Alan Johnson's decision to ban al-Muhajiroun and its various incarnations (including Islam4UK) will no doubt be publicly welcomed by many of our tabloids – ironically the very same ones that have done so much in recent years to hype the activities of this minuscule group – but is banning the group really how a confident liberal democracy should be responding? To be sure, the overwhelming majority of British Muslims have been left greatly embarrassed and frustrated by al-Muhajiroun's continual publicity-seeking and frankly repulsive antics which have included holding a 9/11 commemoration meeting entitled "A Towering Day in History", shouting abuse at British soldiers returning from duty in Iraq, and declaring a "March for Sharia" through Trafalgar Square to expound on their vision of what Britain would look like under their interpretation of Islamic law. The statement they made regarding the Wooton Basset march did not mention the date of the proposed march and indeed the local Wiltshire police confirmed that they had not received any notification from any organisation asking permission to hold any such march. Furthermore, no one seemed to have stopped to ask how a tiny group of unemployed layabouts from the London area would be able to afford the train fare to Wootten Bassett, let alone have enough supporters on hand to carry coffins through the town.
Still, the very idea of such a demonstration was enough to send much of our media, including the so-called quality press, into a tailspin and play right into the hands of Islam4UK who must have marvelled at the amount of publicity they had managed to generate. For the patently evident goal of al-Muhajiroun and its off-shoots has been to seek to divide and polarise communities by inciting public opinion against Muslims. And for all their mock outrage at the activities of al-Muhajiroun, much of our media has been complicit in this mischief-making. It is true that a ban on al-Muhajiroun may temporarily deprive our newspapers of their favourite bogeymen, but for how long? In 2006, the government banned two previous outfits containing al-Muhajiroun elements, al-Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect, but it was not long before the very same faces emerged behind new organisational names and carried on as usual from where they had left off. So, there is a very real question about how effective this ban will prove to be in practice. This in turn lends credence to the view that the move to ban al-Muhajiroun is perhaps more to do with domestic electoral considerations than intelligent and effective policy-making.
Al-Muhajiroun members openly denounce the "evils" of democracy and freedom. "Freedom go to hell" says one of their placards. The controversy over Wootton Bassett was a good opportunity to demonstrate to al-Muhajiroun and their sympathisers the benefits of these values in action. The appropriate way to deal with the actions of al-Muhajiroun members is surely transparently and through our legal system. If individuals are known to have incited violence then they should be prosecuted. But we should be very wary of giving our government the arbitrary power to ban entire organisations. It also sets a bad precedent. The Conservative party has already made clear that if they attain power they will ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, a party that is fiercely critical of the UK's foreign policies in the Middle East but is also an avowedly non-violent group. It increasingly appears that, given sustained media scaremongering, many of us may be prepared to see the criminalising of dissent.
Today, the British government will proscribe the Islamist organisation Islam4UK and gift its leader, Anjem Choudary, with the useful satisfaction of telling its "former" members, "See? I told you so." Choudary argues that this latest ban, one of a number that have been imposed on extremist groups he has been involved with, is a prima facie example of the narrow inadequacies and febrile delusions of liberal democracy. The annoying thing is that, according to his own limited and specific agenda anyway, he is right. Ostensibly, Islam4UK has been banned for the same reason as its former incarnations have been banned. People involved in Choudary's groups, which have been operating in Britain for years, previously under the leadership of Omar Bakri Mohammed, have gone on to be convicted of acts of terrorism. Choudary argues that the group should not be held responsible for the crimes of people who are no longer members. Yet logic dictates that since such a large proportion of former members become involved directly in terrorism, then Islam4UK and its proxies play a large part in their incitement. They do, of course. In the face of a slew of persuasive evidence, there can be no doubt of that.
