Al Muhajiroun, a radical group in the UK led by Omar Bakri Mohammed, used to be regarded as little more than a nuisance by most British people. The main exceptions were journalists, who relied on Bakri Mohammed when they needed a sensationalist statement from the stereotype "angry imam"; that he was far from expert in the Islamic canon did not seem to matter. I contacted the group in 1998, in an effort to further my understanding of contemporary Islamism in the UK. Having been out of the country for some years, I was not completely familiar with their platform, and considered writing an article about them. After meeting them, I concluded that they had no constituency in the Muslim community and were concerned mainly with increasing their public profile by being outrageous. So I decided not to serve their interests by writing about them.
A few months later, while I was in Abu Dhabi, bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were universally condemned as terrorism that took the lives of more Muslims than non-Muslims (nearly all of whom were civilians). Al Muhajiroun, however, issued a press release praising the attacks. I was incensed, and decided to have my story published. Al Muhajiroun were none too pleased with the un-flattering tone in which I described the group. For my part, I was unimpressed with how they made personal threats against me, in public.
After 9/11, al Muhajiroun organised a conference at which the hijackers were described as the "Magnificent 19". In 2007, five young men with links to the group were convicted of plotting bomb attacks in Britain. Bakri Mohammed disbanded al Muhajiroun in 2004, the British government announced a year later that it would be banned, and Bakri Mohammed himself fled from London to Lebanon in August 2005 when it looked likely that he might be charged with incitement to treason. The group reformed briefly last summer, but this month it was finally banned, along with four other organisations. The most prominent of those is Islam4UK, led by Anjem Choudary - a London-born former lawyer, and co-founder of al Muhajiroun.
As a general rule, governments should not ban organisations unless there is a genuine and over-riding interest for the public good. Does such an interest exist in this case? I doubt that many will be sad to see the back of Islam4UK, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. They were certainly not conducive to community cohesion, to say the least, and contributed to the rise of tensions across the UK. They wasted the limited resources of the Muslim community, because the mainstream had to expend time in contradicting their outlandish claims. If they are not directly to blame for violent acts, they certainly do not contribute to an environment that rejects anarchical violence and hatred.
Is that enough? The main problem with such groups is the attention they are given. In this regard, there are several things to keep in mind. The first is that a ban is likely to make Islam4UK more, not less, popular. Young men and women are often more intellectually vulnerable, and attracted to a group that is "taboo". There is also the consideration that a banned group goes underground, and thus becomes harder to monitor.
Also, do not other groups espouse the most disgusting of views? There are far-right groups all over Europe contributing to a discourse that causes the most distasteful of things, including arson of mosques and physical attacks on minorities. We do not ban those groups - why this one? There are alternatives to an outright ban, many of which require no legal or political intervention. First and foremost - ignore them. Completely. This might sound obvious, but it's not an option generally followed in the UK. Remember, this group spoke for pretty much no one in the British Muslim community, yet the media insisted on giving it a profile on the basis that it issued scandalous statements. That's how the group earned its fame: purely on the back of a media that loves sensationalism. When Bakri Mohammed fled the UK, many breathed a sigh of relief, as they calculated that the media would have one fewer inflammatory character to cause problems for community cohesion. Those hopes were shot to the wind when the British media continued to contact him, even in Lebanon, to put his opinions on record.
And now that Islam4UK has been banned, you might think that Anjem Choudary would be ignored. Except that the very day after the ban was announced a couple of weeks ago, the BBC gave him a platform. Why? There is an uncomfortable truth here: the media and melodramatic speakers need each other, co-existing in a distasteful symbiotic relationship. Islam4UK gave some in the media a way to sell newspapers or improve their ratings, and in turn, the media gave Islam4UK the notoriety it craved. More than a decade ago, with virtually no journalistic knowledge or experience, I identified that vicious cycle and refused to be a part of it.
Why, after all this time, do we not realise that these people like to create controversy for the sake of it, and that what they fear most is not being banned - but being ignored? The most effective measure against Islam4UK and groups like them would be to recognise, finally, that they are irrelevant - and let them fade away into media obscurity. Dr H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick, and the author of Muslims of Europe: the "Other" Europeans