Choudary never spoke on behalf of UK Muslims

HA Hellyer reviews the strange case of the British agitator who has been found guilty of supporting terrorism

British muslim cleric Anjem Choudary arriving at the Old Bailey in London on January 11, 2016 for the start of his trial on charges of inviting support for ISIL. Adrian Dennis / AFP Photo
Powered by automated translation

This week, it was revealed that, in July, Anjem Choudary, a British propagandist in London, had been found guilty by an English court of supporting terrorism. Choudary, an extremist Islamist, is due to be sentenced next month. But Choudary and his cohorts have been agitating for about two decades – what has changed and what ought we to learn from this experience?

As the news broke, British Muslim organisations and figures of all stripes declared their support for the verdict. Choudary has been derided in the British Muslim community for many years. He first gained notoriety when he was part of the radical group, Al Muhajiroon, which was banned in the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 bombings. It seems fitting that 11 years to the day of the attacks, Choudary’s guilty verdict was issued.

By 2005, Choudary had already been involved in agitation, but the main propagandist was his mentor, a Syrian expatriate named Omar Bakri Fostok. Shortly after the July 7 bombings, however, Fostok fled the UK, and the then-home secretary made it clear that he would not be allowed to return. Choudary took up the mantle, very effectively.

When I write that, I do not mean he was effective in recruiting British Muslims. Neither Fostok nor Choudary were particularly successful in that regard. I remember coming across Al Muhajiroon for the first time in 1998, when Fostok was holding classes in different parts of the UK, even though he had few committed followers and was not a religious scholar. But they both played their parts well – though the act was not mainly aimed at the British Muslim community. Rather, the impact was mostly on the non-Muslim mainstream. Alas, the British media establishment, and later the wider western media, facilitated that tremendously.

Both Fostok and Choudary performed: they had the long beards associated with conservative male Muslims, wore robes and spoke Arabic (Fostok far better than Choudary). When they added to their radical rhetoric, they fulfilled the part of “angry Muslim” well – and there were many in the media who would regularly call upon them to play the role.

On many occasions, British Muslim organisations and figures objected to the likes of Al Muhajiroon being given highly influential platforms on the BBC and other mainstream media. Their authority was limited to a tiny group of followers, but large swathes of the British public were given the impression that Al Muhajiroon’s reach was far broader, to the consternation of British Muslims.

Choudary is a lawyer. He deftly ensured that his discourse, while morally and ethically outrageous to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, was within the limits of the law. The UK is rightly proud of upholding freedom of speech – but all freedoms can be abused. Following July 7, there have been many justified fears that significant proportions of the political elite would like to alter the law – but it may be that Choudary’s conviction has acquitted the notion that there are enough laws on the books already.

There is an argument to be made that his discourse broke the laws on incitement to hatred – but any move in changing the existing laws needs to be considered incredibly carefully. British society is strong in part because the British continue to uphold the notion that even when speech is disagreeable, it is nonetheless protected unless it directly leads to harm.

That does not, nevertheless, acquit the media establishment. Far too many gave Choudary a platform he did not deserve, whether in terms of his scholarly credentials or his popular standing, both of which he did not possess. The media was never obliged to provide oxygen to such views, and it failed to provide proportionate coverage to more mainstream voices that were less sensationalist but were far more representative of British Muslim opinion.

Herein, however, exists a wider problem that the UK as a society needs to consider – and many other western countries as well. The representation of Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community is fraught with a variety of misunderstandings, allowing those who simply have access to the media to crowd out more rational voices.

In the age of social media, this is even more problematic – many a marginal voice has become famous simply by virtue of having a Facebook page or a Twitter account.

Alas, some media figures, such as Sean Hannity on Fox News, found great utility in focusing on people like Choudary and inviting them onto the airwaves. Interviews with them allowed Hannity and others to play to their populist audience and, unfortunately, reinforce their perceptions of Muslims and Islam.

Choudary made a critical error – he gave allegiance to ISIL. His discourse crossed the boundary by actively supporting a terrorist group. He has now paid the price – but there remain difficult questions for the media. One hopes that more responsibility will be shown in dealing with such extremist figures. That’s not simply a question for the courts. Rather, it is the responsibility of certain members of the media to become more professional.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer