Last month saw the release of Anjem Choudary — probably Britain’s most well-known radical cleric — from a special separation unit for religious extremists at Britain’s Frankland Prison. Serving less than half of his five-and-a-half-year sentence for inviting support for Islamic State, his release was met with significant mainstream media attention. In many ways, the attention was unsurprising. Prior to his imprisonment, Britain’s mainstream media had openly courted Choudary affording him a wholly unprecedented platform from which to espouse his divisive and unrepresentative ideology in spite of them doing so being roundly criticised by many Muslim organisations and interested observers.
Anjem Choudary: some background
Choudary originally found fame by being a former leader of the now banned group al-Muhajiroun. Attracting a very small number of supporters — rarely more than 100 — the British-based group openly advocated Sharia law, supported the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, and routinely spoke about an inevitable conflict between Islam and Western liberal democracies. Despite forming in 1986, al-Muhajiroun only came to public prominence however following 9/11 when the media covered the group’s 2002 conference, “The Magnificent 19” during which the group praised those behind the attacks on the US.
While the majority of British Muslims shunned the group, the media continued to afford them significant attention. Prone to making controversial statements at inopportune moments, the group were unlike many other Muslim groups in Britain at the time. While most sought to engage and advocate on a range of different social, political and cultural issues, al-Muhajiroun and its then Syrian born cleric, Omar Bakri Mohammed offered the media the soundbites many within it seemed to want to hear. Consequently, the group became the ‘go to’ people for many in the mainstream media when running a story about Muslims or Islam irrespective of the known fact they were grossly misrepresentative of Muslim communities more widely.
In the wake of the July 2005 terror attacks in London, the British Government introduced new legislation that enabled them to ban those who were seen to glorify terrorism. Planning to use this against al-Muhajiroun, Bakri Mohammed fled the country allowing Choudary to take over the leadership role. Despite subsequently being banned, the group continued under a variety of different aliases that included the Saviour Sect, Muslims Against Crusades, Islam4UK, Need4Khilafah, Shariah Project and Islamic Dawah Association. Despite Choudary and his supporters openly flouting the ban, little was done by the authorities at the time: a lesson that would seem to have been learned with the subsequent banning of National Action and the pursuance of members by the police and intelligence services.
Courting ever more controversy as his profile grew, Choudary found himself becoming a mainstay of the mainstream media. Appearing on all Britain’s free-to-air television channels, it was his recurrent appearances on critically-acclaimed news programmes such as BBC’s Newsnight and Channel 4 News that were most problematic. As a self-appointed ‘representative’ of Britain’s Muslims, his views reinforced many of the Islamophobic stereotypes in circulation about Muslims: that they were disloyal, violent and hated Britain. Similar to how the mainstream media courted the far-right extremist Tommy Robinson before platforming him as a voice of Britain’s ‘white working classes’, so too did they do the same with Choudary. Far from a voice of even a significant minority of Britain’s Muslims, to the casual onlooker Choudary was the voice of Britain’s Muslims.
While there is no evidence to suggest Choudary has himself been involved in any terrorist incident, his influence over those who have is notable. Recent claims suggest Choudary and al-Muhajiroun have influenced at least a quarter of all Britons who have carried out Islamist-related terrorist attacks, fought in Syria and Iraq, or have been in prison for terrorism-related offences. These include: Omar Sharif, a British suicide bomber who attacked Tel Aviv in 2003; Michael Adebolajo, one of the murderers of soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013; Siddartha Dhar who fled the UK while under police investigation before joining Islamic State in Syria; and Khuram Butt, one of those responsible for killing 8 and wounding a further 48 during last year’s London Bridge attack. Most surprising about this is how Choudary’s influence has been so great given the extremely small numbers of individuals that have supported him. Consequently, some such as the BBC report have speculated that his reach was greatest online, noting just how prolific he was on YouTube and various social media platforms. Maybe also worthy of note is the extensive coverage afforded him by the mainstream media.
With Choudary’s release, Britain’s mainstream media once again went into overdrive. For some, there was a fear that Choudary and his supporters would be free to ‘wage war’ on Britain. For the tabloids, the focus was on how taxpayer’s money would be used to protect him. At the most sensational, Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times encouraged supporters of Choudary to “blow themselves up” in densely populated Muslim areas of London. While much has centred on Choudary being free, the truth is that he is far from being just that. Like other offenders released at the midway point of their sentences, Choudary has to stay at a hostel in London where he will remain for at least six months. While there, he must comply with 25 stringent conditions which include: a ban from preaching; a ban on attending certain mosques; only associating with people approved by the authorities; using one phone only; not using an internet-enabled device without permission; supervision of internet use; not being able to travel outside of Greater London; and not being able to leave the UK without permission among others. If there is any breach whatsoever, Choudary can be immediately recalled to prison; enough, one would imagine, to hinder for now at least Choudary’s ability to ‘wage war’.
Aside from the sensational headlines however, there are some lingering concerns about Choudary not least that his views and ideology are unchanged and that given the opportunity, he will continue to radicalise others. These concerns are based on the fact that while in prison, Choudary refused to take part in any deradicalisation programme. Likewise, he refused all opportunities to speak with religious leaders and others known to have changed the mindset of other extremists in the past. However because such schemes are voluntary, his refusal to participate could not be used to hold up his release.
The real problem?
What is maybe most concerning is the undue attention still being afforded to Choudary by the mainstream media. While currently restricted from giving interviews to the media, his appearance and recurrence in the British media has continued unabated. In the past few weeks, Britain’s mainstream media have variously reported how Choudary has visited a coffee shop, ate a meal with an unknown woman in McDonalds, and allegedly submitted an application for £73 per week in welfare benefits. Much to the chagrin of the vast majority of Britain’s Muslims, the mainstream media seem quite unwilling to let Choudary fall out of the public gaze. One might cynically suggest that because the media have constructed Choudary as the archetypal ‘Muslim enemy’, he performs an important function in the process of conveying a message about who and what Muslims are in today’s Britain. True or not, the mainstream media’s obsession with Choudary continues to be extremely problematic. Because of this, the amount of air-time and column inches afforded to Choudary needs to end now.
(A German language version of this article was originally published in Perspektif on 1st December 2018 http://www.perspektif.eu/2018/12/01/anjem-choudarynin-tahliyesi-ve-medyanin-tavri/)