The government’s decision to ban Islam4UK will only strengthen hardline Islamists—and drown out moderate Muslim voices
Pictured: Anjem Choudary
Here is a quote: “Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”
It’s a question worth asking now that the government has banned Islam4UK, a secondary offshoot of the radical Islamic group Al Muhajiroun, and the same organisation that wanted to march through Wootton Bassett to remember the Muslim dead. Al Muhajiroun is also due be proscribed, 14 years after its inception in Britain.
On one hand, the home secretary’s move could be viewed as good housekeeping. In the aftermath of the 7th July bombings, Tony Blair warned that “the rules of the game are changing.” One of his first public acts was to proscribe the Saviour Sect and Al Ghurabaa—other incarnations of Al Muhajiroun. There was plenty of justification for such a ban. For many years Al Muhajiroun’s leader Omar Bakri Mohammed, his deputy, Anjem Choudary and the rest of his lackeys were thought to be nothing more than attention-seeking clowns who lived off the dole. The real problems were thought to be elsewhere—at the Four Feathers youth club where Abu Qatada sermonised, and at the Finsbury Park Mosque, where the hook-handed Abu Hamza held court. However, after the arrest of the Crawley bombers cell in the spring of 2004, it became startlingly apparent just how much Al Muhajiroun’s network of support, mainly through its offices in Pakistan, had helped create and train homegrown terrorists. The most pertinent example is that of Mohammed Siddique Khan, the leader of the 7th July plot. He had learned how to make explosives in an ad-hoc camp set up by Al Muhajiroun’s British and American members in the hills of Pakistan.
But now Islam4UK—run by Choudary in London and Bakri from Lebanon — no longer poses a threat in the way that Al Muhajiroun once did. Islam4UK has been whittled down to a few members, it no longer recruits en masse, and its ideas are no longer fresh. Also, given the broader rise of the post 9/11, English-speaking radical Islamic preacher, aspiring young jihadis no longer rate Omar Bakri’s theological standing in the way that they once did. Rather like a Trojan horse, Al Muhajiroun/Islam4UK served its primary purpose years ago. To proscribe the organisation now seems akin to attacking the wooden horse after its contents have already ambushed you. It’s not just futile, it’s dangerous.
The first danger is the most obvious: Choudary and his followers will thrive on their newly-acquired victim status and draw even more publicity than before (as evidenced by Choudary’s appearance on Newsnight immediately after the ban was announced). There is also the possibility that in a few weeks Choudary will simply create another group with a different name but the same ideas, and the process will begin all over again. In that respect, if the home office has specific criminal concerns relating to Islam4UK, they would be better to prosecute its members for such offences rather than try to impose a blanket proscription. After all you can’t ban Choudary from being Choudary.
The second danger is of a broader concern. Through its Prevent strategy, the government has decided to promote one set of ideas over another: moderate Islam over radical Islam. With vast financial grants, they have empowered groups such as the Quilliam and Lokahi foundations to fight “our” corner. However, the ban on Islam4UK sends out a worrying message about the rules: in this battle of ideas we will help our friends but we will also lock up our enemies for espousing ideas we don’t like. (The punishment for membership of a proscribed organisation is ten years.) This sounds like dictatorship. Should the British government continue down this path—the Tories say they will ban the avowedly non-violent Hizb ut-Tahrir—it would represent a huge erosion of freedom and democracy. The rules of the game really will have changed.
The third danger is that the government has (again) become an agent for immigrant paternalism. In a radio debate with Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, I was told that one of the reasons that Islam4UK was banned was because “the Muslim community has been complaining about this for ages.” He then reminded listeners that Al Muhajiroun was banned in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. When I suggested that these were examples of authoritarian countries whose law enforcement methods should not be emulated he replied: “How dare you.”
In a sense Mahmood is representative of a first generation who still thinks of themselves as guests of this country. Naturally they regard the second generation as their own children—who can be disciplined and dealt with as they see fit—rather than citizens of Britain in their own right. It is this same attitude that makes community-specific crimes such as honour killings so much harder to prevent.
And so if the government banned Isalm4UK because of pressure from Muslim community leaders suffering from “embarrassment” then they will have played right into the hands of the radicals, because such advice is based upon the very elements of separatism and anti-cohesion that the government so strenuously seeks to avoid. Interestingly, Patrick Mercer, the Consevative spokesman on security issues, was one of the few who recognised that Choudary is a British citizen before anything else, and his treatment should be primarily framed within that context.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, jihadis like Abu Qatada and, to a far lesser extent, Bakri and Choudary, present Muslims with theological arguments in much the same way that the BNP presents whites with arguments about race. By proscribing groups like Isalm4UK, and locking up radical preachers without charge, you deny moderate Muslims the chance to debate with these people and devalue the credibility of those moderate Muslims in the eyes of the wider community. Ideas are indeed more powerful than guns, but when it comes to engaging Islamic theology, our armoury of ideas is pretty empty. Strangling the development of intelligent counter arguments is possibly the worst thing we can do. Oh, and if you were wondering where that quote comes from, it was Stalin.