And at long last, Anjem Choudary, Britain’s favorite TV jihadi, is behind bars. This has been 20 years in the making. Twenty years in which the trained solicitor has sowed division between British Muslims and the rest of British society, and in which he has nevertheless managed to avoid trouble with the law by remaining just on the right side of the line. But the problem with being a “radical firebrand” is that your followers are likely to believe what you say, and believe that your motives are true. And eventually, life will throw a curve ball and put you in a situation where talking the talk is no longer sufficient. You must also walk the walk or risk losing credibility.
This is exactly what happened to Choudary. He has spent two decades preaching the rise of a new Islamic State. And then, an Islamic State of exactly his prescription materialized out of the hell of the Syrian civil war. The evidence shows that Choudary was reluctant to declare open support for the group. After all, he is not that stupid. But unfortunately for him, the same cannot be said of his followers. They were adamant that this was indeed the Islamic State of their dreams and that they should pledge support. Choudary had to follow suit, or risk becoming an apologist for the kuffar (disbelievers) at just the pivotal moment in his “jihadi career,” when everything he had ever preached looked possible to his followers.
Still, Choudary is not stupid. He tried to twist and dissimulate in the way he has perfected over his two decades-long career, and claimed that he was merely supporting “the political ideal of an Islamic State,” not the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. At least in public. That would not have satisfied his followers in private. So he did find himself having to pledge allegiance to the actual ISIS. The evidence of him having done so emerged in court. He was condemned to up to 10 years in prison. And everyone in the country sighed a sigh of relief.
Well, not exactly everyone. Britain’s Muslims had been especially keen to get rid of Choudary. He had already been banned from every mosque in the UK. But there was not much they could do to stop him from speaking on the street. In a less liberal and tolerant society, Choudary would have been gagged a long time ago, for the sake of public safety and social cohesion. But in Britain, he found a ready audience among those who had no interest in public safety and social cohesion — those who had a lot of papers to sell and profit to make from social antagonisms: Britain’s “famous” free press. More tabloid journalists have made a living from Choudary’s poison than there have been people attending his “rallies.” Where will the press now find a similarly articulate and educated caricature jihadi to farm for quotes with whom to smear by association the entire Muslim community in this country?
But at least some good should come of this. There is a wedge between the Muslim community in Britain and the rest of society. Not so much one driven by Choudary and the like, who have preyed on particularly vulnerable young men, often mentally and emotionally damaged, with troubled history of petty criminality and drug abuse, but one driven by Britain’s gutter press. The Muslim community has felt itself under attack. Many mosques with proactive imams have done excellent work to reach out and engage with the wider society. But much of their work remains unseen, whereas constant attacks or just subtle hostility are felt by Muslims every day in the press, television and on the streets. So much so, that I have met many young members of the Muslim community who were given to believe that Choudary must have been a plant by the secret services or Mossad with the purpose of marring the public image of their faith and community. That is obviously very dangerous, if an entire community feels itself the target of that kind of underhanded attack. Hopefully this conviction will demonstrate to them that the British state and British society are not actively hostile to them, and persuade many more to follow the model of openness set by their imams. It is only with such openness and engagement that we can all come together as Britons, can all feel like we belong in this country equally, and we can move beyond that dreadful feeling that the Muslim community stands somehow apart from the wider British society.
But I am hopeful that this conviction will go much further than that. This should be a moment for introspection especially for the British press. Anjem Choudary is, after all, a monster of their own creation. Without them, Choudary’s pronouncements of the coming of “Londonistan” or of the “flag of Islam” flying over Buckingham Palace would have remained what they fundamentally are: the demented ravings of an attention whore. In any other circumstances, the response would have been to roll our eyes, giggle to ourselves and proceed to forget that this person ever existed. But, since we have papers to sell, and papers don’t sell themselves, Britain’s press barons have done the entrepreneurial thing: They spotted an opportunity and proceeded to exploit it to full effect. Nevermind the social consequences of doing so. And so we did our best to whip everyone into an Islamophobic frenzy every time Choudary said something in a megaphone in front of five people on the street.
But perhaps now we can finally take the time to reflect on the social consequences. Choudary and the other ghouls in the inbred little circles of wannabe jihadis running around in the underbellies of our great cities preached a message of division. That message only appealed to those who had already felt alienated from society, already felt as if society was set against them. They were but a small fringe of isolated individuals. But the message of division has nevertheless prevailed into the public consciousness, courtesy of our mindless press. Unlike the reality, a good old war of Us vs. Them sounds rather more exciting in print than “Troll who happens to be Muslim is trying to troll English racists, while everyone else is happily going about their lives.” And after a good 15 years of various segments of the press going backward and forward on a manufactured polemic of “are we or are we not in conflict with Islam?”, the premise of the question has been legitimized. After all that, the hypothesis that we might be, as a society, locked in some kind of conflict with Islam sounds like something that could be meaningfully entertained, and perhaps even found to be true.
The sad reality is that for as long as that remains the case of our public discourse, Anjem Choudry has won. He may be off our streets, and, mercifully off our television screens, but his spirit has remained ingrained in our shared culture. And that is, to me, unacceptable. That is why I believe we should use this opportunity to take stock. What we want, all of us, as Britons, is a safe and open society. To achieve this, we must all take responsibility for our society, and the welfare and safety of our neighbors. But also, we must all be ever vigilant of those would seek to divide us. Certainly Anjem Choudry and others who would instrumentalize Islam or any other religion for their political agendas, but equally the gutter press that would seek to divide us for their commercial agendas.
As far as radical preachers go, I have long believed that our legal system is far too lenient toward them on the grounds of freedom of speech. And I do sympathize with the concern that any legislation we might introduce to clamp down on “radical” speech can be used just as effectively against other kinds of “radical” political activity, such as perfectly benign Green Party demonstrations. But we should be able to zoom into “social divisiveness” as the criminal element in law. Thus everyone would be allowed, nay, encouraged, to be as radical as they want in bringing our society together. It would not target any kind of political activity that the government or the police might object to, but only those who actively try to set up conflicts between segments of our society.
And as for the press: this is the age of social media. Together, we are far more powerful and can be much more effective in overturning the discussion in the public discourse than any newspaper editor. This is where each and every one of us can be an active part of making a better society. Let us not allow this cynical peddling of fear and mistrust go unchallenged. Rebut it when you see it online. Politely challenge it when you hear it in the street. And whoever you are, try to spend more time with people from “other” communities. Broaden your horizons to our entire society, delightfully diverse and colorful as it is today. Only then will we confine Choudary and his legacy to the dustbin of history.