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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

How to contain the spread of extremism in modern Europe

Anjem Choudary embodies the complex link between individual and collective safety

Preacher Anjem Choudary addressing members of the media during a in north London in 2009. Tal Cohen / Reuters 
Preacher Anjem Choudary addressing members of the media during a in north London in 2009. Tal Cohen / Reuters 

The 2005 attacks on the London tube killed 52 people. British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered in broad daylight on a suburban street. And the deadly 2017 London Bridge attack claimed eight lives. The common thread forming a backdrop to these three gruesome events was Anjem Choudary.

Although he has never taken up arms himself, it is thought that the hate preacher, who is due for release from prison tomorrow after serving half his five-year sentence, has inspired more than 100 individuals to commit acts of terrorism, from joining ISIS to spilling blood on European streets. So far-reaching is his influence that Dutch intelligence holds him partially responsible for the rise of extremist ideologies in the Netherlands.

Fearful British authorities have introduced strict conditions to curb his poisonous ideology outside prison, including curfews and restrictions on internet and phone use. But as the followers who have congregated at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in recent weeks attest, Choudary still holds considerable sway.

And his release raises tough questions about how authorities can deal with those who preach hatred while respecting the rights of individuals to their civil liberties.

Ironically, police must now curb Choudary’s influence while protecting him from far-right activists, revealing the complex link between individual and collective safety. He was isolated in prison and is now effectively banned from making public statements – so the fear implied by these gestures lends credence to Choudary’s insidious influence. And even if he does not find other avenues to deliver his message, the cult of personality that surrounds him means that silence might be equally powerful.

A trained lawyer, Choudary was cunning enough to evade imprisonment for over a decade. But while he might be too sophisticated to carry out an attack himself, he is complicit in trying to convince others to do so. He leaves prison, reports suggest, even more clamorous in his hatred of modern Britain.

This problem is larger than Choudary, as countries across the globe scramble to contain the spread of extremism. A state’s first priority is the safety of its citizens. But doing so by trampling on individual freedom hands another weapon to extremists. Ultimately, how Britain and other nations should deal with individuals like Choudary remains a dangerous open question.