Specifically, though, the timing of this latest ban is intimately connected with the group's claim that it was going to march through Wootton Bassett, which is situated near RAF Lyneham. The small Wiltshire town has come to prominence in recent years because its townspeople, on their own initiative, had begun paying silent tribute to the dead British servicemen whose bodies were driven through it as part of the grisly process of repatriation. Their act of simple respect attracted attention in the media. Why would it not? The Wootton Bassett tributes stood for something. That something, in turn, attracted the attention of Choudary, for whom the media, in its very hostility, is an important ally. Yet Choudary is not the first man to have alighted on the tributes at Wootton Bassett as a means of advertising his own agenda. Those who initiated the tributes, primarily the town's mayor, were keen to emphasise that theirs was not a political gesture, but a human one, signalling only individual sorrow for the young people who had lost their lives in far-off wars. They were making no statement about the wisdom or the justice of those wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet regimental standards started to appear in the crowds. People had to be asked to refrain from parading medals. An ex-serviceman started a petition, asking for Wootton Bassett's main street to be renamed Highway of Heroes. There was talk of the town being awarded the George Cross. Whether those who initiated the tributes liked it or not, their gesture was not always accepted on its own terms. In a quiet and still-dignified way, matters took on their own momentum, and the tributes were easy to interpret as expressing sympathy with military action. This was hardly a surprise. The Wootton Bassett tributes may have pretensions towards political neutrality. But they are inherently conservative, or at least inherently in tune with the needs of the establishment. They suggest that the role of the public is not to question the decisions of government, but merely to honour without complication the sacrifices of those who carry them out. All citizens of Britain have the right to support such humane passivity, or reject it. Choudary's showy rejection was hardly a surprise, despite all the expressions of shock and anger that it inspired.
None of this is pointed out in mitigation of Choudary's limited but successful attempt to co-opt Wootton Bassett into his own propaganda effort. The unwritten rule in the town was that theirs was a space for simple respect. Choudary wished to gatecrash that space, and publicise his own lack of simple respect by despoiling it. Liberal democracy enjoins people to let others get on with their own thing, uninterrupted, as much as possible, in theory, at least. Choudary, against liberal democracy, is very much against letting people get on with their own thing, uninterrupted, as much as possible. His crass but unanswerable point is that if liberal democracy were as good at fostering a multiplicity of views as it claims to be, then it wouldn't have such a problem with people like him, who make their free and inalienable choice to trample all over its conventions. Yet, the double-bind that Choudary perceives is real. Nothing could have made that more patently obvious than this week's decision by the European court, which condemned Britain's use of stop and search, under the Terrorism Act, as illegal. Again and again, Britain erodes democratic rights with the intention of defending them, the opposition generally supporting the government as it does so. Even though they are frustratingly simplistic, hopelessly partisan, horribly provocative and wholly destructive, Choudary's views, in this matter anyway, are not intellectually unsound.
Liberal democracy may be able to accommodate a wide range of viewpoints. But its operation ultimately rests on consensus. In that one respect, it bears a distant yet real resemblance to Choudary's dreamed-of Caliphate, in which society is stable because everyone adheres, at a fantastically prescriptive level, to exactly the same set of values. Islamists like Choudary, given the opportunity, are happy to explain that in the Caliphate all those problems that beset western individualist nations would vanish. No drinking, so no binge drinking. No abdication of respect for parents and other senior family members, so no crisis in care for the elderly. No female sexualisation, so no porn, no rape, no prostitution, no need for such ideologies as feminism. No charging of interest, so no volatile economic activity. An obligatory tithe for the poor, so no want. And so on. Islamists like Choudary, when asked to give a single example of a Muslim society that has actually achieved such splendid tidiness, will reel off centuries of examples of European-colonial or US-interventionist sabotage of Muslim states, reserving special contempt for the sponsored puppets who led Muslim countries under the connivance of Britain or the US or both, from Saddam to Gadaffi to Karzai and far beyond. It's a tribute to the robust attractions of liberal democracy that Choudary and his ilk do not have more success in peddling their abject tale of Muslim victimhood.
In Choudary's opinion, the British men who die in Afghanistan should not have been there at all. For him, this latest Afghan adventure is like all of the others, in which foreign powers try to impose their own ideologies on the country, in person or by proxy. Certainly, Afghanistan was invaded with the intention of establishing it as a liberal democracy. It is now clear that this was far more easily said than done, and it's time that was admitted. Men like Choudary should not be appeased. But when a town has to defend itself against the hijacking of simple, basic rituals for a variety of forms of political gain, as Wootton Bassett has, then something is not right. Choudary's views can be dismissed. But the other tensions in Wootton Bassett cannot be.