President of the European Jewish Congress
The conviction of Anjem Choudary is a victory for tolerance. For too long we have allowed people to incite hate and to further radicalism in the misguided and dangerous belief that freedom of speech is sacrosanct – whatever the cost. Freedom of expression is essential in any liberal democracy, but this ruling acknowledges that there must be a limit.
It has taken 20 years for Choudary to face the penalty of his actions, and due to weak legislation that allowed him to sow the seeds of extremism across Europe, it is the law abiding, freedom-loving European citizens who have paid the price. The time has surely come for stronger safeguards against religious radicalism, hate and intolerance.
This is why the work undertaken by the legal experts at the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR) is so important and timely. The ECTR has brought together five of the finest legal minds in the world to draft legal provisions – called The Model Law For the Promotion of Tolerance (The Model Law) – which could be enacted by parliaments around Europe to better tackle extremism and combat the rise of violent hate and intolerance in the UK and Europe.
The Model Law also addresses the need to curb hate speech, which would introduce the concept of Group Libel into law for the first time. Without these provisions we will continue to see people like Choudary take advantage of gaps in our legal system, which was not designed to deal with contemporary threats such as religious radicalism. A broader strategy that combines social measures with security policy reform is needed across Europe.
Extremists prey on the weak, the vulnerable and the disenfranchised in order to build a following, and as such, governments have a dual responsibility to their citizens in this area; they must not only protect them from violence through security measures, but they must also protect them from falling victim to radicalisation through stronger social measures. With this in mind, the Model Law provides for tolerance education and the broad inclusion of these principles from early years through to adulthood, as changing a culture must involve all levels of society. The UK government’s recent push to counter extremism in universities and colleges acknowledges the significance of education in this struggle, but will not be far-reaching enough to have a broader impact on society.
Security policy must equally be revised. Warfare today is asymmetrical. We are faced with enemies who do not respect borders, do not care about Brexit, and can operate from anywhere in the world. Our leaders must recognise that existing legislation is inadequate in this new context. To ignore this reality is to condemn Europe to a future of more attacks, more lives lost and a climate of fear on a continent that has for so long been a bastion of peace, tolerance and progress.
Choudary had been stoking the fire of extremism in the UK for decades, and has very successfully exported this hate across the continent without any restrictions or legal challenges. In Brussels he helped to set up Sharia4Belgium, an organisation that according to Europol “engaged in organised indoctrination and recruitment of young people to participate in the armed conflict in Syria”. In the Netherlands he was considered a driving force behind the national jihadi movement, and is monitored by the Dutch intelligence agency. Upon his conviction, the head of London Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism command said Choudary had “stayed just within the law for many years, but there is no one within the counter-terrorism world that has any doubts of the influence that they have had, the hate they have spread and the people that they have encouraged to join terrorist organisations.”
It is extremely worrying that multiple law enforcement agencies from across Europe have been aware of Choudary’s actions, but had been unable to act for so long. He is not the first, and he will certainly not be the last to exploit the current gaps in European law. It is time to legislate against acts that are surely unacceptable, but for which we currently have no recourse. The Model Law presents an opportunity for the UK and Europe to respond to contemporary threats with the appropriate tools, and to set new parameters for tolerance. By reinforcing constructive norms, governments can lead societal change and inspire a cultural shift towards more inclusive, supportive and peaceful communities, where hate speech is eradicated before it results in violence.