In the name of free speech
Consider the case of Anjem Choudary, the genial, 49-year-old UK Muslim, who — following a trial shrouded in secrecy — has been convicted of advocating terrorism, along with fellow radical Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, with sentencing of the two men expected in September. For years Choudary was at liberty to go into British TV studios and mouth his inflammatory slogans. In this time of grave concern about radicalization he would have enjoyed no such freedom in France or many other countries.
Now — from newly released evidence — it transpires that intelligence agencies across Europe long ago identified Choudary as a menace. Approximately a hundred individuals in the UK alone are believed to have been radicalized through contact with him and/or violent Islamist groups that he championed, such as Al-Muhajiroun. Among his protégés was Michael Adebolajo, who in 2013 led an accomplice in the hacking to death of the British soldier Lee Rigby on a south London Street. “He was on our wavelength,” boasted Choudary in the aftermath of the killing.
In the light of all this, the current debate in the UK about whether to place especially dangerous imprisoned terrorists in isolation units to stop them from exercising a radicalizing influence is liable to seem somewhat belated. Choudary is not the first Muslim who was able to conduct a career as an agitator in full public view. In many ways he was a successor to Abu Hamza, the Egyptian-born cleric who with his hook hand and glass eye became notorious in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a demagogue. On TV Hamza pushed free speech beyond all reasonable limits while preaching sedition at the Finsbury Park mosque, where he served as imam. It seemed barely credible that he was never arrested. When he finally was, it appeared to be because of US pressure to take action against him.
Choudary and Hamza alike enjoyed what amounted to a symbiotic relationship with the British media. They became the media’s favorite Muslim fanatics, bogeymen guaranteed to inflame the public and accordingly good for business.
It has been widely surmised that they also enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the British security services. That Hamza was cultivated as a spy was precisely what his defense lawyers claimed when he was prosecuted on terrorism charges in New York in 2014. He is now serving a life sentence in the US with no possibility of parole. Choudary insisted that he believed in a “covenant of security:” because the UK gave a home to Muslims it should not be a target of attack. As it happens, the notion of such a covenant has deep roots in the UK. In the years before the WWI when Russian revolutionaries sought refuge in London, British spymasters allowed them to go about their business on the understanding that they would not cause trouble on British soil. The thinking was that the arrangement could yield useful information while also burnishing imperial Britain’s credentials as “the home of liberty.” It often seems as if something of this antediluvian mindset has lingered on into the 21st century with baleful consequences.
Whatever the truth may be, it is hard to escape the suspicion that Choudary perpetrated much preventable harm. Part of that harm is the incalculable damage that he has done to the image of the UK Muslim community. The endless exposure of his provocative personality in the British media encouraged public perceptions that Islam and extremism are synonymous. Few British Muslims will regret that he is now behind bars. It is among sections of the British media, hungry for lurid headlines, that Choudary will perhaps be most sorely missed.
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