Imprisoning Radical Islamist Preacher Anjem Choudary Is a Step Forward, But a Small One

Anjem Choudary
Anjem Choudary leaves London Central Mosque after speaking at a rally calling for British Muslims not to vote as part of the Stay Muslim Don't Vote campaign, London, April 3, 2015. Choudary was jailed this week. Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

After decades of preaching hate on the streets of the U.K. and setting out to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims, Anjem Choudary has finally been arrested for supporting the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Still, this symbolic victory over Islamism and hatred in the U.K. is just that—symbolic, and should not lull civil society into a sense of real progress in the battle against hatred. One man has been imprisoned, that is all.

Choudary may have just been one man, but the damage he wrought to society in the U.K. has been done. He spent decades laying down the physical and digital infrastructure for Islamism to continue to metastasize throughout the U.K., and it is to this that we should turn in light of his conviction.

Although Choudary has been imprisoned, the ideas he espoused and preached have not, nor has their ability to mutate into new groups that will continue to spread his messages: groups that are sometimes more troublesome than they might seem at first glance. Combating these messages effectively should be our focus now.

In the U.K., Islamist organizations are beyond the kind of key-leader structure that allows a simple victory by removing the man at their head. Another leader, another charismatic figure, may well emerge as the focal point for Islamism in the U.K., and as a rallying point for hatred and intolerance in our streets, but this discussion of leadership is misplaced. For years, Choudary's ideas attracted people to his rhetoric of intolerance and polarization, a rhetoric that encouraged violent jihad, the curbing of civil liberties and an end to British democracy. These ideas have evidently appealed to many who have joined or been inspired by him. Since these words will not be taken into Choudary's cell with him, his conviction must give as pause as we consider how best to take on the effects of his ideas and their lure for Muslims in the U.K.

Combating Islamist messages in the U.K. means recognizing them in all their damaging forms, even if they don't address us with pugnacious, inflammatory messages the way Choudary has done. Certain organizations, masquerading as humanitarian groups, seek to actively build and reinforce a victimhood complex in Muslim communities. Highlighting the grievances of Muslim communities against Western governments, they, like Choudary, endeavor to create a similarly polarized worldview, where Muslims and non-Muslims are the binary units that dictate their understandings of both domestic and foreign policy.

These organizations are potentially even more troubling than Choudary's toxic rhetoric. By allying themselves with regressive leftist groups that echo them uncritically, they are able to normalize their messages and disseminate them under a cloak of respectability that lends credence to the mentality they advocate. The arguments they make ultimately have the same effects as more overt Islamist groups—to alienate Muslim individuals and communities from a sense of belonging to the U.K. and attract them to a new security of identity amongst Islamist groups.

As long as such individuals exist, whose sense of alienation from their national, civil identity is sufficient to drive them to radicalisation, hate preaching and terror networks will continue to proliferate. Banning their front organizations, imprisoning their leaders, is likely to make little difference to the spread of their message, so long as there is an audience willing to listen and take on their ideas. Concentrating on those who are potentially violent with a securitized approach is a short-term and essential aspect to eliminating terror in Europe, but their non-violent support groups are where the long-term damage is being done.

These are the ones that need our urgent attention.

Haras Rafiq is managing director at Quilliam . Follow him on Twitter @HarasRafiq.