Friday, October 2, 2009

Rowan Laxton, guilty of bias crime, negotiatied with Taliban pre-9/11

You may have heard that Rowan Laxton, a high-ranking British Foreign Office diplomat, was found guilty of aggravated harassment last week for shouting anti-Semitic slurs in a tirade in a London Business School gym earlier this year. (Read here.) Laxton is currently on suspension from his position heading the Foreign Office's South Asia Group. In his tirade, Laxton outraged others in the gym by repeatedly shouting the words "F**king Israelis! F**king Jews!" as he exercised on a stationary bicycle. Now he's been found guilty and fined £350 and ordered to pay £500 prosecution costs and a £15 victim surcharge. The City of Westminster Magistrates' Court judge who reached this decision was sympathetic to Laxton, however, writing that his anti-Semitic rant was unintended and caused by job stress and dealing with a difficult divorce. It is said by some to be likely that the Foreign Office will now fire him, although they have only said that he will be subject to "misconduct procedures".

You may not know that Laxton negotiated on behalf of the U.K. with the Taliban at one of their Pakistan headquarters just prior to 9/11. According to a madrassah newsletter cited in a March, 2000 article by Robert Fisk in the Independent, Laxton negotiated with Taliban leaders concerning their support for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (read here).

Fisk's article mentions a visit by Laxton to the madrassah in Akora Khattak, Pakistan, which is considered to be the birthplace of the Taliban. (Fisk fails in his piece to accurate record the name of the school, but some detective work found it to be Darul Uloom Haqqania. This school was founded by Maulana Sami ul-Haq [read here], whose name Fisk spells as "Mulana al-Haq", further making identifying the school a challenge.) Fisk found the following in the madrassah's newletter. (Note Fisk's pre-9/11 need to identify bin Laden in parentheses as a "Saudi dissident".) :

"Last week," the latest edition reports, "two British diplomats from the political section of the British High Commission, Mr Rowan Laxton and Mr Richard Johnson, came to visit our school and held discussions about the Taliban's support for [the Saudi dissident] Osama bin Laden and the situation in Chechnya. The representative of the school told the Britons they should pass on a message to their government that it should change its policies towards the Taliban."

So just prior to 9/11, Laxton negotiated with Taliban leaders concerning their support for al Qaeda. We only know about this only from a passing reference in an obscure, 9-year-old news report. As best I can tell, the British government and media have had very little to say about Laxton's role in these negotiations, or about his career in general. The reports I've seen are pretty bare bones for someone with such an interesting resume.

At the time of his arrest in January, the Daily Mail wrote of Laxton that (read here):

"The Oxford graduate joined the diplomatic service in 1993 and rose rapidly through the ranks. He ran the British High Commission in Pakistan for three years before moving to Afghanistan in 2001. He stayed in Kabul for two years, then returned to London. He was appointed head of his section last year."

I'd like to know more about this.

Rowan Laxton
Rowan Laxton

Maulana Sami ul-Haq

A few more notes about the actions for which Laxton was convicted. Laxton's outburst came in reaction to a news report concerning Israel's war in Gaza, which he was watching as he exercised. In fact, the judge cited this as a mitigating fact, as if opposition to Israeli actions somehow excuses, if only partially, an obvious act of anti-Semitism. Opposition to Israel's actions hardly mitigates bigotry against Jews.

It should also pointed out that the person who filed the complaint against Laxton quoted him as saying
"If I had my way, the international community would be sent in and if the Israelis got in the way, they would be blown off the face of the fucking earth."

Laxton has denied saying this. To admit this, he would have to admit that this incident was more than an "outburst". This alleged statement is much more than a few mindlessly shouted phrases, it's a fully-formed sentence expressing a very troubling advocacy, or at least fantasy, of killing Israelis. I would like to know more about this, too. I wonder if this will be covered in the "misconduct procedures".

Laxton's behavior was unacceptable; he should be fired and condemned for his actions in no uncertain terms. Having said all that, I have mixed feelings about the criminal conviction. While I'm glad that the criminal proceedings brought this matter unavoidably before the Foreign Office as a disciplinary matter, and while I am relatively sure that this would not have happened otherwise, I think that the criminalizing of hate speech can be a dangerous matter, potentially leading to government infringement on political speech. While shouting out one's hatred of Jews is clearly beyond the pale of acceptable political speech, I do not feel comfortable having the government draw such lines between acceptable and unacceptable political speech.

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