The radical who may tip scales of British liberty

Britain's new government wants more laws to fight Islamic extremists - but will they just stigmatise moderate mainstream Muslims?

Anjem Choudary, radical British imam, is seen as an apologist for terrorism, and will be one of the targets for UK prime minister David Cameron’s new counter-extremism bill. Oli Scarff / Getty Images
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No one takes Anjem Choudary seriously, but the provocative preacher’s uncanny ability to attract publicity worries British Muslims as David Cameron’s government plans new laws to curb radical religious extremists.

For millions of Muslims, not just in the West, the radical British imam and activist Anjem Choudary is not only a willing apologist for terrorism but an affront to their culture and faith.

Britain’s Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, describes him as a “minority of a minority of a minority”.

"I want to know who and what he represents," says Harun Khan, deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group for more than 500 mosques and associations. "He certainly does not represent me or the majority of Muslims."

But in proposing another raft of anti-extremist measures to counter the views and activities of such figures, the new Cameron government risks being seen by British Muslims as having launched a “Cold War” against them, says Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim former cabinet minister.

At the state opening of parliament in London next Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth is due to outline the proposals of a bill to introduce further immigration rules and give the authorities wide powers aimed at curbing extremism.

Organisations considered a potential threat would be outlawed even if they did not break specific laws.

Mosques and other premises used in drawing young people into militancy would face closure, while “extremism disruption orders” would restrict the movements of those suspected of spreading hatred and inciting violence.

This appears to target such figures as Mr Choudary, who has openly urged the radicalisation of Muslim youths in visits to Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.

Mr Cameron says a poisonous, extremist ideology must be confronted. But despite his assertion that Mr Choudary and like-minded people are in a negligible minority, the prime minister is said by BBC and other commentators to be basing his policy on a desire to silence them or impede their activities.

Baroness Warsi was the most senior Muslim in Mr Cameron’s last government until she resigned after disagreeing with the government’s approach to the Gaza conflict.

She warns that policies must be applied consistently across all communities, cover “all forms of extremism” including that espoused by other faith groups, and avoid criminalising thought.

“The test will be whether this is a genuine attempt to deal with extremism in all its forms, as opposed to the current perception that it is a Cold War against British Muslims,” she told The Independent newspaper.

Muslim leaders express similar concerns. The Muslim Council’s secretary general, Dr Shuja Shafi, has warned against giving extremists “indirect victory by curtailing our rights, alienating communities and giving grounds to ideologically-driven vested interests”.

“Any initiative to keep our country safe is welcomed,” says Dr Shafi. “The scourge of terrorism affects us all. We all must challenge acts of terrorism and ideas, and the environment in which it thrives.”

He points out that the council and Muslim community has “consistently and vocally challenged and denounced acts of terrorism” and those who incite, encourage or support them.

“Our best defence is to hold on to our values firmly – values of freedom, justice, fairness, rule of law, respect and tolerance.”

Along with other mainstream Muslim organisations, the council bitterly resents the amount of media air time Mr Choudary is granted to articulate what they regard as un-Islamic views and inflammatory statements.

A market trader’s son born in southeastern England of Pakistani descent, Mr Choudary is a self-styled figurehead of radical Islam.

He was the co-founder of Al Muhajiroun, a virulently anti-western group that glorified the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other US targets on September 11, 2001. He was also the spokesman for Islam4UK, which campaigned for the implementation of Sharia in the UK.

Both organisations are now banned under British counter-terrorism laws.

But western media turns to him whenever a terrorist act occurs, knowing he will oblige with unapologetic endorsement of intolerance and a refusal to condemn specific crimes.

Recently he called for the death of Pamela Geller, an anti-Islam American lobbyist. Even many of Mr Choudary’s strongest opponents find her views repellent.

On the conservative Fox News, Mr Choudary rose to tempting bait as he confronted Ms Geller, co-organiser of the contentious “Draw the Prophet” cartoon contest in Texas in which two gunmen, later claimed by ISIL as members, were shot dead while trying to mount an attack.

Repeatedly pressed on whether he wanted her killed, Mr Choudary said: “She should be put before a Sharia court and tried, and if found guilty of course she would face capital punishment.”

Ms Geller is not widely seen as a heroic champion of freedom. Long before the Texas incident, the British government had responded to her rabble-rousing tendencies, banning her from entry to the country because of her involvement in establishing “anti-Muslim hate groups”, the American Freedom Defence Initiative, and Stop Islamisation of America movements.

But Mr Choudary’s belligerence on Fox News made her seem almost a victim.

His appearance had a familiar ring. Two years ago, after the murder of unarmed British soldier Lee Rigby, in a London street, he told BBC viewers he was shocked by the murder but steadfastly refused to “abhor” it.

Referring to the video clip from the scene of the crime, with one of it perpetrators, bloodstained meat cleaver in hand as he sought to justify his actions, he insisted “not many Muslims” would disagree with what the killer had said.

Two moderate Muslim leaders in the same studio looked on aghast but it was clear his apologia rather than their unqualified denunciation was the focus of the discussion.

He has been arrested in the past and is on bail on suspicion of belonging to a banned organisation, but has never been convicted of a terrorism-related offence.

But is he truly a dangerous man, a mouthpiece for terrorists and indirectly responsible for the recruitment of western Muslims to fight with ISIL and other terrorist groups in conflict zones including Syria and Iraq?

Or is he just a publicity-hungry hothead elevated by media access grossly disproportionate to his true level of support, into a hate figure whose menacing pronouncements lend justification to illiberal and possibly divisive official responses?

When the BBC cited the “Western Jihadism Project” of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, suggesting a third or more of the westerners fighting in Iraq and Syria were linked to groups with which Mr Choudary was involved, he had a ready reply.

“I don’t think there is one example of anyone who has gone to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any other place in the world, whether they have passed away or are alive, who has actually said, ‘I am here today because Mr Choudary asked me to abroad’, or who was incited or encouraged by me to go abroad.”

Mr Khan believes the media gives far too much attention to his statements on terrorist atrocities. “We receive a lot of requests to react to what he says, but we don’t want to give him the oxygen of publicity and feel that is the right approach,” he says.

Yet the shadow of such men is cast over much western debate of the issues arising from security threats and official responses to them. Last year, The Observer devoted two broadsheet pages and lavish illustration to an interview with Mr Choudary.

Meanwhile, misgivings about Mr Cameron’s approach to a complex problem, in which the goodwill of a large minority of the population is crucial, show no sign of diminishing. His bill could run into difficulties in the House of Lords, where his party has no majority.

The Muslim Council advises the prime minister to “tread carefully” and not rush through “yet more legislation without proper debate; engaging all stakeholders, building consensus and unity between communities”.

Otherwise, it suggests, he risks the opposite of what he intends, “the further alienation of a wide section of our nation”.