Comment

Anjem Choudary is free to speak – but that does not mean we have to give him a platform

Anjem Choudary (R) speaks at a protest opposite Downing Street (Getty Images)

Anjem Choudary, a man about whom we all know far too much already, is out of jail after serving half his sentence for urging support for ISIS and pledging allegiance (whatever that means) to the Islamic state. That he is free, and that he may well use his freedom to try to stir up trouble, is a matter of regret. In the judgement of many, he remains dangerous. We all know that there are plenty of people just waiting to be radicalised.

One of our greatest and proudest achievements as a nation is habeas corpus, which means that no one may be imprisoned without trial. One of the worst aspects of repressive regimes is their recourse to imprisonment without trial of inconvenient people. It is wrong, as well as simply impossible, to want to lock Mr Choudary up on the grounds that he is a liability. Ironically, if Mr Choudary were a citizen of some repressive Muslim state, the equivalent crimes could have seen him locked up forever, or worse. But because he lives in a liberal democracy, which he professes to hate, then he is free after serving a relatively light sentence.

So, we cannot lock Mr Choudary up and throw away the key, though there may be many who would love to do so. There are very complex legal arguments against other alternatives, such as depriving him of his British passport and expelling him from the country. (I will not rehearse what these are, as I do not understand them myself.) Nor are we able, it seems, to silence him, as he has the right to free speech (within the law) as do the rest of us.

In the end, we have to put up with Mr Choudary, offensive as he is, because in the end we are committed to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of conscience, all the things that go to making up what is generally termed religious freedom. Wanting this freedom for ourselves, we have to grant it to others. And it is precisely for this reason that Mr Choudary is so objectionable: he is determined to use British freedoms to destroy British values.

However, even though he is free to speak, we do not have to give him a platform. Even more importantly, we do not have to treat his words with respect. On the contrary, we need to challenge him. This challenge needs to come from Christians, naturally, for Mr Choudary holds positions which are opposed to the proximate truths of faith; but it needs to come above all from his fellow Muslims, who are the people who have the most to lose if he is left unchallenged.

In practice, this means that when the BBC or any other broadcaster invites Mr Choudary on its programmes, they need to invite people who will challenge him as well. This will require a bit of informed religious judgement. The last people to challenge Mr Choudary effectively will be those ignorant of Islam, or those who have no philosophical and religious background, or those who think all religion is nonsensical. Mr Choudary himself espouses nonsensical positions – but showing that requires a bit of skill. He needs to be challenged, to be disproved – and, oh yes, he needs to be mocked.

If he is given a free pass, that will be disastrous for us all. A liberal democracy can only thrive on a shared conversation based on a shared vision of reason. One lunatic can poison the national discourse. We must not lose our faith in reason: such a faith, after all, is one of the foundational beliefs of all Catholics.

The columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown had this to say about Mr Choudary on Twitter:

I hope I have answered part of her question at least. Would she debate him on the television, I wonder? I hope so. I know I would relish the prospect myself.