Anjem Choudary, a founder member of the proscribed Islamist group Al Muhijaroun, will very soon be released from jail, if press reports are to be believed. It is fair to say his return to British society will not be greeted with widespread applause.
For many years, he relished his role as Britain’s Islamist troll-in-chief, inflaming the public with statements about how when Sharia law was implemented in the UK it would spell the definitive end of democracy, pubs, bookies and the national lottery, and put the Queen in a niqab.
He praised those who carried out the 9/11 attacks in the US and refused to condemn the 2005 London tube bombings. For the most part Choudary, a former solicitor, was ingenious in treading the fine line between offensive speech and criminal offence. His prison sentence, in 2016 – a five and a half year term, of which he has served half – finally came about because he was found to have voiced explicit support for Islamic State.
Choudary’s role was much more significant, however, than simply that of a self-appointed provocateur: such was his radicalising influence that Choudary has been linked to 15 terrorist plots since 2000. His followers included Khuram Butt, who was part of the attack on London Bridge that killed eight people last year, and Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby.
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He can lay claim to a leading role, too, in radicalising a small proportion of the English white working class. The English Defence League (EDL) was founded in 2009 – by Tommy Robinson, among others – in response to the presence of the Islamist group Aluus Sunnah wal Jamaah in Luton. Anjem Choudary, predictably enough, was present at the launch of Aluus Sunnah wal Jamaah, which campaigned for holy war and in 2009 took part in a protest against homecoming British troops returning from Afghanistan – the very event that first invigorated the EDL.
The EDL directed its main ire at Islam: it made much of backing a multi-racial but not a multi-cultural society, in which Hindus, Sikhs and black members were officially welcome. Some members didn’t get the full memo, it seems, and Tommy Robinson left the EDL in 2013, reportedly because of concerns over far Right extremists within its ranks. At the time, Robinson denounced the far Right, and publicly apologised for generalised language that may have made British Muslims feel afraid.
Yet while Choudary has been in prison, Robinson has experienced a fresh rush of celebrity among the alt-right in the US, for whom he has recently become something of a cause celebre. After Robinson was tried and convicted of contempt of court in May (he already had a conviction for the same offence from 2017) Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former advisor, later called him a “solid guy” and “the backbone of this country”. Bannon recently described Robinson “a movement in and of himself now. He represents the working class and channels a lot of the frustration of everyday, blue-collar Britons.” For Robinson’s defenders, his brushes with the law are explained away by an excess of passion in opposition to Islam – although Robinson often shifts his criticism, without apparent distinction, between Islamism, Islam and Muslims in general.
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Robinson’s second conviction for contempt of court was deemed procedurally flawed by the Court of Appeal, and his case will be reheard. In his first conviction, in May 2017, he was deemed to have potentially endangered a sex abuse trial involving British Muslim men and a young female victim. It unfurled against a wider background of costly, complex sex abuse cases involving mainly British Pakistani men and mainly (but not exclusively) white teenage girls in towns such as Rotherham and Rochdale, long-term abuse which was prolonged by appalling inaction on the part of the authorities.
The goal of those who worked courageously to bring such abusers to justice – people such as the journalist Andrew Norfolk and the former crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal – would naturally be a series of criminal trials. For Robinson, however, the smooth operation of such trials appears secondary to his desire to publicise his own outrage: a telling priority.
If the intricacies of the UK justice system don’t much concern Robinson, the same goes for his US supporters, who include not just Bannon but Donald Trump Jr. Beyond Robinson and his anti-Islam stunts and rhetoric, too, there is an ominous rise in far Right terrorist activity: Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, said last July that “the threat from extreme Right-wing terrorism is growing” with four extreme Right-wing plots disrupted since May 2017. The tiny but deeply nasty neo-Nazi organisation National Action has now been proscribed in the UK.
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Choudary, therefore, will emerge from prison into a Britain in which Islamist extremism remains a threat, and Right-wing extremism is expanding – a combination that will suit his agenda very well. It is doubtful that he will have converted to reticence during his time behind bars. And he will be energised by the noisy and vitriolic hard-Right opposition, from which he will hope to gain converts to his cause. When rival extremisms begin to take root, there is a kind of pinball effect, whereby those – often young men – who are repelled by one are bounced more forcefully towards the other.
Islamism and the hard Right, however, are not the only pinball flippers in town. The third is the hard Left, which is now in charge of the British Labour Party and has united around the cult of Jeremy Corbyn, a party leader who has, in the past, sympathised with both the IRA and Hamas, and recently been accused of anti-semitism by Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi.
Although Corbyn’s rhetoric invokes championing the working class, the direction of the Labour party itself under his stewardship suggests otherwise. As The Economist pointed out in July, 77% of Labour party members now hail from middle-class, or ABC1, social groups. Only 3% of its MPs have any history of manual work (in 1979, it was 16%). The article argued that the most notable rise in party involvement was among “ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims; public-sector professionals; and frustrated millennials, most of them the university-educated children of the salaried middle class who can’t get their feet on the property ladder”.
