So far, so ridiculous. But then, last week, Choudary and his Islam4UK goons made their most deliberately controversial move to date – the announcement of a plan to march in protest against the war in Afghanistan through Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire town where residents regularly turn out to observe the repatriation of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan, as their bodies are driven from nearby RAF Lyneham to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Choudary stated that marchers would carry 500 coffins through the town in representation of Muslims killed in the war (as one wag noted, each Islam4UK follower would presumably have to carry about 10 coffins coffins to make up that number).
Cue, unsurprisingly, lots outrage, driven in no small part by the tabloid press (The Sun pointing out that Choudary is on benefits, and such like). The government joined in too, with Gordon Brown condemning it and Alan Johnson stating he would back measures to stop the march taking place. Meanwhile, counter-demonstrations were announced by groups such as Muslims for Secular Democracy. And then, just like with their Sharia march and "Jesus4Shariah", Islam4UK announced that the Wootton Bassett march wouldn't be taking place after all.
Because why would they bother? As Choudary himself stated, simply announcing a plan to march had "successfully highlighted the plight of Muslims in Afghanistan" (or rather, highlighted the existence of Islam4UK). Put in different terms, Choudary appears to have perfected the art of what we might call "The Fred Phelps Approach", after the tactics used by the equally ludicrous homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in the US, who picket the funerals of dead US soldiers in order to "highlight" the punishment apparently being inflicted on America by God because of its tolerance of homosexuality. Westboro's efforts, led by "Pastor" Fred Phelps, have earned them worldwide infamy, on a scale Choudary and his henchmen could only dream of. But their use of provocative tactics have earned them plenty of publicity here in the UK.
Clearly, it's difficult to fault a large part of the outrage surrounding Choudary's planned march – how can you expect the relatives of soldiers, or the people of Wootton Bassett, or soldiers themselves, to react? And it's inevitable that the tabloid press will fuel the disgust. But what we might expect is that our government wouldn't jump on the bandwagon and provide the desired publicity-boost for Islam4UK. Which is precisely what it has achieved by this morning announcing that the organisation will be banned under anti-terrorism legislation. Because here's a question – you're a crazed, publicity-hungry extremist dedicated (or so you claim) to toppling the established order in your country. The government are wondering whether to a) let you get on with your ridiculous schemes OR b) Ban you. Gag you. Make you a proscribed, illegal (did I mention BANNED) organisation. Which do you choose?
There's no need to answer that, of course. By banning Islam4UK, the government have played right into the hands of Anjem Choudary, who you can rest assured will be feeling rather pleased with himself this morning (it's a double-win too, with five of his supporters convicted in court yesterday over their "baby-killers" protest against returning troops in Luton last year). Just look at his website – he's already playing his "Crusade Against Islam4UK" card. And let's not forget that the government has already tried banning one of Choudary's organisations, Al-Muhajiroun back in 2005 (it was led at the time by another of the tabloids' favourites, the equally ridiculous Omar Bakri Muhammad). That ban really worked, didn't it?
When it comes to supplying the oxygen of publicity to ludicrous extremists, our government has surpassed itself in the past year. The banning of Islam4UK is reminiscent of last year's controversy over the banning of various foreign nationals deemed to be extremists, including the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, US shock-jock Michael Savage and – yes, you guessed it – the Westboro Baptist Church. In each case, all the government succeeded in doing was providing each of them with a handy badge of honour. Wilders – a man who would ban the Koran in his native Holland – even became a poster-boy for free speech.
So what should be done when someone like Choudary announces a plan designed to cause controversy and attract maximum publicity? It certainly isn't easy, as clearly there was a compelling case for putting obstacles in the way of any march through Wootton Bassett, which would have caused a great deal of upset and would possibly have led to violence. But somehow the authorities need to strike a balance between maintaining public order and ensuring that groups like Islam4UK aren't given the publicity they crave. The government certainly needs to stop banning such groups, because that is precisely what they are hoping for when they hatch their half-baked plans (the fact that Choudary cancelled the Wootton Bassett march, saying it had already served its purpose, says it all really).
On that note, I'll leave you with David Mitchell's thoughts on the matter, from his Observer column last weekend:
The other great boon of that state of affairs [freedom of speech] – still nominally this state of affairs, let's not forget – is that we can reply. We don't have to show the slightest respect for other people's views – just for their right to hold them. Respect, after all, must be earned. It's only freedom of speech that's a right. When someone says something which you find stupid or offensive, you can say something back. You can tell them to fuck off. They don't have to, but they've still been told.Blunt, yes, but perhaps it's something we can all get behind.
Maybe that's not your idea of utopia – millions of people screaming: "Fuck off" at each other – but it beats banning it, making an opinion against the law.