Muslim PC decision opens can of worms

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Should any police officer be able to choose which duties he will perform? The case of PC Basha has, says political editor Chris Fisher, raised the lid on a potentially large can of worms.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

The decision to give Muslim police officer Alexander Omar Basha a dispensation from guarding the Israeli Embassy in London - because he objected to such a duty on moral grounds after Israel's bombing of Lebanon - has been described as "the beginning of the end for British policing".

More than a bit of an exaggeration, one might suppose, not least because the furore may make a repetition unlikely.

On the other hand, those who have waited hours for a police response to a burglary or to threatening anti-social behaviour - or, indeed, have gone weeks without seeing an officer anywhere - may think the warning has come several years too late.

One of the main responses yesterday to the Basha story was that of "What's all the fuss about?" Glen Smyth, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation - which represents rank-and-file officers - said it was not uncommon for policemen to be excused from working in certain parts of London for a variety of reasons.

And that coment was echoed by Peter Herbert, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, who said: "It is not uncommon for police officers to make requests of a personal nature. Even officers with connections in Northern Ireland have made similar requests before. I think it is a legitimate request to make."

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What if such "personal" requests have a strong political element - as was the case with PC Basha? Are they commonly made? Are they commonly granted? If the answer to the latter question is 'Yes', shouldn't that be a matter of public concern?

Isn't it an axiom of service with the police, as with the Armed Forces, that you follow orders? Isn't it a further one that you keep out of politics?

It has been alleged that, in addition to the incident over the Israeli Embassy, PC Basha has been taking part in anti-war protests. What would have happened if PC Basha had been Jewish and had asked to be excused duty outside the Lebanese Embassy because of his unhappiness about the firing of rockets by Hezbollah on to the territory of Israel? Would he have received such a favourable response?

Many such questions can be asked.

Could a Muslim officer in the Met be allowed to opt out of counter-terrorism inquiries because of unhappiness with the situation in the Middle East and Iraq? Many officers - of all faiths and none - no doubt find it upsetting to have any contact with murderers and paedophiles. So how about sparing them that?

What exactly was going through PC Basha's mind is unknown. It is said that he felt "uncomfortable and unsafe" about the idea of guarding the Israeli Embassy. But what does that mean? The "uncomfortable" part is easily understood, given him objection to the bombing in Lebanon. But "unsafe"? Doesn't that go with the territory if you are a member of the Met's Diplomatic Protection Group?

Of whom or what, moreover, was he frightened? Of people inside the Israeli Embassy? Of fellow-Muslims in Britain? Of reprisals against members of his family in Lebanon if it became known that he was helping to protect the embassy?

Whatever his precise motivation, he has opened the lid on a potentially big can of worms. Where does the logic applied in his case begin and end?

How far can one go - if any distance at all - in letting the police take a pick 'n' mix approach to their duties? If one takes a relaxed attitude, and lets them opt out of work they find distasteful, why should such a dispensation apply only to them? Why not extend it to British soldiers?

What if some of them said that they don't mind going to Afghanistan but that they object to being sent to Iraq because they feel that the war was illegal and the British people were misled?

What if others said they would rather not go to either country because they feel the conflicts there are part of a Western war against Islam? Should such reservations be accommodated?

If so, why not allow taxpayers similar opt-puts? Why not, for example, permit people who object to the war in Iraq to withhold a certain proportion of their tax?

To ask such questions is, in my opinion to answer them. Our democracy and society work on the principle of abiding by the will of the majority as represented in Parliament.

If we let people exclude themselves from the laws and outcomes of parliamentary votes they dislike, then the whole system stops working and starts to fall apart.

Similarly, certain duties and responsibilities are fully implicit in certain jobs.

When you sign up to one of the Armed Forces you are saying that you are willing to put your life on the line in military conflict - a simple fact that appears to have escaped some grieving and furious families in recent years.

If you become a firefighter, you are supposed to be ready to fight fires. If you become a police officer, you are committing yourself to fighting crime, and being prepared to confront criminals.

If you are in the Metropolitan Police Diplomatic Protection Group you are supposed to be ready to protect diplomats and embassies, regardless of country. If your conscience makes that difficult, there is a simple answer: Leave, and do something else.