Anjem Choudary has been released. The Islamist extremist, guilty of inviting support for Islamic State, has exited prison to yet another media circus, just one more of the kind that has marked his career and fed his dangerous Al-Muhajiroun cult for many years.
And the only people to really profit from this will likely be Islamist and far-right extremists as they play off one other.
Choudary also apparently wants to write a book on his time in prison. His raison d’etre, in my view, will no doubt be to play the usual well-worn extremist narrative that the State is bullying and intimidating those who dare to stand up to it. His work over the last three decades has been to punch this victimisation button at every opportunity. His release, I believe, is unlikely to make a difference to the way he sees the world, but could just further re-enforce his beliefs.
Choudary’s tactics have been well-known to many Muslims and activists who have campaigned on social issues during those 30 years he’s been active. Sadly, I too have come across Choudary and have been at the brunt end of Islamist extremists like him many times, one example being when he was making highly inflammatory public remarks in north London in 2007.
Standing outside a shop, I came out to see a group of about 20 young men shouting at elderly women and couples, berating them that they would see “hellfire” if they did not “convert to Islam”. Others handed out extremist literature that talked about the “khilafah” or “caliphate” which, according to them, was on its way. The symbol on the literature showed a black flag emblazoned across the globe, with horsemen waving it on the front page. Looking back now, the images bear a strong resemblance to the propaganda that Islamic State (IS) put out and which attracted some of Choudary’s followers. Given the closeness of beliefs between groups like Al-Muhajiroun and the Islamic State, and even with publicity material that was virtually identical, it was only a matter of time before IS attracted some of Choudary’s followers towards Syria and Iraq.
Choudary had seen me walking towards the Al-Muhajiroun stand that his young die-hard followers had set up. He turned to confront me, shouting that I was part of the “kuffar” (unbeliever) system. I was an elected councillor at the time and Choudary also repeated a handful of public statements I had made about the need to confront and challenge extremists like him. A group of his young followers came to stand around me, asking why I was a “traitor” and telling me the coming Caliphate would make sure that people like me would be “dealt with”.
Choudary targeted and drew to him many young, disaffected and vulnerable, angry young men (many were ‘reverts’, or converts to Islam, people searching for something with a zeal and anger, which Choudary tapped in to, and who often had a poor understanding of their new faith). Most within Muslim communities thought of him as a ‘clown’ and that his activities would not have an impact. His antics appeared so over the top and so bizarre that he was viewed more as an embarrassment than anything.
However, what many of us missed was the ability to connect the dots around the aggression of his core group of followers and the deeply troubling authoritarian and intimidating tactics they used. It was a matter of time before some of them were triggered to violent action: and the growth of the Islamic State was just that trigger.
Choudary’s image and persona was carefully cultivated. Any publicity – whether negative or positive – offered him an opportunity to reach out to vulnerable angry young men. The view was that for every 100 who despised his message, there may have been one drawn to it. His deputy, Mizanur Rehman (also to be released within days) provided theological inspiration to the young followers. Within this process, there was the conveyor belt of news agencies that went to Choudary on issues about extremism and Muslims, exposing his message and inadvertently making him out to be a martyr in the eyes of the disaffected. It was a cycle that helped to draw in a small but determined group of young men to Choudary.
Moving forward, there is only one way to counter people like Choudary. He will have severe restrictions placed on him, though these are not indefinite.
My call is that we cannot and should not return to those days when he was given a free pass for publicity. Choudary’s activities and message need to be isolated, undermined and he must actively be denied any platform. This allied with regular reviews of his bail conditions and the analysis of his statements and comments must continue. Until he changes, which I believe he never will, we must stop the media circus that amplified his hate.
Fiyaz Mughal is director of Faith Matters and founder of anti-Muslim hatred monitoring body, Tell MAMA