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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.