It’s clear that the supremacist ideology and shallow religious understanding espoused by Britain’s Islam4UK, its predecessor organization Al-Muhajiroun, and its acerbic leader Anjem Choudary are all cancers. Their potential to harm British society is one reason that Britain’s Home Secretary Alan Johnson decided last week to ban the small but vocal organization outright.
But to fight such a dangerous disease requires a tough, nuanced strategy. That strategy requires British civil society to embrace, not erode, freedom of speech, and it also requires British Muslims and non-Muslims to recognize that challenging radical ideologies such as those espoused by Islam4UK cannot be done successfully until all quarters of civil society recognize their role in the struggle.
Chipping away at the freedom of speech only emboldens Mr. Choudary and his ilk. The freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of Western and Islamic civilization but it is anathema to the cult led by Mr. Choudary. The freedom of speech is found in the Quran and Sunnah and was clearly articulated law during the Rashidun Caliphate by Umar (RA) and Ali (RA) both when they each commanded that people be allowed to speak freely and without fear.
When we allow ourselves, out of fear and for short-term relief, to act in contravention of this fundamental principle, then we allow Mr. Choudary to smugly claim that our willingness to back-peddle on our principles is proof that our system is corrupt. He’s said as much on British television in recent days. This entire episode has afforded Mr. Choudary a fantastic opportunity to thump his breast and shake his fist at the society he holds in deep contempt and hatred (our pluralistic, multi-faith society) while backing off not one iota from his odd-ball interpretations of Islam and his Marxist-inspired utopian vision for society.
The media coverage continues to embolden his minions and attract the confused and estranged youth within the British Muslim community towards warped beliefs. After all, where is the counter-narrative? Where are the strong British Muslim leaders working for social justice and shepherding the community towards a better understanding of authentic Islam and in support of religious freedom? They are, of course, out there, but they are not the ones in the media spotlight right now. What a shame – they need to be.
Instead, media reports are all about what Mr. Choudary believes and what Mr. Choudary’s followers say and do. In fact, the media is even reporting on such non-issues as Mr. Choudary’s reliance on a British disability pension that allows him to subsist without working. He is asked on television why a healthy, well-nourished young man cannot find a job. But that airtime also needs to be used to highlight the views and outlook of the majority of British Muslims.
In the summer of 2009, a group on a similar fringe as Islam4UK tried to make a big splash in Chicago, Illinois – my community. Hizb-ut-Tahrir tried to establish themselves here with a local conference foretelling the fall of capitalism and the rise of Islam. The big splash turned out to be a dull thud. The organization’s place on the fringes of the Illinois Muslim community was a key storyline in the media as was the vociferous opposition from all quarters of our local community.
This happened in part because the American Muslim community – led by Dr. Zaher Sahloul and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (Council) and Ahmed Rehab and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) – got out in front of the issue and pro-actively, consistently and through multiple avenues framed the community’s message and position positively and accurately in advance of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir conference.
This was not an easy task. American Muslims within the community bristled at the constant statements by the Council condemning extremism and challenged the Council’s leadership as to why our community seems to be constantly apologizing for the excesses and violence committed by our co-religionists. The leadership weathered these internal challenges and remained steadfast in their commitment to being a voice of moderation and authenticity.
Another reason the Council and CAIR succeeded in distancing our community from the fringe Hizb-ut-Tahrir is the positive messaging and support received from the interfaith community. Illinois Muslims are active in nurturing interfaith dialogue and understanding. When Hizb-ut-Tahrir came to the suburbs of Chicago, the Council leveraged its relationships with the Christian and Jewish communities and disseminated our community’s position on Hizb-ut-Tahrir through our partners’ networks. These strong interfaith relationships happened over a long period of time, even over the objection of some members of the community.
A third reason for the community’s successful insulation from the extremist imprimatur that hung heavy at the time was the healthy and pro-active engagement of both the Council and CAIR with the local FBI. The Illinois Muslim community leadership struck a balance between keeping an open dialogue with the FBI while also being able to speak frankly about excesses by the FBI locally or elsewhere in the U.S. when necessary. The media sought out the input of the FBI during their reporting and found no evidence from the FBI that the mainstream Muslim community supported or condoned the fringe ideology of Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Similar strategies may be helpful in the U.K. From the Muslims’ side there must be a willingness to speak out whenever and wherever the need arises. There is a temptation to think, “People know we don’t stand for that” or “We don’t need to make a statement about that” because it has been said so many times before. Until the mainstream media covers these statements and the good news stories about Muslims with the same zeal that they cover Mr. Chaudary’s antics, the need to speak out will remain.
There is a role and responsibility for non-Muslims as well. It is just as easy for those non-Muslims who know that their Muslim co-workers and neighbors are decent and peaceful to be complacent and not speak up to correct the anti-Muslim bigotry of a bitter and vocal minority. Civil society is made up of a religiously plural citizenry in the U.K. and the whole of civil society has to mobilize to counter the fanaticism of Islam4UK and the as yet un-renamed cult led by Mr. Chaudary.
For the government’s part, it needs to focus on the legal process. There are legitimate tools available to the U.K. government to prosecute those who promote violence or breach the peace or provide material support to terrorism. This is a longer battle that requires more resources and effort. It may not be as nimble as a banning by the Home Secretary but, in the long run, it may serve as an effective deterrent for any would-be criminals, such as those who have consorted with Mr. Chaudary in the past and are now in prison.
Until then, let’s not make martyrs out of a group like Islam4UK that doesn’t deserve it.