I cannot account for why its taken me until now to blog about this, but last month I was invited onto Sky News to give the English PEN view on extremism, free speech, and the conviction of Anjem Choudhary.
The notorious Islamist preacher had been convicted of supporting terrorism on the basis of Tweets he had posted, pledging allegiance to ‘the’ Caliphate, rather than ‘a’ Caliphate. The prosecutors argued (successfully, as it turns out) that this constituted support for ISIS.
The police have been criticised for the time it has taken them to put Anjem Choudhary in prison. But I made the that this should actually be a cause of comfort. The delay shows that the authorities are operating within the bounds of the existing law, however restrictive. If its difficult to prosecute someone like Choudhary then the rest of us can be confident that our own rights are fairly well protected.
Rather, the threat to free speech comes from self-censorship and interference from our fellow citizens. On the ‘chilling effect’ I said this:
There is a real culture of anxiety and paranoia that has come about because of PREVENT and this talk about terrorism. Only last week a woman was detained by the police for reading this book on an aeroplane. It’s a brilliant book about Syrian art called Syria Speaks but the flight attendants were paranoid because it had ‘Syria’ and some Arabic language on the cover!
Last year we had a play shut down because it tried to deal with issues of extremism and radicalisation, we’ve even had students and schoolboys being questioned as suspected terrorists. Its not beyond the wit of the politicians to outline the difference between extremism that leads to violence, and political speech and asking questions in the public interest.
So we’re asking the government to consult on the definition of extremism. And we’re asking the government to look again at how Schedule 7 and other aspects of the terrorism act are used when it comes to reading, writing and journalism, as a way of perhaps delineating that line, and giving the public confidence about what can be said and what is unlawful because it is inciting violence.