Michael Fotis speaks to Anjem Choudary, leader of al-Muhajiroun, an organisation widely labelled as the recruitment arm of al–Qaeda in Britain
Who is the real Anjem Choudary, subject of an array of conflicting media labels? As we spoke it became evident that these labels (“all part of the struggle” according to Choudary) could not be discarded. His words reflected these contradictions, and suggested that perhaps the struggle is also internal for Choudary, who gave the impression of discomfort over the effects of his crusade.
In a wide-ranging interview, Choudary, the leader of al-Muhajiroun, spoke of his self-proclaimed “road of confrontation”. He denies engaging violent means in order to achieve his aims. Yet the alleged influence of al-Muhajiroun on a number of convicted terrorists has brought Choudary into the spotlight.
The shoe bomber Richard Reid was among those attending al-Muhajiroun meetings in Ilford, shortly before his failed attempt to blow up a Miami-bound plane in 2001. Another regular visitor was Asif Hanif, a 21 year old from Hounslow in London. On 29th April 2003, he detonated his explosive belt in Mike’s Bar in Tel Aviv, killing three and injuring sixty.
More recently, the trial of the five men jailed for the ‘fertiliser bomb plot’ has, according to Professor Anthony Glees, “given us smoking-gun evidence that groups like al-Muhajiroun have had an important part in radicalising young British Muslims, and that this can create terrorists.”
Choudary, a British citizen, was born into a working-class family of Pakistani origin. His university years in Southampton and Guildford saw him fully immersed in British society, and its opportunities, becoming a qualified lawyer. Yet the failure to land a City law job is reportedly what drove him to extremism – a suggestion Choudary dismisses as “complete nonsense.”
I began by asking Choudary about the role of al-Muhajiroun; “our main purpose is to invite society to Islam as a way of life, to enjoin the good, forbid the evil”. Choudary believes that “life under the Sharia” would provide the remedy for “broken Britain.” Although this invitation would seem sincere, it would prove to be inconsistent with Choudary’s inability to accept its rejection: it’s his way or, well… there is no highway on Choudary’s “road of confrontation.”
“We are willing to sacrifice our money, our time, our efforts…ourselves,” he explained.
Choudary described how “the most intellectual and the most wealthy people have woken up to the reality of the Muslim situation. They have studied and have a deep understanding of Islam and that’s why they are on the frontline of the struggle”. Choudary cites Omar Bakri Mohammed and Osama bin Laden (among others) as fellow comrades.”Those people are in the frontline of the struggle physically and I happen to be on the frontline of the struggle verbally”, he insisted.
I decided to belabour this point, and question whether such a crisp distinction can really be made. Is he not, as Patrick Mercer MP and Chairman of the House of Commons Sub-Committee on Counter-Terrorism has stated, “subverting and suborning vulnerable youngsters with a view to turning them into mujahedin”?
On this point he is opaque, and perhaps necessarily so: “we are a very very active organisation… we do come across many people.” He counters with his belief that “it’s open season when it comes to attacking Islam and Muslims, in the media, by the government,” and rails against those who he feels find it “against their interests for the Muslims to be calling for the Sharia.”
“How is it that those people who are engaged in state terrorism, and who are doing it on a mass scale are somehow fighting for freedom and democracy?” he says of the government. For Choudary, it seems, “there is a perverse reality in which people are living”, where it is “those people who want to defend their Muslim life, honour and property, and who want to raise their voice against such atrocities” who are accused of “real” terrorism, by this “terrorist” state.
This is both a firm conviction and a central part of his rhetoric, and it is not difficult to see how his words could provoke a reaction. “Almost every year there’s a new wound in our body,” he said, referencing Muslim suffering in Nigeria, and the Xinjiang province in China. But his use of the collective Muslim identity (“we” or “the Muslims”) at this point became critical. Is al-Muhajiroun really representative of 1.6 million British Muslims? Or has he, I would ask, hijacked Islam for his own purposes?
In May 2009 al-Muhajiroun re-launched with Choudary at the helm. It had officially disbanded in 2005, with its then leader fleeing to Lebanon, where he is now in exile. Well, that’s not quite the whole story:
As Choudary explains, “we never look at the law of the land before we do our divine obligation.” Upon disbanding, al-Muhajiroun was fragmented into two small groups, Al Guraba and the Saviour Sect, both later proscribed after the Home Office “changed the goalposts” by including the glorification of terrorism as part of the Terrorism Act. These groups had described the 9/11 attackers as the “magnificent 19.”
