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Recent reports on the stabbing of Labour MP Stephen Timms seem to suggest that his attacker Roshanara Choudhry was “radicalised” by the Internet, and specifically videos of Yemen-based Anwar al-Awlaki on YouTube.
The Telegraph’s report on interviews with Choudhry is revealing: it is claimed she “did not attend mosque” and had “no-one to answer questions about her faith”.
This strikes one as somewhat disingenuous: Choudhry’s misfortunate parents are both said to be practicing Muslims, and it is not difficult to find a mosque in east London. There are people to ask. So the question arises: was it that she had no one she could ask about her faith, or no one who would tell her what she wanted to hear: that she should become a jihadi, or even a shahid.
Much was made of Roshanara Choudhry’s bright academic record, as if this made her receptiveness to jihadism all the more unusual. But this displays a seemingly wilful ignorance of Islamist politics, and its hold on UK, and particularly London, university campuses.
Only a few weeks ago, anti-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation produced a report on the hijacking of university Islamic society’s by far-right Islamists, focussing on City University in Islington, north London.
As it happens, I attended City University myself, over a decade ago. Even then, groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and its extreme splinter Al Muhajiroun had a strong presence on campus, and exerted disproportionate influence on the Muslim student population. This trend, by all accounts, has only intensified post 9/11, and is manifested throughout London’s universities.
So it is seems unlikely that Choudhry would not have encountered extremism before logging on to YouTube.
But that is the narrative being spun. And there seem to be to be several reasons for this.
It is a measure of the ubiquity of the web in modern life that we now tend to appeal to it for solutions and bemoan it when things go wrong in our society.
Humans always look for an overarching reason when we feel that something has gone badly wrong: in the past, we imagined that capricious gods decided our fate. Now, when an ugly phenomenon rears its head, we look over its shoulder to find a cause beyond the phenomenon. We blame “the Internet”.
There are, of course, some major sites that most of us use daily: chiefly Google, YouTube and Facebook.
When Facebook pages sprung up dedicated to murderer Raoul Moat (pages, incidentally, that contained as much criticism as praise, and more irony than either) Prime Minister David Cameron sincerely suggested that he would consult Facebook about the possibility of removing them. Let us not engage with the content: let us instead rush to have the content hidden.
So apart from its assumed omiscience and omnipresence, Google (and Facebook, and well, all web services) faces another problem. We all assume we know how easy it is to remove something from the web. And you know, it is fairly easy. Technically adept people will always be able to dig up ghosts of Internet past, but for the majority of people, when we press “remove” on Facebook, or unpublish a page on blogger, that’s pretty much the end of it. Censorship seems easy, and doesn’t carry the same taboo as pulping books or running lines of blue pencil over a correspondence.
But just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. If we are to be serious about free speech, which we are supposed to be as a society that aspires to democracy, then we have to accept that poisonous ideologies will be disemminated: it is only when only very specific, credible, direct, incitement or threats are raised that we should even conceivably discuss censorship.
While al-Awlaki, bin Laden and others may call for jihad against the kuffar, surely it was Choudhry’s own interpretation of this that led to her vicious attack on Timms.
Which brings us to the area of personal agency: the majority of the vast amounts of material uploaded to YouTube is put there by individuals: That is the real glory of the site. Google states:
“YouTube has community guidelines that prohibit dangerous or illegal activities such as bomb-making, hate speech, and incitement to commit violent acts. We also remove all videos and terminate any account registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and used in an official capacity to further the interests of that organization.”
Which you can agree or disagree with.
But the company also says:
“What we can’t do, and which few people would want a private company to do, is check what people want to post online before they do so. The truth is that due to the huge advances the internet has enabled in free expression, offensive or even illegal content may appear for a time, but we have clear rules and will continue to apply them to material brought to our attention.”
This seems right: while one may have difficulties with certain provisos, the greatest offence would be for YouTube to monitor and edit every last piece of content uploaded. Apart from being undesirable, it would quite simply be impossible.
If we are worried about the spread of jihadist ideology and its appeal to people such as Roshanara Choudhry — which we should be — then we are much better served actually learning about it and examining it, giving society power to challenge its arguments. We cannot do this if our first impulse is to block it out.