LONDON // A radical Muslim group's plans to parade coffins through an English town to highlight civilian deaths in Afghanistan may just be a publicity generator, it turns out, since the parade organiser has failed to get the proper permits to conduct the march.
Anjem Choudary, a former lawyer who heads a small but publicity-hungry group called Islam4UK, said he wanted his followers to parade 500 empty coffins through the streets of Wootton Bassett, a small market town in Wiltshire. Wootton Bassett has become symbolic of the country's grief over soldiers' deaths in Afghanistan. The town is close to RAF Lyneham, where the bodies are flown back to Britain before being taken by hearse to their families.
Quite spontaneously, the townspeople began turning out in their hundreds to line the streets in a silent show of grief every time a hearse drove through. They have bluntly told politicians of all political persuasions to stay away to prevent this very personal act from being hijacked. Mr Choudary, who is believed to have extremist links, announced plans for his group to parade the empty coffins through the town to symbolise the thousands of Muslims killed "by oppressive US and UK regimes".
He e-mailed letters to the grieving families of fallen British soldiers, telling them he has "no sympathy whatsoever" for their plight and urging them to become Muslims to "save yourselves from the hellfire". Mr Choudary compounded the outrage felt by most Britons, including the vast majority of Muslims, when he compared British soldiers yesterday with "guards from Nazi Germany [who] were just doing their duty".
Gordon Brown, the prime minister, condemned the plans as "abhorrent and offensive", adding: "I am personally appalled by the prospect of a march in Wootton Bassett. "I believe we should honour those brave servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Wootton Bassett has a special significance for us all." There is a suspicion that Mr Choudary, 42, who admitted last year that he was living off state benefits, only proposed the march to generate publicity and that, in fact, it could never have gone ahead.
He has not sought necessary consents from the local authorities or police to hold the march. In October, he said he would lead 5,000 supporters on a march through London to Buckingham Palace to demand that the Queen convert to Islam and introduce Sharia law in the United Kingdom. But he cancelled the demonstration, citing security concerns. The belief persists that he called it off because only a few dozen supporters were willing to turn up. "This group thrives on controversy and we will do well to ensure we do not grant them the oxygen of publicity they crave," said a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organisation representing about 500 Muslim organisations in the UK.
"The overwhelming majority of British Muslims want nothing to do with such extremists. "Like other Britons, Muslims are not opposed to Britain's armed forces. Indeed, Muslims have made a deep and historic contribution to this nation's defence, with over 2.5 million serving in the first and second world wars. "The deaths of those in Afghanistan and other areas of conflicts are not only a concern among Muslims, it is shared by other British people, who do not resort to such sensationalist and divisive stunts."
The Wiltshire Islamic Cultural Centre has also issued a statement describing the protest as unacceptable and saying that it has no support from the local Muslim community. Mehdi Hasan, a columnist in The Guardian, wrote yesterday : "Our sensationalist and irresponsible media has, in fact, been deeply complicit in the rise and rise of this fanatic, devoting quite disproportionate and counterproductive coverage to his various rantings. "Is Choudary an Islamic scholar whose views merit attention or consideration? No. Has he studied under leading Islamic scholars? No. Does he have any Islamic qualifications or credentials? None whatsoever. So what gives him the right to pontificate on Islam, British Muslims or the hellfire? Or proclaim himself a 'Sharia judge'?"
More than a quarter of a million people have so far signed an online Facebook petition opposing the march and Alan Johnson, the home secretary, has made it clear that he will support a ban on the demonstration if Mr Choudary actually gets around to applying for permission to hold one. "I find it particularly offensive that the town, which has acted in such a moving and dignified way in paying tribute to our troops who have made the ultimate sacrifice, should be targeted in this manner," Mr Johnson said. "The people behind this stunt seek only to incite hatred and discord."
The problem for the authorities is that Mr Choudary looks as if he has already succeeded in his aim of stoking up further intolerance of Muslims in the United Kingdom, with far-right groups, such as the British National Party, already making capital out of the proposed Wotton Bassett march. @Email:email@example.com