By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
21 October 2018
UK radical preacher Anjem Choudary has finally been released from prison after serving less than half of his five and a half year sentence due to time spent on bail and electronic tag supervision.
While in prison Choudary refused to participate in any de-radicalization program or speak to mainstream Islamic clerics so we can assume his views have not been rehabilitated. This bizarre situation will now pose a headache for the UK authorities who will have to closely monitor his behavior and interactions less he resorts to his former conduct of encouraging support for ISIS and other extremist organizations.
But how did Choudary find himself with so much power and influence over the minds of so many young Muslims? And how did any of them get to the point of committing terror attacks? The tragic fact of the matter is that the media made Choudary. And in doing so, they did more to help promote extremism in Britain than most other forces that conspire against our safety.
Choudary is and never has been an imam or cleric. He has no Islamic credentials – to be an imam one needs over a decade of formal study of the Qur’an, and be recognized as an authority by other scholars. He has never been taken seriously by the mainstream Muslim community in Britain and has been expelled out of virtually every mosque in the country.
What Choudary did have, however, was a quick tongue and a fiery demeanour. And he loved wearing a traditional Islamic robes reserved for the scholarly class.
All he needed to qualify him as the go-to “Muslim preacher” when a sensationalist publication or broadcast were looking for an “interesting character” to give their news stories or their angle on the Muslim community in Britain a bit of edginess.
The price for that “journalistic edge” was to give this opportunistic spiv a veneer of popularity, which helped him ensnare a cohort of weak-minded, troubled individuals to his hateful vision of the world.
What is more, the media did not only give him a presence in the public consciousness, but they also put him there as a punch-bag. Someone towards which we could vent our disdain and hostility. And both the disdain and hostility were well deserved.
But we also allowed, nay encouraged, him to portray himself, at least in the mind of some, as a representative of the Muslim community. And this allowed him to claim that the disdain and hostility was not directed just toward him: but towards Muslims in general. Another brilliant recruitment tool for extremism.
And Anjem Choudary is but one of example of how the media has, with ghoulish compulsion, elevated a series of gobby self-promoters to national prominence for no other purpose than to cause intercommunal strife – strife which sells newspapers and TV advertisement slots, but the price of which is now paid in blood in Britain’s streets.
Omar Bakri Muhammad, Abu Hamza and many others have graduated from the British media’s inadvertent programme of Islamist propaganda. Nor is there much evidence that lessons have been learned. Or at least that the right lessons have been learned. Yes, Islamist propaganda is given less airtime on our televisions these days.
But the tradition of elevating gobby, unscrupulous self-promoters so that we can all collectively gawp and marvel at how awful they are while they gleefully go about poisoning our society with bile and hate and sow deep divisions for the future is alive and well. Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and many others of their ilk, are still allowed to broadcast hate speech and legitimise bigotry with impunity on the national airwaves. As was Nick Griffin before them.
The media keeps piling on politicians for not doing enough to combat terrorism. But they have it within their power to do more to combat terrorism than any individual politician: all they would need to do is to stop advertising hate preachers of all ilks, stop lavishing individual terrorists with hours upon hours of coverage, and stop stoking on social tensions with that false air of naiveté under the guise of “reporting the facts”.
Yes, social strife sells newspapers. And the more contrived the conflict, the better. But surely by now we understand how irresponsible that is. And that the cost is now counted in the lives of innocent people.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.