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In the wider ideology of the hard Left, which swirls around Corbyn, a version of ‘identity politics’ has taken hold which speaks not of a shared struggle understood in class terms, as was old-style socialism, but of a hierarchy of victimhood which places all ‘white men’ in the most despised position, as the greatest inheritors of ‘privilege’.
By framing a ‘progressive’ movement in a way that largely ignores class to concentrate on gender and race, the new hard Left offers white men a role to play mainly in the perpetual utterance of a performative mea culpa. This vision is likely to be particularly unpopular with white working-class men with very little economic or educational privilege, who would once themselves have been natural Labour voters – and some may be flipped elsewhere, including towards ‘movements’ such as Tommy Robinson’s which offer up an alternative ‘identity politics’, with its own set of vociferous grievances.
Islamism, the hard Right and the hard Left are each distinct ideologies, operating in separate and often complex ways: even within each of those categories, there are manifold fractures and contradictions. It would be misleading to pretend that all three offer the same level of threat to wider UK society, certainly when one looks at the record of UK terrorist attacks in the last few years, the bulk of which were Islamist in origin.
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But it would also be foolish to dismiss the possibility of intensifying violence at the extremes of the hard Right and the hard Left. In 2016, Thomas Mair, who was motivated by far-Right views, murdered Jo Cox, a Labour MP. Last June, a former spokesperson for the neo-Nazi group National Action, Jack Renshaw – who left the EDL early on, dissatisfied because it was not anti-semitic, racist or homophobic enough – admitted buying a replica sword with the intention of killing the Labour MP Rosie Cooper.
Nothing has reached that pitch yet from the hard Left, but the atmosphere remains highly and unpleasantly charged. The Labour MP Luciana Berger, who is Jewish, felt the need to attend this year’s party conference with a police escort. The group Labour Against Anti-Semitism said: “The atmosphere of bullying and intimidation towards Labour Jewish MPs is not coming from the far-Right but from a hard-Left membership.”
There are, however, certain similarities between the three groups that I have talked about. They are all active on social media, using it energetically in a way that prioritises fast reaction and emotion above reason, and are explicitly contemptuous of ‘mainstream media’ or MSM, while using it to garner more publicity. The slow and intricate processes of the judicial and legislative system do not interest them greatly.
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They hunger for dramatic action that moves beyond talking and voting. While one naturally associates Choudary and Robinson with street protests, such events also excite the current Labour leadership: when feelings were running high over the Grenfell fire last year, John McDonnell memorably called for a million people to come out on the streets to protest against the Government (they didn’t).
Their style of speech is angry, declamatory, and persistently claiming the moral high ground while conceding none to others. On certain policies, the hard Right and hard Left unite, such as in their admiration for Assad and Putin. And the anti-semitic conspiracy theories that flow from banned Right-wing groups such as National Action, for example, uncannily mirror those of Al-Muhijaroun.
Where will the intensifying game of ‘British pinball’ take us? Its frame is being constructed in a Britain where the political system is in open disarray, and the population is already fractured by the national argument over Brexit. Those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland will know how quickly the Troubles grew out of a peaceful situation that was nonetheless riven with grievances.
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I would hope that England would be insulated from such horrors by the absence of a long sectarian history, the activity of the intelligence services and by the innate mistrust of political extremes that has long seemed hardwired into wider English society – but we should never forget the grim possibility that extremist movements can start to interact violently, nor what ensues thereafter. Quite apart from any such scenario, even the non-violent interaction of Islamist fundamentalism, the hard Right and the hard Left is starting to damage the nature of our national conversation.
The tone of public debate is now one of permanent rancour: as it grows fiercer and more vituperative, many reasonable people are shrinking from open participation. It becomes harder, not easier, for British Muslims publicly to criticise aspects of Islamic fundamentalism, or for British Jews to criticise Israeli government policy – although they may do so privately – when those communities increasingly feel under broader attack from the Right or the Left. In such circumstances, voicing reservations about wrongs within the community is often seen as siding with the outsiders who are insulting the community: that is precisely what occurred over so many decades in Northern Ireland, with courageous exceptions.
This process could be clearly seen in action during the row over Boris Johnson’s article about the burqa. The Muslim journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who has long publicly opposed the wearing of the veil, described how, when Boris Johnson made his remarks about “bank robbers” or “letterboxes” in reference to the burqa, a young Muslim student said to her: “So, are you for Boris or for the burqa? You can’t sit on the fence.”
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Johnson’s essential view on the burqa was not the main point: many Muslim women also take the view that it is a ridiculous and unlikeable garment, and dislike it even more vociferously than he does. But Johnson’s mockery came as he was praised by Trump and Bannon – both of whom have made sweeping statements about Muslims – and in that heated atmosphere was interpreted by many as encouraging ridicule or worse of veiled Muslim women. Non-Muslim liberals who, ten years earlier, would themselves have attacked the burqa as a garment designed to oppress and erase women, now attacked Johnson for being ‘racist’ for mocking it.
Yet the fundamental point had not changed: only the climate of its reception had, to one clouded by emotion, hurt, suspicion and anger. To counteract the growing danger of political pinball, it will be a job to re-establish a new way of talking to each other. But this is the Britain that Choudary will re-enter. Wish us luck.