Anjem Choudary was the worst case scenario for anybody who values the rule of law and human rights, such as freedom of expression and trial in due course of law. Using his knowledge as a lawyer to avoid prosecution for years, Choudary spent the best part of two decades preaching hate, revelling in "Us-versus-Them" language and sowing divisions between Muslims and the rest of society.

For anybody on either side with an interest in stoking up fears of a war between cultures, Choudary was a godsend.

Choudary was finally convicted under section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000 for inviting support for a proscribed organisation. What can seem so frustrating, however, is that he managed to avoid prosecution for almost two decades. He appears to have been connected to almost every major Islamic-extremist terrorist plot in the UK since 9/11, for example, his links to the killers of Lee Rigby.

Choudary, on the face of things, is a textbook example of a clear dichotomy existing between human rights and national security, with the former damaging the latter. Similar sentiments have been echoed by Prime Minister Theresa May.

May, in her then role as Home Secretary called for withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to "protect human rights... in a way that doesn't jeopardise national security". While May was specifically referring to the inability to deport suspected terrorists such as Abu Qatada, she is clearly drawing a link between human rights obligations and increased risks to national security.

The Need for Tougher Laws?

But is this true? Are human rights and the rule of law shackling the UK's ability to defend itself? The fact that Choudary managed to avoid prosecution for two decades may suggest that new, tougher laws are needed. The difficulty, however, is that tougher laws may do more harm than good. The British government is currently developing a counter-extremism strategy that would give police new powers to investigate extremism and scrutinise the media for giving a platform to extremist views. It would also result in a review of public organisations such as universities to weed out those with "extremist" views.

The difficulty with this plan and any legislation that will arise from it will be how you define in law what extremism actually is. The current proposals describe extremism as:

The vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.

Whether this definition makes it on the statute books remains to be seen but its breadth at present is deeply concerning from a human rights perspective. For example, would somebody arguing for people to abstain from voting amount to "vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy"?

This difficulty in defining what is extremism or even what is terrorism is typified when looking at extremist views expressed on social media. Throughout Choudary's trial, it was revealed that British authorities had no power to force social media companies to take down extremist speech.

If Facebook and Twitter were to be compelled to remove what the UK considered extremist speech, they would have to do so for other states whose commitment to democracy and freedom of expression may be politely described as tentative at best.

The difficulty, however, with this is that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are international organisations and there is little agreement between various states as to what constitutes terrorism, let alone what constitutes "extremist" views. Hence if Facebook and Twitter were to be compelled to remove what the UK considered extremist speech, they would have to do so for other states whose commitment to democracy and freedom of expression may be politely described as tentative at best.

The current strategy is for Facebook and Twitter to use their discretion when asked by the UK to remove posts. While Choudury's Twitter account is still available, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC has said that the UK tends to have good success regarding its requests to remove material.

Preventing Extremism

Terrorism cannot be defeated by simply locking people up. Nor can it be defeated through military force. The UK learned this in Northern Ireland with the use of internment, almost exclusively against the minority Catholic population, doing more harm than good against the IRA.

The criminal law should, of course, be utilised where appropriate; however, it should be done as a last resort. The UK's primary defence against terrorism and extremism is the PREVENT strategy which seeks to identify at-risk individuals from being radicalised in the first instance through early intervention and support.

PREVENT, however, requires good relations and trust between the police and Muslim communities. If this trust is damaged, it can be seen instead as a vehicle of state surveillance, as highlighted earlier this year by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Assembly. This, in turn, can further damage relations between various communities and the state, thus doing more harm than good. Further police powers to investigate extremism should therefore be approached with caution.

Rejecting Us-v-Them

Counter-productive counter-terrorism powers therefore are a real concern. Terrorism is as much about the state's reaction to it as it is about the terrorist act in the first instance. Choudary was not influential to his followers because of his theological doctrine but because of his fire-branded political rhetoric exploiting Western actions in the "War on Terror" to construct his "Us-versus-Them" view of the world.

Human rights therefore are not simply damaging to national security. Rather, their protection and vindication can reduce this risk of counter-productive counter-terrorism while at the same time protecting and vindicating the very values that the UK and the "West" supposedly espouses.

It should go without saying that Choudary does not speak for every Muslim or even a significant percentage of the Muslim community. Indeed, many Muslim groups resented the media attention that was given to Choudary. However, with recorded hate crimes increasing by 42% in England and Wales following Brexit and a 326% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015, the conditions that Choudary exploited to attempt to radicalise individuals need to be confronted but not in a way that exaggerates them further.

Of course, none of this remotely justifies or excuses the actions of Choudary or his followers; however, this divide between Muslims and the rest of society was exactly what Choudary wanted to sow. We would do well to not let him succeed.


Dr Alan Greene is a lecturer in public law and human rights at Durham Law School and a Director of the Durham Human Rights Centre. His research focuses on states of emergency and counter-terrorism. He tweets at @DrAlanGreene.