“Thank God” was a common response among British Muslims after hearing of the conviction of notorious loudmouth Anjem Choudary and his assistant Mizanur Rahman for inviting support for a terror group. Choudary has spent years shamelessly spewing hatred and bile, cultivating a small and very public network of young gullible minds including the killer of Fusilier Lee Rigby.
As “the single biggest gateway to terrorism in recent British history”, he is understood have inspired at least 100 people from Britain into terrorism. His influence in Europe was such that the Dutch intelligence agency attacked the UK, as it “harboured” him and his views, and claimed he was a key influence in the spread of the country’s own terror network. And these reports only begin to scratch the surface of his terror links across the world.
No surprise, then, that Choudary was reviled and condemned by Muslims and Islamic organisations across the UK. He was driven out of mosques and challenged by Muslims on the street, left on street corners to spread his vile beliefs. Without the oxygen of publicity, it is not impossible that he could have remained a footnote in history – but that was not to be.
Despite the revulsion of Muslim communities and the lack of any Islamic credentials – and, most significantly, despite his well-known links to terror – this self-serving publicity seeker was consistently given a high profile by the national media.
Often unchallenged, he was allowed to peddle his theories in public, influencing impressionable young people at the margins of society. The scale of the resulting increase in Islamophobia, as some viewers associated Choudary and his views with the ordinary Muslim, will never be known.
This man had a better relationship with the media than he had with mainstream Muslims. From tabloid newspapers to TV news broadcasters, Anjem Choudary fed their voracious appetite to make outrageous statement after outrageous statement.
I am told by one producer that he would get daily texts from Anjem offering the latest controversial comment. At the other end of the scale, a friend who challenged his gullible followers in his locality found one young recruit clutching the day’s newspaper containing the latest missive from this demagogue.
One might argue that the appetite of tabloid newspapers for sensationalism regardless of consequences is well known, but TV news organisations should not be let off the hook – especially those paid for by the British taxpayer such as the BBC and Channel 4. Given his subsequent conviction, Choudary’s invitations to the flagship news programmes including Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today Programme are unforgiveable. Even after he has been found guilty of an offence, these outlets are still giving him honorific titles such as “Islamic scholar” and “Islamic preacher”.
The Human Rights Act could not feasibly be used as an excuse for allowing Choudary to spread hate so freely. Nor could a belief in unfettered free speech by ardent libertarians be any justification, given the law already has limits to free speech including incitement to violence. And this case could not be seen as a precedent based on which other “conservative” preachers might be imprisoned, either, as the law would not allow such an extrapolation.
The Crown Prosecution Service claims Choudary was smart enough to stay on the right side of the law, but some believe that the police were worried that if Choudary were arrested, he may be considered a martyr (a view that is not without basis). Others speculate that he may have operated as an MI5 informant or used as a honey-trap to entice terrorists into coming out into the open and breaking the law, allowing them to be subsequently arrested.
Perhaps as Isis no longer needs middle men like Choudary to groom young people, this situation may not recur. But, in any case, there are important lessons to learn from this saga.
First, our media outlets should not be doing the work of terrorists or spreading their message. Social media also need appropriate regulation, so that young people are not reached from accounts known to be operated by terrorists.
Secondly – and on the assumption of pure motive – existing legislation is sufficient to put someone like Choudary behind bars. Therefore, there is no need for new extremism legislation to be rushed through. Instead, the CPS should act more quickly to arrest individuals inciting violence or encouraging the joining of proscribed terror groups.
Finally, even if mosques lack the capacity to adequately deal with youth alienation constructively, there should be little doubt that it is not mosques or even conservative Muslims who are the supporters of terror, but individuals with close to no ties to broader Muslim society. The right approach would be to strengthen mosques, so they are better geared towards attracting young people and are able to provide pastoral care to mentor those vulnerable to outside influences.
Many will hope that, with the jailing of Choudary, we are now better prepared for the real threats of terrorism that we as a nation, and the wider world, still face.
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