Islamist group has to abandon relaunch debate

The public relaunch of the controversial Islamist group Al Muhajiroun descended into chaos last night as a debate between the sect’s UK leader and the director of a centre right think tank had to be abandoned. 

Scenes of angry confrontation broke out at the Conway Hall in central London between members of Al Muhajiroun and secular attendees of the debate who refused to segregate themselves into separate sections for men and women.

The owners of the Conway Hall, the South Place Ethical Society, eventually cancelled the debate altogether after declaring that they would not tolerate any segregation within their venue. 

Members of Al Muhajiroun – an politically extreme and socially austere radical Islamist group which has little support within the wider Muslim community – greeted the decision with angry cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) before marching out into the street. Police were called although no arrests were made.

Al Muhajiroun's British based leader, Anjem Choudary, had been due to hold a debate with Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion on Sharia law. The event was supposed to have been independently adjudicated by a group calling itself the Global Issues Society, however, it quickly emerged that doormen acting on behalf of the group were siding with Al Muhajiroun. 

Led by the Syrian born preacher Omar Bakri Muhammad, who is banned from the UK and lives in exile in Lebanon, Al Muhajiroun supposedly disbanded in 2004 when the government threatened to outlaw them. Two offshoot sects led by Bakri Muhammad were outlawed the following year by the Home Office for "glorifying terrorism". 

Until recently Choudary and Bakri Muhammad's followers have kept a low profile, operating under the name Ahl us-Sunnah wal Jamma'ah. Last night’s appearance was the first public outing for Al Muhajiroun in over five years. Membership remains in the low hundreds but a number of followers and former followers have been convicted of terrorist activity. 

Ideological intransigence from both sides in the debate effectively led to the event's cancellation. Scuffles began after a group of bearded and heavy set doormen initially insisted that all women – including non-Muslims – would have to sit upstairs drawing angry responses from some attendees, particularly members of the Council of ex-Muslims – an atheist group of former Muslims who are strongly opposed to Islam. 

At one point a non-Muslim man, Michael Jones, marched upstairs and insisted on sitting down next to a small group of women dressed in full veils prompting an even angrier reaction from the doormen. "As soon as you say the words 'segregation' I think of apartheid," he said. "I won't stand for that."

Eventually Al Muhajiroun agreed to allow non-Muslim women into the downstairs section but Giles Enderson, the president of the Conway Hall, cancelled the debate anyway. “A group of thugs on the door refused to let women into the downstairs section so I’m cancelling the meeting," he said. "Anyone who has issue with that can go to the police."

Mr Choudary, who believes Sharia law should be introduced into Britain, said: "The brothers did not want women downstairs and some people would not abide by that. We will not accept people who interfere in our debate."