Anjem Choudary and the Criminalization of Dissent

The most disturbing thing about a notorious British hate preacher is that his terrorism conviction is for something he said, not something he did.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  Islam4UK Spokesman Anjem Choudary (C) leaves a press conference in Millbank Studios on January 12, 2010 in London, England. The radical Islamic group had planned to stage a march through Wootton Bassett to honour Muslims who have been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan, but have been prevented from doing so, under counter-terrorism laws.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12: Islam4UK Spokesman Anjem Choudary (C) leaves a press conference in Millbank Studios on January 12, 2010 in London, England. The radical Islamic group had planned to stage a march through Wootton Bassett to honour Muslims who have been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan, but have been prevented from doing so, under counter-terrorism laws. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

There is something unsettling about the conviction of Anjem Choudary, and the chorus of approval that has followed it, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

A disciple of the Islamist cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, who fled Britain for Lebanon in 2005, the 49-year-old former lawyer was a founding member of al-Muhajiroun, a banned Islamist group that had once called for jihad against India, Russia, and Israel and defended the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. For 20 years, Choudary had made a career out of Islamist activism, becoming a rent-a-quote radical the British media have been only too willing to enlist. He is a larger than life character, whose jihadi rhetoric and outlandish posturing make him the perfect scapegoat for assuaging fears over the real jihadis who remain hidden among us and seemingly come out of nowhere, making a mockery of our counterterrorism efforts. He is, in other words, a distraction, whose monstrous celebrity diverts us from the more unpalatable reality of the jihadi terrorism we face.

As far as we know, Choudary has not plotted to murder and maim innocent civilians; he has not tried to join the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, or any other provinces under the group’s control, preferring to stay put in godless Britain, under whose generous patronage he lives; and he has not given money to the Islamic State or solicited funds on its behalf. Choudary’s offense, rather, is to have pledged support for the group and encouraged others to do the same.

Choudary and his associate Mohammed Mizanur Rahman were convicted on July 28, but details of the trial, including the verdict, could not be reported until a few days ago, when the Metropolitan Police issued a statement announcing the convictions. According to the statement, Choudary and Rahman were found guilty of inviting support, between June 29, 2014, and March 6, 2015, “for a proscribed terrorist organisation, namely ISIL, also known as ISIS or the Islamic State, contrary to section 12 Terrorism Act 2000.” For this, they face up to 10 years in jail and will be sentenced on Sept. 6 at the Old Bailey.

The case seems to have hinged on the following evidence: On July 2, 2014, Choudary and Rahman met in a restaurant where they convened a Skype meeting with Mohammed Fachry, a convicted terrorist based in Indonesia. During this meeting, both men pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Fachry, with Choudary’s permission, then published this oath on an Indonesian website. “The oath of allegiance was a turning point for the police,” said Cmdr. Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police Service Counter Terrorism Command. “At last we had the evidence that they had stepped over the line and we could prove they supported ISIS.”

The police statement also notes that Choudary and Rahman “are believed to have been recruiters and radicalisers for over 20 years and have been closely associated with another proscribed organisation Al Muhajiroun [ALM].” Yet, strikingly, it does not cite or allude to any evidence supporting this claim.

Of course, there is no doubt that Choudary, over many years, disseminated speeches and wrote material that was hateful, especially toward moderate or nominal Muslims, whom he and his fellow activists in al-Muhajiroun regarded as apostates fit for slaughter. It is also clear, based on the police statement, that Choudary personally supports the Islamic State and tried to persuade others to follow him in such beliefs. But we have no evidence that Choudary went any further than that — say, by facilitating the journeys of men and women to Islamic State territory.

And despite his associations with convicted terrorists, like Michael Adebolajo, and Islamic State members, like Siddartha Dhar, we have no firm evidence that Choudary was the driving force behind their radicalization, or anyone else’s for that matter. Indeed, it is not even clear that such evidence could ever be available, given the impossibility of counterfactually demonstrating that the men supposedly radicalized by Choudary would not have undergone this transformative process had they not met him. Yet none of this has prevented the British media, which loves to hate Choudary, from portraying him as the Keyser Söze of the British Islamist scene, radicalizing hundreds of men, as though these poor souls had no agency in their own life stories but were “brainwashed” by Choudary’s awesome demagogic powers.

Choudary, as the British journalist Andrew Anthony observed in his illuminating profile of the cleric, no doubt has a certain charm and charisma. But it stretches credulity to believe that this man’s sermonizing made anyone do anything they didn’t already want to do, still less that they would risk everything because he told them to. It also dangerously mischaracterizes radicalization as a one-dimensional, low-budget, made-for-British-TV psychological drama of “shadowy,” “charismatic” recruiters manipulating “naïve” and “vulnerable” malcontents. Whereas the little we know about radicalization suggests the opposite: a convoluted and unscripted process where real people with limited knowledge, resources, and power collide and make extraordinary decisions.

But even if Choudary’s rhetorical powers were as formidable as his condemners suggest, this wouldn’t alter or minimize the wrongheadedness of convicting him under terrorism legislation, when the behavior for which he was convicted has little or nothing to do with terrorism, as standardly defined as, in the words of the philosopher C. A. J. Coady, “the organized use of violence to attack noncombatants or innocents (in a special sense) or their property for political purposes.” Choudary’s offense, rather, relates to a speech-act: namely, that of supporting the Islamic State and defending its legitimacy as a state. As a British citizen, this also makes Choudary a defector: someone who has gone over to the other side.

The deeper significance of Choudary’s conviction is that it inaugurates a new and disturbing phase in Britain’s pushback against “extremism”: the criminalization of radical dissent and defection. Before Choudary’s conviction, the drastic widening of the definition of terrorism to include speech-acts was an abstract worry here (the United States, for its part, began moving in this direction in 2013). But now it’s real.

The irony is that the thinking behind Choudary’s conviction is not altogether different from that of his own. According to Choudary’s worldview, a perfect Islamic society would violently punish those who rejected its foundational tenets. When asked on Fox News in 2015 about his attitudes toward apostates��(i.e., those who have renounced the Islamic faith) Choudary was clear and categorical: They should be put to death. This is a view that finds support across the four major schools of Islamic law, and reflects a widely held belief among classical Islamic scholars that apostasy is as grave an offense as murder, since it threatens the very unity of the Muslim community — the ummah — from within.

As the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi put it: “Waging war against Allah and His Messenger by speaking openly against them is more dangerous to Islam than physically attacking its followers … moral mischief in the land is more hazardous than physical mischief.” Choudary is not facing the death penalty for his sundry speech crimes, but the impetus behind his conviction is informed more by concerns over his “moral mischief” than by any physical threat he poses. The same thinking and anxieties underlie Saudi Arabia’s decision, taken in 2014, to criminalize atheism as terrorism. But of course atheism is no more terrorism than is defection from Western values.

Choudary is a clown with odious views. But he should not be criminalized, still less branded as a terrorist, for espousing these views. Rather, he should be subjected to trenchant criticism and ridicule. In Choudary’s imagined utopia, it would be a capital offense to criticize Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. By criminalizing views that challenge its defining principles, liberal democracies risk replicating the unfreedom that Choudary so brashly and shamelessly stands for.

Photo credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Simon Cottee is senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent. He is the author of The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.

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