So this morning we tracked down Giles Enders, chair of the South Place Ethical Society, which owns the hall, to hear the full story of what happened there last night. Here's what we learnt – SPES had received a booking from a woman named Sami Khan, who was representing an organisation called the Global Issues Society. Khan booked the main hall for a debate on Sharia Law v British Law, which Enders understood would pit hardline Muslims against those of a more liberal persuasion. As people began arriving for the event, Enders says it became apparent that the hardliners had turned up, but not the liberals. We now know these "hardliners" to have been the would-be members of a reformed Al-Muhajiroun, led by controversial cleric Anjem Choudary. (As it happens, Choudary's "liberal" debate opponent was to be Douglas Murray, who runs the hardly-liberal, somewhat right-wing Centre for Social Cohesion - more on him later.)
Choudary and his supporters arrived at Conway Hall complete with their very own team of bouncers, who they placed on the doors and at the bottom of the stairs which lead to the main hall's gallery. It turns out their purpose was to enforce a Sharia-style system of gender segregation in the home of Britsih free thought, with the downstairs part of the whole reserved for men, and women confined to the gallery. The first Enders knew about this was when members of the Central London Humanist group also began arriving at the hall for their own meeting, which was due to take place in Conway Hall's library. But as that is upstairs, male members of the group were being refused access by Choudary's heavies. There were also female members of the press being refused entry to the main hall. At this point Enders intervened and attempted to explain that the Global Issues Society had booked the event as an "open meeting" and, besides, gender segregation would not be accepted at Conway Hall. At this point, it seems appropriate to recount what Enders told us earlier:
"These thuggish bouncers wouldn’t allow anyone in, so I said we would call the police. But the police took forever to come, so in the end I had to send our maintenance man across to the police station to get them. It became extremely aggressive in the foyer – somebody got hurt and was bleeding. I said to the bouncers that I run this bloody hall and what I say goes and they pushed me away. They wouldn’t even allow me in the hall, so I went round the side way and got on the stage, and made an announcement through the mic that the meeting was not to take place. After I said this I stood on the stage with all the chanting mob screaming at me in Arabic, and pointing fingers like guns at me. Then they then cut the mic I was using, as one of their people was operating the sound control box. Then the main speaker [Choudary] got hold of a radio mic and started shouting in Arabic. So I grappled that off him, and then I sat on the stage."With the meeting cut short, the arguments spilled out on to the square outside the hall. Around 30-40 police turned up as, at this point, did Douglas Murray who, says Enders, "barged his way into the main hall. I asked him to leave, as I’d already thrown out the opposition. I had to call in a couple of police to make him leave."
So the big question is why a controversial Islamist group, whose stated aim is to turn Britain into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law, was allowed to attempt its relaunch in the centre of British humanism and free thought? In addition to the fact that SPES were led to believe the event would be a two-sided debate on Sharia law, the answer is simple. Conway Hall is run according to principles of free thought and free speech – indeed Enders describes as one of "the last homes of free speech in this country". As he told us, recent groups meeting at Conway Hall have included some supporters of the North Korean regime, a Stalinist meet-up group and, most recently, "a kinky group of Devil worshippers":
"As long as there is no trouble, and people pay, we don't interfere with them. But what we do interfere with is when something is advertised as an open meeting and then they want segregation. There must be open access – we can't have race discrimination or sex discrimination. This is the law of the land."Choudary and his followers crossed that line, so Enders wrestled the mic from his hands and ended the meeting. We salute Giles "The End" Enders, the Hardman of Humanism.