Poppy-burning and the limits of tolerance

Anjem Choudary is the man the tabloids love to hate, but does the government risk turning him into a free speech martyr?

So Theresa May has given in to the temptation, so often indulged by her New Labour predecessors, of banning a group associated with Anjem Choudary, the media's favourite Muslim radical. The latest news is that premises associated with the proscribed group have been raided by the police. "They've got nothing on me," was Choudary's reaction today. "Obviously it's inconvenient, but that doesn't stop me propagating what I believe."

No, I very much doubt that it will.

Officially, Muslims Against Crusades has been banned for glorifying terrorism (a vaguely defined crime under the Terrorism Act of 2000) and because it was -- the Home Office has only just realised -- another name for groups that had previously been banned. It was a continuation of Al-Muhajaroun by other names. But the ban -- certainly the timing of it -- surely had more to do with Choudary's plan to burn some poppies on Remembrance Day and the outrage that caused.

We've been here before, after all. The group's last incarnation, Islam4UK, was banned at the start of 2010 after Choudary declared that he and his dozen or so friends would march through the streets of Wootton Bassett in tribute (he claimed) to the thousands of unremarked Muslim casualties of Afghanistan and Iraq. As with the poppy protest, he didn't actually need to do this. It was enough that he said he would. The reaction that followed proved that however obnoxious his cause Choudary has something of a genius for publicity.

And indeed, there's a good argument for ignoring Choudary's groups rather than banning them simply because such bans play into his hands. Banning his outfit gives him more even more publicity. It gives him the one thing he craves even more than Islamist domination: getting his beard on the telly. The pragmatic response would be to ignore him.

The sad truth, though, is that it's impossible to ignore Anjem Choudary. It's doubtful that he is actually getting more publicity for being banned than he would have got for burning poppies. For Choudary not to get publicity would mean the press and broadcast media ending their love-affair with his unique brand of precisely-targeted outrage. He's successful because he inhabits a stereotype so well. He plays the part of an angry, puffed-up, anti-Western, terrorist-sympathising Islamic fundamentalist with such conviction and aplomb.

His views are cartoonish: with his visions of the flag of Islam flying over Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square turned into a popular venue for Saudi-style beheadings, he offers a reductio ad absurdum of radical Islamism. The only proper response -- certainly, the proper British response -- is to laugh. As a country, we laughed at Hitler, as we laughed at his British wannabe Oswald Mosley. And Choudary is closer to Roderick Spode than he is to Mosley. Another figure he resembles is the Rev Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, who shares his belief in the efficacy of hate-filled placards. Phelps and his group were, you may remember, banned from Britain by Jacqui Smith after they proposed (without really intending to) bringing their "God hates Fags" campaign to the streets of Basingstoke.

Choudary gets attention because he is, in a strange way, reassuring. I've no doubt that he admires terrorists (even if he would never have the balls to be a terrorist himself) and that he would like to see Islamic law imposed on all the citizens of this country. He certainly has dubious connections, most notably his mentor, the now-exiled Omar Bakri Mohamed. But these days he's little more than a propagandist. Above all he's just too visible to be a real threat. It's true that the tabloids profess to be outraged rather than amused by his antics. But I doubt he would be quite so successful at getting his message across were it not for his essentially comic persona.

At the same time, he has an unerring instinct for the pressure-points of British society. Take Wotton Bassett. By the time he announced his would-be march, the Wiltshire town had become both the focus and the locus of that attenuated thing we're supposed to call Britishness, a place where the military covenant, elsewhere a hollow joke, became almost sacral. In the absence of any clear explanation of what we were doing in Afghanistan, Wootton Bassett became not merely the scene of tribute but, in an odd way, the mission's whole justification.

The true name for Choudary's crime on that occasion -- and again this year with his mooted poppy-burning -- is not glorifying terrorism or threatening public order. It is blasphemy. The public and political reaction to his group's noisy protests is the closest that secular British society comes to the strength of feeling elicited among some Muslims by Salman Rushdie or the Danish cartoons, or among some Christians by Jerry Springer: The Opera.

But is blaspheming against the national consensus a good enough reason to outlaw him or his fan-club?

Choudary naturally exasperates more mainstream Muslims who, consequently, get much less airtime. But he is a product of the very freedoms, the very Western decadence, he professes to despise. That, too, is a principle that we are supposed to hold sacred. And this brings me to a more principled objection to banning his group.

The quintessential Choudary placard was the one that read "Freedom go to Hell", his group's response to the Danish cartoons and, indeed, to all instances where non-Muslims had exercised their rights to free expression in ways that were uncongenial to his brand of Islam. There would certainly not be much free speech in the Islamic republic he dreams that Britain will one day become. He is not, therefore, in much position to complain that the government wants to stifle his own freedom, though that is precisely what he has been doing all day as he toured the major TV studios. The fact that he is a hypocrite, however, does not mean that he is not correct in pointing out the hypocrisy of those who want to ban him.

The hard truth is that the freedom to be outrageous is one of the freedoms for which people in both world wars fought and, in some cases died.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times