If there was a single flaw in the British Prime Minister's recent speech on countering extremism in the UK, it might be encapsulated in the name "Anjem Choudary." His speech went into terrific detail on the significance of tacking radicalism through the education system, the Charity Commission, the broadcasting license authority and numerous other means. But it failed the Choudary test.
That test is: What do you do about a British-born man who is qualified to work but appears never to have done so, and who instead spends his time taking his "dole" money and using it to fund a lifestyle devoted solely to preaching against the state?
Anjem Choudary (center).
The problem is not quite as straightforward as some commentators make out. The fact that Choudary is British-born and a British citizen makes it legally impossible for Britain to withdraw his citizenship or otherwise render him "stateless." He has a young family who cannot be allowed to starve on the streets, even if he could. These are admittedly late liberalism problems, but they are problems nonetheless.
On the other hand, what the state has allowed from Choudary in recent years looks more like a late Weimar problem. Choudary is not merely a blowhard pseudo-cleric with perhaps never more than a hundred followers at any one time -- although this is certainly the part of his persona that has garnered most attention. Indeed, his attention-seeking is perhaps the only first-rate skill he has. For instance, there was the time he claimed he was planning a "March for Sharia" through the centre of London, culminating at the gates of Buckingham Palace with a demand that the Queen submit to Islam. Having garnered the publicity he desired, Choudary cancelled his march not because there was a fairly measly counter-demo (of which this author was a part) but because his "March for Sharia" would have been unlikely to gather more than a few dozen attendees, and would most likely have descended into a "stroll inviting ridicule," at best.
The reason Choudary is more than just an attention-seeker is that over many years he has been involved with innumerable people who have shown themselves to be more than blowhards. They have attempted to bring serious sectarian conflict -- as well as murder -- to the streets of Britain. A number of Choudary's associates, for instance, were imprisoned a few years back for attempting a Mumbai-style attack on London landmarks, including the London Stock Exchange. Other of his associates have been to prison for incitement and countless terrorist-recruitment offenses; and since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, a number of his followers have gone to Syria and Iraq to join and fight with ISIS.
Choudary himself is a trained lawyer and has a sufficiently adept mind to know on just which side of the law to keep his remarks. The last Labour government's creation of a new offense of "glorifying terror" ought to have caught Choudary within it, but it appeared not to have done. He has remained a frustratingly free man.
That said, there are other possible explanations for this. One theory -- not beyond the realm of possibility -- is that Choudary has been, to some extent (knowingly or unknowingly), used as a "fly-trap" by the police or intelligence services. He is well known enough to have anyone seriously interested in the most radical forms of Islamic extremism come to him. And despite the paranoia of his group, thinking that they are being infiltrated (described not least by the former radical Morten Storm in his excellent memoir, "Agent Storm"), it is possible that this is what has been going on all along. It would mean that there was some agreement to allow Choudary to get away with what he does because it is better for such extremism to have an observable and open meeting-point than to be more clandestine.
There are certainly many defences of such a policy -- if such a policy there has been. In the short term, it might have stopped several significant attacks. But the long-term consequences of allowing Choudary to be free constitute a terrible mistake: the main impact of Choudary on the wider public has been colossally to exacerbate suspicions of Muslims as a whole. Broadcasters have for years introduced him as a "sheikh" or a "cleric," without often casting doubt on his qualifications to such titles, or noting the comparative paucity of his following. The police failure to stop one Choudary demonstration in particular (and indeed to protect his followers) also led to the creation of the English Defence League -- an extraordinary negative double-whammy for one person to achieve.
But last week Anjem Choudary was arrested, detained and charged with terror offenses relating to attempts to persuade Muslims in Britain to join ISIS; he now finally faces trial. So far, there has been a muted response in the British media. Part of that is the simple and rightful caution due to reporting restrictions of an upcoming trial. But part of it may also be an "I'll believe it when I see it" cynicism. It is worth recalling that just last year Choudary was arrested and detained for terror offenses, only to walk free before the bunting was even half up. There are unlikely to be any premature celebrations this time. Perhaps reporters and commentators also have in mind the murky dropping of all terrorism charges before the opening of the trial of former Guantanamo inmate Moazzem Begg last autumn.
It is perfectly possible that Anjem Choudary will slip between the UK's terrorism laws once again. Or perhaps now it is he that has slipped up, and the most visible chink in the UK's counter-extremism policy has finally resolved itself.