Listening to John Humphrys interview radical Islamist activist Anjem Choudary on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, I was struck by the unwieldy way he was required to acknowledge the offensiveness and reprehensibility of his views as a precondition of being allowed to express them.
Choudary was never going to take that test, let alone convincingly pass it. Humphrys believed Choudary should have unequivocally condemned the brutal killing of soldier Lee Rigby on a London street by two radicalised Islamist converts.
Choudary believed that it was wrong to differentiate that killing from the killing of hundreds of thousands of others in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to condemn one killing over the other is to perpetuate that wrong.
I have to say that the argument would come better from a man of peace rather than Anjum Choudary, but he held it together and stood by it.
That said, London’s Assistant Commissioner of Police Cressida Dick had just pledged again to have her officers follow his every move until he said or did something he could be ‘brought to justice’ for – something she said she ‘looked forward to’. so you can understand Choudary being way more circumlocutious than he usually is.
Of course Cressida Dick has her own armed network, a counter-terrorism force, two of whose members also killed an innocent man in a London public space, in 2005. Those gunmen worked on the understanding that they had authority from Dick to execute their target on the grounds that he had been positively identified as a suicide bomber who was imminently about to strike. None of which turned out to be true.
The London police got to justify the use of the lethally flawed system that killed Jean Charles de Menezes by having senior officers and PM Tony Blair apologise and extend condolences to his family before talking about robust responses to terrorism and the pressures of command responsibility – by way of context or excuse, depending on your own viewpoint.
Had Choudary swallowed his principles and condemned Lee Rigby’s killing, he could have had his own turn to offer context or excuse, again depending on your own viewpoint, for the murder.
But he declined to qualify his stance in that way, and Humphrys – in full on Speak for England mode – wasn’t going to let him pass until he did. So we all came to a dead stop.
Humphrys then literally offered to “do a deal” – if Choudary condemned the murder first, he would open up a discussion about British foreign policy and wars in Muslim countries.
Choudary predictably countered with his own offer of the same, if Humphrys condemned the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dead stop again. I think that even if Humphrys had moved on from the ‘will you, won’t you’ question we’d still have the same picture of Choudary, that of an isolated, articulate, intelligent, morally ambiguous man with a warped world view of an already warped conflict.
But had one of them given way, we might have heard Choudary and Humphrys discuss, why the perpetuation of moral equivocation about different kinds of killing should be thought a worse sin than the perpetuation of the killings themselves. That’s the unasked question that deserves an answer.