Following the conviction of Anjem Choudary for inviting support for ISIS, Roshan Muhammed Salih says that the mainstream media made Choudary what he is and they did so in a cynical attempt to demonise the whole Muslim community.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Anjem Choudary – we got on well, he’d always prioritise me over more prominent non-Muslim journalists, and he was extremely funny.
Anjem was also incredibly eloquent; a guaranteed soundbite. I often thought to myself that if he could only have channelled the talent God had given him in a more constructive way he could have been a real force for good.
I had a whale of a time the first time I did an in-depth interview with him back in 2009. We met in an East London park and he was accompanied by a band of his followers (including, I think, his fellow defendant Mizanur Rahman) who clearly hung on his every word.
Anjem immediately tried to convert my atheist Turkish cameraman who was visibly vexed by the grilling. Then he asked me what the f*** I was doing hanging around with atheists. I replied that my colleague filmed interviews for me and wasn’t my spiritual advisor.
During the interview Choudary covered most of the territory that made him infamous – the denunciation of the British way of life and of the conduct of British troops abroad, the labelling of mainstream Muslims as “sycophants” and “apostates,” the advocation of sharia law in the UK. Anjem saw all attacks on him as akin to assaults by the Quraish on the Sahaba; he loved the limelight; he thought most Muslims were secular; he was totally convinced he was right, it was black and white, his way or the highway.
But I was happy. Hey, I knew I’d get loads of YouTube hits.
In subsequent years I continued to interview Anjem far more than I should have done, to the frustration of some of my colleagues who thought I was being highly irresponsible. I interviewed him because he was good telly and because he would say things that mainstream British Muslims just wouldn’t. I actually agreed with a lot of what he said (especially about British foreign policy) and thought the over-the-top stuff was ultimately just harmless venting.
So one minute I would be filming his friends calling the Islamophobic Dutch MP Geert Wilders “a dog,” and another minute I would be filming him and them burning an American flag outside the US Embassy. He was a guaranteed quote and source of YouTube views. Journalism gold.
But over the years I did eventually see the error of my ways. I guess it was the comments under every YouTube video I posted that did it for me – full of non-Muslims screaming their hatred not just for him, but for Islam and Muslims.
And then of course there was the sheer amount of Muslims who detested him (he’s always been far more unpopular within the British Muslim community than outside of it.) Many of my friends considered him to be an MI5 agent and couldn’t understand why he was allowed to say such incendiary stuff without being arrested while others rotted in jail. He had virtually zero support within the community yet was one of its most well-known figures.
Finally, the number of his followers who did actually go on to commit acts of violence or plan them was becoming too big to ignore – such as Lee Rigby’s killers Michael Adebalago and Michael Adebowale, suspected ISIS executioner Siddartha Dhar, and Brusthom Ziamani who was jailed for planning to kill in the streets of London.
So that’s my mea culpa. I gave Anjem far too much attention but in my defence I only interviewed him when he was at the centre of a story. The mainstream media, however, has always loved Anjem Choudary and they’ve used him to demonise the Muslim community for a long time and to far greater audiences than I could ever muster.
The tabloid media, especially, would use him for incendiary quotes with the subtext being that all Muslims are like that. But the more respectable media – such as the BBC and Channel 4 – would also regularly interview him. He seemed a particular favourite of the BBC host Nicky Campbell who would pair him up in farcical debates with his more polished alter ego Maajid Nawaz.
The prominence that Anjem Choudary got on the mainstream media was a constant source of frustration for British Muslims. While he wasn’t welcome in mosques and Muslim institutions, he was a regular on TV news bulletins and debate shows. Of course the presenters would challenge and demonise him but the very fact that he was there to be challenged and demonised is the greater concern.
At most Choudary must have had a few hundred hard-core supporters around the country, and his demos never attracted more then 50 or so people. Yet he was probably the most famous Muslim in the UK in the eyes of many non-Muslims, instantly recognisable if he walked down the street. He represented everything the average ignorant Brit feared – a strange-looking outsider who was undermining everything they believed made Britain great, while at the same time living off benefits and taking advantage of free speech laws.
And whether they like to admit it or not, the mainstream media are going to miss him. Who else will they find who is so readily available to play the role of the Muslim bad guy? Who else will they find to willingly fall into their trap and feed the Islamophobia industry?
I always knew that Anjem was eventually going to go down. In a climate where the government was cracking down on blatant support for Al Qaeda and ISIS he couldn’t stay below the radar. And make no mistake – Choudary was and is a supporter of Al Qaeda and ISIS, and would have been more blatant about it if the law had allowed.
So the reflex action of many Muslims will be to celebrate Anjem’s demise because he’s been such a thorn in the community’s side for so long, no doubt helping to fuel the Islamophobic and racist climate that has enveloped us. But should we celebrate? I have mixed feelings.
It will certainly be a relief not to see him on media anymore posing as some sort of Muslim community spokesperson. And I do believe that he has helped radicalise a small number of dangerous individuals.
But troubling questions remain.
Firstly, why was his trial held in secret? Are we living in some Third World dictatorship where justice is meted out behind closed doors? The stated reason – that it would have prejudiced another trial taking place at the same time – will dissatisfy many. Like it or not, Anjem Choudary was a well-known public figure and in an open democracy the public had a right to hear his defence instead of just being spoon-fed snippets of info from his trial. Many of us would certainly liked to have heard what he might have said about his encounters with the security services, for example.
Secondly, will Choudary’s conviction lead to the further persecution of those who insist on voicing legitimate foreign policy grievances, but who do not support banned terrorist groups like he did? I don’t think anybody in the Muslim community would complain if people are convicted for supporting ISIS or Al Qaeda, groups who actively seek to attack this country; but the hounding of peaceful political dissidents who blame Britain’s murderous foreign policy for radicalisation or those who are defiantly anti-Israel must stop.
Thirdly, should we be celebrating Choudary’s demise when other toxic contributors to the Islamophobia industry such as Maajid Nawaz and Douglas Murray are free to dominate our TV screens? Many Muslims I know would consider these figures and Choudary to be two sides of the same coin.
The last time I interviewed Anjem was in 2014 a few months after some of his followers were convicted of assaulting Shia Muslims on Edgeware Road in London after he had led a sectarian demo. Members of Britain First were present and he cheekily gave them a grin and wave before leaving. After that I stopped returning his calls. Somehow I didn’t feel good about doing that because he’d always been pleasant with me, but after all the damage he had helped cause to community relations in Britain and I think I did the right thing.
After all, he was just using me like I used to use him.