When asked how al-Muhajiroun could continue to exist, Choudary reasoned that following the re-birth of his organisation, they “do not need to use these types of advertising ploys anymore.”
Nevertheless, al-Muhajiroun has since engaged in a high profile publicity campaign, most infamous for its protest against returning troops in Luton, which also saw Choudary take to the GMTV sofa. He tells me that “from my own experience nobody really from the Muslim community has condemned it, in fact, they were very very much in favour of what took place.”
This seems incredibly skewed, not least as this is his response to the condemnation provided by a member of the Islamic Centre in Luton. Choudary is indeed aware of this disapproval, but chooses to dismiss the source as “spokesmen of the British government,” explaining that the Centre is “funded by the Saudi government, and they support the police against so-called terrorism.” Earlier in the interview Choudary had plainly stated that he believed “we (al-Muhajiroun) have a lot of support within the community.”
However, it is this community which Choudary labels “deviant”, describing it as “divided into over 73 sects” and explaining that “72 of them will be in the hellfire.” He claims that he is part of the “minority who are on the truth – we are right because the divine text agrees with what we say.”
Al-Muhajiroun has attracted additional attention with its road show entitled “Life under the Sharia.” Choudary describes these events as having been “very successful”, but it’s on this point that the contradiction seems to be greatest. He is happy to boast of “30 people at least” becoming Muslims at his road shows, and once again court the press with an eleven year-old convert, yet he seems frustrated that “the perfection, and the beauty, and the justice of divine law” has not been more profoundly conveyed.
“If people actually bothered to come down to the road shows they would see that in fact we are dispelling many of the misconceptions that people have about Islam and Muslims.”
This calling might well be “a noble thing to do,” if al-Muhajiroun were not so instrumental in propelling these very misconceptions, providing fodder for British neo-conservatives such as Douglas Murray who described al-Muhajiroun as “egregiously wrong and wicked”.
By pointing to al-Muhajiroun, and their headline-grabbing calls, such as prosecution of the Queen for genocide, have the ‘extreme right’ have found their agent provocateur, and perhaps their greatest marketing tool? Choudary believes that “they (the extreme right) need us,” but also said,” I don’t think that we need the extreme right at all actually.”
He also expressed his wish to “engage in open dialogue and discussion”. But should this call for a debate be genuine, then it is held hostage to a conflicting but perhaps equally necessary aim; to provoke outrage, and with the subsequent condemnation, present ‘evidence’ for his assertion that the media and government are “demonising the Muslims”.
Choudary is emphatic in his dismissal of the suggestion that his group engenders a sense of alienation and disillusionment, and feeds off the anxieties which they stimulate: “that’s not true at all… that is not a fair representation of what we stand for, and what were calling for.”
“There’s no one (else) really in town calling for the Sharia,” he adds. Directing such an intellectual vanguard, is no doubt rarely an easy feat, not least when I ask him for examples where the Sharia operates successfully. He can do no more than point to “some projects in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq” and lament the “propaganda” directed against the Taliban.
Choudary sees no need to dilute, or even tailor his message, listing the “Hollywood industry” alongside murder and rape as some of societies “problems.”
His claim that “people in Britain are looking for an alternative” may hold some truth, but Choudary’s organisation of “people who believe in overthrowing the government”, and their rejection of the “concept of manmade law”, seems an unlikely choice. This doesn’t seem to stop him from trying:
“How about a system which provides the basic needs for all of the people, where gas, electricity, water and the basic resources will be given to all of the citizens free of charge, where everyone’s life, honour, dignity, and religion will protected, then the people will say that’s a good system; well that’s what were calling for… you will be able to live within that society as a Christian, as a Jew, you will have your places of worship and you can even get married and eat the food and drink that you wish within the confines of your own home, but the system within society will be Islamic.”
After forty minutes, I am not sure whether I have indeed just interviewed the most dangerous man in Britain.
Nonetheless, the potent combination of his unyielding commitment, the questions that remain over the means he is prepared to engage, and the sincerity which he at times exudes, means that he cannot be readily dismissed: “I am now hopefully doing something to please God, that will help me, and benefit the society in which I live.”