Even Choudary’s friends must have free speech
A group of Anjem Choudary’s supporters have been imprisoned for talks they gave encouraging support for terrorism and ISIS. As much as the foul rantings of Choudhary (who was imprisoned last year) and his band of sorry men are detestable, this is not good news.
The five members of Al-Muhajiroun, a proscribed organisation known to operate out of Luton, were jailed last week after an undercover officer recorded them declaring their support for ISIS, urging people to join and praising the terrorist atrocities in Tunisia. One was even taped making grandiose claims that 40 trucks stuffed with explosives could be driven down Oxford Street in London.
Detective superintendent Glen Channer, from the Eastern Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit, made a statement after the men were sentenced at the Old Bailey: ‘This was a complex investigation which was launched to target those who seek to influence others with their poisonous rhetoric. This case is another example to show that we simply will not tolerate those who spread fear and hate in our communities and will continue to target, arrest and disrupt anyone with extreme views.’
Yes, these men are despicable, but the fact remains that they have been imprisoned not for what they did, or were planning to do, but for what they said. As much as we might not like what they say, even ISIS supporters should have the freedom to say hateful things. If an undercover investigation into their dealings had uncovered an actual plot to commit terrorist acts, this would be a different story. But as it currently stands, these men have simply been locked up for saying what they think.
We cannot allow the warped beliefs of Choudary and his ilk to undermine our most treasured values and liberties. Banning Choudary just gives him, and his acolytes, a power and influence they do not deserve. Instead, we should direct our energies into politically opposing what he represents. As Brendan O’Neill wrote on spiked at the time of Choudary’s conviction, ‘it is only through confronting such individuals that we might defeat their arguments in the eyes of others and also get better at articulating our side, the superior side’.
Throughout history, there have been plenty of groups like Al-Muhajiroun who have sprung up, only to be pushed back – often by the actions of ordinary people. Last October, I was at a morning service in a synagogue where the rabbi proudly spoke about how his family members, and their community in London’s East End, had stood up to Oswald Mosley at the famous Battle of Cable Street. At the time, this was a very important symbolic victory against the forces of division and bigotry that were tearing European societies apart. It showed that bullies like Mosley were not as indestructible as their bluster made them out to be.
If we continue to jail Islamists, we send the message that the general public can’t handle their vile views – in fact, we admit defeat. We should not overestimate the persuasive abilities of hatemongers, and we should never underestimate our ability to counter them with progressive arguments for liberty and tolerance.
Candice Holdsworth is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena.