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16 August 2016

This article was originally published on The Times, authored by Maajid Nawaz.

Britain’s most infamous extremist Anjem Choudary has finally been found guilty of terrorism. I first met Anjem in 1995 when I was 17. I was an angry recruit in London’s Islamist heyday; he was a newly qualified British-Pakistani solicitor. We were both students of the pro-caliphate group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).

One of my Muslim associates Saeed Nur had just murdered the Nigerian student Ayotunde Obanubi on the campus of Newham College in what was probably Britain’s first jihadist street murder. I was seeking Anjem’s legal advice after my expulsion from the college due to my unruly Islamist agitation. HT was led by the extremist Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, now barred from re-entering the UK. Omar Bakri had visited Newham college just a week before the murder.

A year before meeting Anjem, I had helped HT organise an international caliphate conference at Wembley Arena. In a move that placed the resurrection of a caliphate centre stage globally, we gathered 10,000 people under orange banners prophetically proclaiming “Khilafah — coming soon to a country near you”. This was a time before Islamic State, even before al-Qaeda, when HT was the foremost Islamist group advocating a caliphate. Those relatively less extreme days feel like a distant haze now. But they should act as an urgent lesson for us all.

After serving a five-year sentence as an Islamist political prisoner in Egypt, I left HT and repudiated Islamism. Curiously, my solicitor then was another British-Pakistani — none other than the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. I went on to found Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism organisation, and I now dedicate myself to challenging extremism. Anjem moved sharply in the other direction.

Soon after the murder at Newham, Omar Bakri broke away from HT to found a more extreme group, al-Muhajiroun. Anjem left with him. Al-Muhajiroun moved closer to al-Qaeda and the group began openly calling for jihad. As his following grew, Omar Bakri became the global head of this London-based jihadist network that was recruiting with impunity. He appointed Anjem as his UK leader.

Fifteen years after we met our paths crossed again, this time on a national TV debate. Anjem was complaining that al-Muhajiroun had just been banned under UK terror laws. As a sign of how far down the Islamist rabbit hole he had by now travelled, this once-promising lawyer proudly declared his refusal to appeal the ban because he recognised no man-made law over God’s law. Anjem had long ago stopped practising as a solicitor and was surviving on the dole. I pointed to his hypocrisy in living off our state while utilising our free media to complain about his “rights” being violated. The sort of caliphate he wanted would grant absolutely no rights to his opponents, and would put me to death as a heretic. Scoffing at my question, Anjem refused to budge.

Sure enough, Isis declared its caliphate to the world and showed us precisely how it treats its opponents. Under Omar Bakri’s guidance, Anjem Choudary seized the moment they had been anticipating and pledged allegiance to the caliphate. Their followers began leaving home in their thousands to join this dark experiment in modern theocracy building. Anjem’s metamorphosis from practising English common law to advocating a barbaric medieval take on Sharia was now complete.

The way in which our paths forked came to symbolise the split that forms the basis for the civil war playing out within Muslim communities, and beyond: Islamists against secularists. Anjem’s extremist freefall mirrors what happened to so many within Britain’s Muslim communities throughout the Nineties. His story highlights the dangers of theocratic Islamism morphing into violent jihadism, because that cancer was left unchecked to spread within our communities for so long.

Once legitimacy rests on who is deemed a“credible” or “authentic” Muslim, the conversation can only slide downhill. It was this “not Muslim enough” game within our communities that Anjem was destined to win. By definition, such a game is stacked in favour of the fanatic. As a nation, we came to tolerate such incredible intolerance. Too many on the left simply assumed Islamism was “Muslim culture, so let’s enjoy it”. Too many on the right said “it’s Muslim culture, let’s keep it at arm’s length”, while Islamists told Muslims “this is your culture, you have no choice but to follow it”. Very few were actively engaged in challenging Islamism, as they would racism or antisemitism.

Mass calls for a caliphate followed by a jihadist murder on London’s streets in 1995 should have acted as a clear warning of the Isis brutality that was set to befall us all. If only there had been civil society resistance against Islamism back when I was 17. Perhaps we would not have lost an entire generation to those who laid the groundwork for Isis to reach our continent.

Just as one of my former British-Pakistani solicitors went on to become the mayor of London, perhaps the other could also have gone on to do great things, on the right side of English law. A sudden mass-migration of European Muslims on the scale that went to join the caliphate did not emerge from a vacuum. Why would it surprise us then that more Muslims left the UK to join Isis than joined our armed forces? They were simply responding to 20 years of unchecked radicalisation within our communities. Two decades earlier, they had been promised at Wembley arena: Khilafah — coming soon to a country near you.

To read the article as originally published on The Times, click here.