Good Extremism, Bad Extremism and the Ugly Side of Debate: What Anjem Choudary’s release (and Tommy Robinson’s trial) tells us about counter-extremism in the UK
Categories: Latest News
Monday October 29 2018
Anjem Choudary’s release from Belmarsh on Friday 20th October and the resulting media storm tells us a lot about the problems of current counter-extremism approaches by the current UK Government. The contrast between the way that ideologues such as Choudary are treated with that of far-right organisers such as Tommy Robinson is worryingly stark, demonstrative of the differences between the way the state and media treats Muslim and minority threats in contrast to majority ones. What is most worrying about the discussion around Anjem Chourdary’s release is that it both obscures and fuels real fears and concerns felt within Muslim communities that are on the frontline of Choudary’s release, such as the community of Redbridge, in how greater scrutiny will play out in local areas. However, whilst there are many worrying aspects about this debate, it can offer a means of developing government counter-terrorism approaches which don’t directly stigmatise and isolate British Muslim communities.
The way in which Choudary has been framed by UK authorities and media as a central cog in a network of terrorists over-emphasises the role he has played in international jihadism. Whilst his views are extreme and his links worrying, it is problematic only to emphasise his ideologising whilst ignoring the wider factors that have been cited as fuelling terrorism, in the UK and abroad: marginalisation, isolation, foreign policy and inequality. However, whilst there are important questions to be raised over the effectiveness of current approaches towards extremism, what is concerning in this instance is the fundamental difference between how Anjem Choudary has been responded to in contrast with far-right ideologues.
Anjem Choudary has faced significant time in prison because of his inflammatory public statements and networks with violent individuals, and his release has come with 25 stringent conditions on his movement, internet usage, association, community engagement and phone usage. In comparison to cases of far-right “extremism”, we see very different treatment by state authorities, with actors like Tommy Robinson not facing any state action in response to his extremist statements. This is in spite of his incendiary activism and his links to numerous organisations such as PEGIDA, Britain First and the EDL – all of whom have been singled out as promoting extremism by the independent counter-terror QC Max Hill.
The differing responses in the application of laws against extremism demonstrates how the same laws are applied differently depending on the community in question. Whilst a Muslim man, inciting persons to take part in suicide bombing attacks on UK soil, would be met with the full force of counter-terror law, wealthy, White men (such as Times columnist Rod Liddle) are free to openly publish such encouragements without ramifications. This is indicative of wider trends within counter-terrorism strategies, which have over-emphasised the risk from so-called ‘Islamist extremism’, whilst playing down the risk faced to society from violent and non-violent far-right actors.
This difference is reflected in the way the state interacts with majority and minority politics and communities. Even whilst the scope of can legally be defined as ‘extremist’ under counter-terror legislation has increased, those from Muslim and minority backgrounds have faced a conspicuous over-representation. Within counter-extremism programmes such as PREVENT, for instance, roughly 1 in 500 British Muslims were referred in 2015 and 2016, in comparison to 1 in 60,000 of British White populations, making the likelihood of a Muslim being referred for “Islamist extremism” more than 110 times the likelihood of a white person being referred for “far-right extremism” to the programme. Muslims often face securitisation and problematisation, seen as a ‘suspect community’ and potential ‘fifth column’; White communities, even those that engage in actions that easily come under the UK Government’s definition of extremism, are largely ignored, even often given the freedom to organise platforms from which to further disseminate their ideas. Tommy Robinson’s supporters, for instance, were given permission to erect a temporary stage and sound system outside the court, from which he addressed a small crowd following a deferment of his case, after which he visited the Houses of Parliament on an official dinner invite from several Lords.
What the alarmist language of the current discussion over Anjem Choudary’s release misses is the fear it is generating in local communities. In Redbridge, where Choudary is originally from and where he is staying in a safehouse following his release, community centres and mosques have spoken of their concern over how the local community will be impacted by the event. Particularly, community members worry they will face additional scrutiny in the coming weeks and months from a media, police and government focussed on identifying so-called ‘Islamic extremism’. With many Muslim communities already concerned about the disproportionate impact that counter-terrorism approaches and counter-extremism programmes are having in unfairly targeting Muslims and Islamic identity-markers, the introduction of an alarmist media focussed on the area and a government keen to look tough on extremism risks adding to the hostile environment towards Muslims and minorities. Local community organisations now face a dizzying host of problems and burdens: What happens if Choudary arrives at a local mosque? Or if far-right populists organisations plan a localised response against Redbridge Muslims? How should they respond to greater counter-terrorism focus by authorities?
The best response to this discussion over Anjem Choudary and the problems that it has caused is for the UK Government to use this event as an opportunity to critically examine the impact that counter-terror legislation is having on communities and the disproportionate way it is being used against minority communities. It seems clear that counter-extremism approaches, being expanded by Theresa May’s Government, are causing significant concerns and problems for local communities, and this is becoming mixed with a sense of frustration at how threats from right-wing populists are perceived as not being tackled with same strength or urgency, even whilst greater scrutiny is placed on Muslim communities. The response needs to listen to the concerns that local communities – particularly Muslim and minority groups – have in the way they face targeting by both the far-right and elements of state counter-terrorism practice. The Choudary case, and its comparisons with Tommy Robinson, not only show us the problems and inequalities inherent in counter-terror approaches, they also offer a potential way out of this impasse – if the Government is willing to listen to local communities.