules include the killing of civilians not being permitted, religious buildings cannot be targeted and prisoners of war must be treated humanely,” said Mr Mogra.

“Sadly, the word jihad has been so grossly misunderstood as it’s portrayed in the media and public discourse, even as it’s expressed by Muslim people from time to time, where none of the conditions are being met yet they may want to label that as a jihad when it’s anything but.”

He said jihad is a “very noble thing for Muslims where you risk your life or lay down your life to protect others or liberate others,” but added: “No individual Muslim in this country can call for a jihad because that’s not for us as UK citizens to do.”

Why wasn’t the protester arrested and charged?

The Met said specialist officers had assessed the video and did not identify any offences, while specialist Crown Prosecution Service lawyers reached the same conclusion.

“However, recognising the way language like this will be interpreted by the public and the divisive impact it will have, officers identified the man involved and spoke to him to discourage any repeat of similar chanting,” the force said in a statement.

What has the response been?

The Met’s statement prompted a backlash from some members of the government as well as Jewish groups.

Jewish safety organisation Community Security Trust criticised the force, saying that “in trying to communicate complex and nuanced legal issues” on social media “they gave the impression of legitimising obnoxious and hateful behaviour that may or may not be criminal but nevertheless causes profound concern to British Jews and many other people”.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman arriving in Downing Street, London, for a Cabinet meeting. Picture date: Tuesday October 17, 2023.
Image:Home Secretary Suella Braverman challenged the Met’s response. File pic

Home Office minister Robert Jenrick said chanting the word on the streets of the capital is “inciting terrorist violence” and should be tackled with the full force of the law, while Suella Braverman used her scheduled meeting with Sir Mark on Monday to ask for “an explanation over the response to incidents” on Saturday.

“There can be no place for incitement to hatred or violence on Britain’s streets and, as the home secretary has made clear, the police are urged to crack down on anyone breaking the law,” a source close to the home secretary said ahead of the meeting.

What is the law?

According to Jonathan Hall KC, the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, police and prosecutors would have looked at the Terrorism Act as well as public order laws when assessing the incident.

It is an offence to encourage terrorism in this country or abroad and asking for support of Hamas, which was proscribed as a terrorist group in its entirety in 2021, would also be against the law.

But Mr Hall said “it would be quite difficult” to prove that chant “might encourage terrorism”, while public order legislation tends to work only if someone “was calling for immediate unlawful violence against people who happen to be present”.

Mr Aldworth said in “some contexts people chanting that word could possibly be committing an offence”.

But he highlighted the difficulties of policing large crowds in London and said: “When passions are high, do you make it worse by wading in and arresting people and possibly creating violent disorder on the streets of London?

“The wonderful thing about British policing is individual officers are empowered with a great degree of individual discretion about how they deal with those matters.”

Are tougher laws needed?

Mr Hall said he was looking to see if the law could be “tweaked” to potentially prosecute similar incidents in the future.

“I would like to see a clear rule that prevents people crying for jihad during public protests about the Middle East,” he said. “I don’t think at the moment the law does that.”

Speaking to journalists after a meeting with Suella Braverman, Sir Mark also suggested that laws around extremism and hate crime should be redrawn.

He said: “The law that we’ve designed around hate crime and terrorism over recent decades hasn’t taken full account of the ability in extremist groups to steer around those laws and propagate the truly toxic messages through social media. Those lines probably need re-drawing.”

It’s a change he’s called for before he took the top job in the Met, when Sir Mark co-authored a report warning that there was a “gaping chasm” in legislation that allows some extremists to operate with “impunity”.

Met Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley
Image:Met Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley

He said at the time he was “shocked and horrified by the ghastliness and volume of hateful extremist materials and behaviour which is lawful in Britain”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also urged the government to look at addressing “gaps in the law” and said: “There’s been a huge increase in hate crime in the last couple of weeks, tragically. We’ve all got a duty to clamp down on hate crime whatever political party we’re in.

“Obviously, the police are independent operationally, so these are decisions for them.

“I think there have already been identified some gaps in the law in a previous review under this government and I think the government needs to look at whether there are gaps in the law that need to be addressed as well.”

But Downing Street indicated police are unlikely to be given further powers.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We do believe the police have extensive powers in this space and we will continue to discuss with them so there is clarity and agreement about how they can be deployed on the ground.”

Asked if there are any plans to give police more powers, the spokesman said: “I’m not aware of any, no.”


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