Banning Choudary

It turns out that Anjem Choudary's publicity stunt was a little too clever. By threatening to march with his dozen or so supporters through the hallowed streets of Wootton Bassett in tribute (he claimed) to the thousands of unremarked Muslim casualties of Afghanistan and Iraq, he achieved far more attention than he did even when his group shouted abuse as returning soldiers in Luton last year. That in itself is a sufficiently remarkable fact. Choudary's public remarks on the subject of his proposed march were, for him, unusually moderate. The overwhelming condemnation of what was, by his own admission, a publicity stunt, shows that the nerve he was touching was rawer than even he realised.

And thus did he overstep the invisible line that defines the limits of tolerance. In response to the furore, the Home Secretary is going to add both Al Muhajiroun (the group led by the exiled Omar Bakri Mohammed which was Choudary's original operation) and Islam4UK itself to the list of banned terrorist and terror-supporting groups. Henceforth, it will be an offence punishable by ten years imprisonment to be associated in any way with either network.

Why? Under the Terrorism Act of 2000, groups can be outlawed if they "unlawfully glorify the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism". Choudary has certainly come close to that on a number of occasions: for example, he described the 9/11 terrorists as "magnificent martyrs". Yet it's hard to escape the conclusion that, were it not for the extraordinary furore surrounding his proposed Wootton Bassett march, Islam4UK would not now be facing proscription. It is being banned for embarrassing the government, for upsetting various politicians, and for causing newspaper columns to be written denouncing the group's insensitivity and lack of patriotic respect. It is being banned because it is the public (and ridiculous) face of Islamic extremism in the UK, and because banning it allows the government to be seen to be "doing something" about someone who has proved wildly successful at winding people up. It is being banned for abusing our patience.

Alan Johnson claimed that "proscription is a tough but necessary power to tackle terrorism and is not a course we take lightly." Yet - unless you believe in a remarkable coincidence of timing - this ban is a PR move that has little or nothing to do with actual terrorist activity. Choudary was not proposing to do anything illegal. The march, moreover, could have been banned in advance if there were grounds for supposing it would have been illegal or that marchers were likely to incite violence or hatred, or even that the presence of Choudary's supporters - along with counter-demonstrators from the English Defence League - was likely to lead to trouble.

However dubious his associates - including the "hate preacher" Bakri himself - Choudary is, these days at least, essentially a propagandist. Islam4UK, and its previous incarnations, have, we can imagine, been under surveillance and monitoring since their inception. There is no evidence that they have actually inspired anyone to commit acts of terror, and Choudary himself has always been careful to stay within the law. Where incitement has occurred, his supporters have been taken to court. Just yesterday a group of them who had yelled abuse at soldiers in Luton were found guilty of a public order offence. But that does not make them terrorists, merely obnoxious, and it should not be a crime to be obnoxious.

Neither Islam4UK nor Al Muhajiroun are serious groups. They are far less significant, for example, than Hizb ut Tahrir, which has the same professed aims - a world ruled by Islam - yet remains legal. Choudary is a clown. His views are cartoonish: with his visions of the flag of Islam flying over Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square turned into a popular venue for Saudi-style beheadings, he offers a reductio ad absurdum of radical Islamism. The only proper response - certainly, the proper British response - is to laugh. As a country, we laughed at Hitler, as we laughed at his British wannabe Oswald Mosley. And Choudary is closer to Roderick Spode than he is to Mosley. Another figure he resembles is the Rev Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, who shares his belief in the efficacy of hate-filled placards. Phelps and his group were, you may remember, banned from Britain by the lovely Jacqui Smith after they proposed (without really intending to) bringing their "God hates Fags" campaign to the streets of Basingstoke.

The freedom to be obnoxious is not just an unfortunate side-effect of free speech: it is free speech. We seem to have lost sight of that. When people express support for free speech, they often appear to mean that people should be allowed to agree with them. Religious bigots want the freedom to condemn homosexuality but get upset when the BBC broadcasts something that offends their faith. Secular liberals support bans on homophobic speech. The government, at best, believes that freedom of expression should be balanced against other, more fashionable notions like respect and preserving social cohesion. This is dangerous. Banning views does not make them disappear: it merely gives those who hold them the status of martyrs.

When the Thatcher government banned Sinn Fein from the airwaves it boosted it credibility, won it widespread sympathy and deflected attention from the murderous IRA campaign in which its leading members were profoundly implicated. And Sinn Fein, unlike Islam4UK, was undoubtedly a mouthpiece for terrorists. By banning Al Muhajiroun and its offshoots, the Home Office appears to be taking Anjem Choudary at his own estimation as a person of substance and influence in the Muslim community. And few doubt that his group will be back in some other guise.

I agree with Peter Tatchell, who said in response to yesterday's convictions:

Just as I defended the right to free speech of the Christian homophobe Harry Hammond, and opposed his conviction in 2002 for insulting the gay community, so I also defend the right of these objectionable Muslim extremists to make their views heard. The best way to respond to these fanatics is expose and refute their hateful, bigoted opinions. Rational argument is more effective and ethical than using an authoritarian law to censor and suppress them.

The quintessential Choudary placard was the one that read "Freedom go to Hell", his group's response to the Danish cartoons and, indeed, to all instances where non-Muslims had exercised their rights to free expression in ways that were uncongenial to his brand of Islam. There would certainly not be much free speech in the Islamic republic he dreams that Britain will one day become. He is not, therefore, in much position to complain that the government wants to stifle his own freedom, though that is precisely what he has been doing all day as he toured the major TV studios. The fact that he is a hypocrite, however, does not mean that he is not correct in pointing out the hypocrisy of those who want to ban him.


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