Is this the end of Speakers Corner?
As the country prepares for the release from prison of Anjem Choudary and 18 other various rabble rousing, terrorist supporting radical Muslims, we may be about to face the first ever closure of London’s infamous Speakers Corner as it is targeted as a tool in the spread of their hate.
Speakers Corner has been the centre of public oratory, debates and free speech since the mid 1800’s, with historic figures such as Karl Marx, Lenin, George Orwell, Marcus Garvey and Lord Soper all having attended and spoken. The Corner began life as a place for public execution with criminals hung from the Tyburn Gallows. Those condemned to die at the ‘Tyburn Tree’ could make one final speech and for onlookers, the executions became huge events. After the gallows were dismantled, the tradition for protest and discussion in Hyde Park continued as it developed into a political arena for public debate.
For 250 years, on a Sunday, crowds have gathered at Speakers’ Corner to listen to enthusiasts expounding their views, with freedom for anyone to turn up unannounced and speak on any subject. Those who have come to the Corner have always done so in the full knowledge that when airing their views or beliefs, these will be challenged, satirised and ridiculed, sometimes quite venomously or even cruelly.
However, over the last two years the atmosphere at the Corner has changed. The number of outspoken radical Muslims attending has been continually increasing. Those who have challenged their message have been regularly spat at, pushed off ladders, punched, kicked and chased out of the park. Osman warnings have been issued by the Police where credible threats exist against at least two individuals’ lives. People have been branded as hate preachers, racists and “islamophobes” for simply challenging or ridiculing the one particular faith.
Alongside this increase in violence and aggression, occurred an increase in Islamic prayer. Small groups discretely praying in the park was not new. However, the numbers praying increased significantly, with over 100 individuals praying at a time and this undertaken in the centre of the area used for free speech. Long tarpaulins and prayer mats were laid out for the entire day, marking their “official” area of prayer.
As the area used for prayer increased with the ever regular and louder call to prayer, more intimidation and violence continued. A number of concerned regulars at the Corner highlighted The Royal Parks’ clear policy which doesn’t permit any forms of collective worship within the central parks of London. Following ongoing communication with The Royal Parks and the Metropolitan Police, this was eventually enforced and the Corner was returned to its main purpose of open and free discussion.
A further worrying development however over the last few months has been the appearance of a number of adherents of Anjem Choudary. Having led a number of UK based terrorist Salafi jihadist organisations including al-Muhajirounn, Islam4UK, and Muslims Against Crusades, Choudary was imprisoned in 2015 under the Terrorism Act for encouraging support for the proscribed terrorist organisation Islamic State. A number of his followers have now been regularly attending the Corner in the months prior to his release in October.
The level of intimidation and violence has unfortunately continued. A recent more sinister development has been the singling out of specific individuals who have challenged the radicals’ narrative. Following campaigns of online threats and intimidation these individuals are harassed and chased out of the park in a very violent and threatening manner. The latest case involved a Sikh individual called Raj, who having been chased out of the park by a screaming mob of around 200 thugs, was placed in a police vehicle and driven away for his own safety.
An atmosphere of fear, intimidation and threats now hangs over the Corner.
The collective prayer has also returned with 50 individuals lining up to pray, with their prayer led by an individual who has been connected by many to Choudary.
The authorities have confirmed that Choudary and many of the others who are to be released shortly, will be released under strict conditions, which will include banning them from attending Speakers Corner.
Concerns however exist that Choudary is already actively utilising Speakers Corner to both gather his followers and get his message out to the world. What happens at Speakers Corner is now beamed around the world, frequently instantly via video livestreams. As the violence reaches previously unheard of levels the Police must now act swiftly to bring an end to the violence. This will require significant numbers of police at the Corner and will undoubtedly involve some form of partial if not complete closure of Speakers Corner for a period of time. If this is not done there will be an undoubted continuation and increase in the violence at the Corner. This will be a unique time in the Corner’s long and rich history, but may be an unfortunate and necessary step to protect its long term existence as a shining beacon of Britain’s liberal democracy, tradition of respect for freedom of speech and the right of assembly.