Anjem Choudary's convenient relationship with the British press

Anjem Choudary's convenient relationship with the British press
Comment: The 'radical hate preacher' has been convicted over his support for 'terrorism', but his voice was amplified by an Islamophobic media desperate for a caricature, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
19 Aug, 2016
Choudary and the right-wing media fed off each other's extremism [Getty]

For two decades, Islamist agitator Anjem Choudary has been plying his trade as Britain's most press-friendly jihadi. 

In the post-9/11 era, whenever the media would need to conjure up an embodiment of "radical Islam", in all its treasonous, British soldier-hating ingloriousness, Choudary would be happy to provide it. Choudary has achieved an impressive list of media appearances - apart from his at one point semi-ubiquitous presence in the tabloids, he's been on the BBC, ITV, Sky News and even made it as far as that well known bastion of reason and civility that is Fox News.

Almost every major newspaper in the English-speaking world seems to have carried a story on him.

One might think that this coverage is perfectly normal; after all, he's an outspoken self-described jihadist. Unlike most evil-doers, Choudary is more than willing to state his views openly in front of TV cameras or notepad-wielding journalists, so why would the media not embrace but exploit such a valuable resource? 

How often does the average white British Joe get to hear a jihadi saying that he wants Sharia to be imposed on Britain and the flag of Islam raised above Buckingham Palace? 

The other side of this is what might be called the proportionality argument - Choudary's views represent, at best, merely hundreds of Britain's population of almost three million Muslims. 

However, if we were to judge his significance based on the proportion of his media coverage, one might surmise that Choudary is the Grand Mufti of British Islam. 

He's once again back in the headlines again after having been convicted under the Terrorism Act for "inviting support" for the Islamic State group.

The conviction rests on his support for the group that was apparently issued over private media. While I don't in any sense want to launch some principled defence of Choudary's right to freedom of speech - although perhaps there may be grounds for one when it comes to the Terrorism Act in general - there is some irony in the fact that the motor-mouth, go-to jihadi for the British media would finally be undone by things he said privately.

Is it not despicable that the same media who for more than a decade scandalously over-represented Choudary's views are now lamenting his alleged scope of his capacity?

But behind this irony there is a more significant point about Choudary's media profile. One headline in the Telegraph beamed Radical preacher Anjem Choudary behind bars as police reveal his links to 500 ISIL jihadis, claiming that he "spent two decades radicalising a generation of would-be terrorists". 

The BBC followed suit, claiming that he was "one of the most dangerous men in Britain", linking him to a veritable rogue's gallery of notorious terrorists. Putting to one side the extremely dubious understanding of "radicalisation" by officialdom and the media in the UK, is it not despicable that the same media who for more than a decade scandalously over-represented Choudary's views are now lamenting his alleged scope of his capacity as a source of radicalisation? 

Forget secret "terror networks" or even private messages on Facebook, all anyone inclined towards extremism would need to have done to find Choudary is read any of Britain's top-selling papers, particularly after 9/11 and 7/7. 

No voice that seeks to represent Islam, as Choudary certainly does - even if it is his genuinely poisonous brand of Salafi-jihadism - has received as much media attention as Choudary in the UK.

If Choudary truly is dangerous and has incited people to go and join the genocidal "caliphate" of the Islamic State group, then I'm hardly going to lament Choudary's conviction - but we should also be look at the manner in which the British media gave him a platform far outstripping his significance and how it portrays Islam and Muslims more generally. 

We live in an era where the Daily Star, one of Britain's top-selling newspapers, had Islamophobia as an editorial policy, as attested to under oath at the Leveson Inquiry by one of its former journalists, Richard Peppiatt, who quit the paper over its anti-Islamic bias and its promotion of the fascist and violently Islamophobic English Defence League. 

Peppiatt detailed how he was forced by the editor to essentially invent several stories with an Islamophobic and racist bent, such as an entirely false story about how Muslims were planning on posing as Sikhs in order to hide bombs in their turbans - as Peppiatt noted, "having a story that lashed out at both Muslims and Sikhs at one was too good to pass over". 

Peppiatt described the status quo at the Star: "A top-down pressure to unearth stories which fitted within a certain narrative (immigrants are taking over, Muslims are a threat to security) led to casual and systemic distortions."

He might as well have been describing much of the media, particularly tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail, whose coverage of Islam and Muslims is consistently negative.  Islamophobia of course intersects with general racist tropes about immigration, with "Islamification" (the idea that Muslims are imposing Islam on the UK) being a riff going as far back at least as Enoch Powell's infamous warning of a future of the "black man having the whip hand over the white man". 

Choudary was like a dream come true for the right-wing media

One manner in which this prejudice is communicated is through an over-emphasis on terrorism and marginal extremist voices, such as Choudary's, when it comes to Islam. 

And, in this sense, Choudary was like a dream come true for the right-wing media. Not only was he a British Muslim, a self-described Britain-hating jihadi, but he also claimed state benefits - an almost perfect caricature of the common racist idea that Muslims in the UK hate Britain but are willing to parasitically suck off the benefits provided from the hardworking tax-paying majority. 

Indeed, following Choudary's conviction, the Daily Mail reminded us in a headline that Choudary "claimed £25,000 a year in benefits" while "laughing at Britain for 20 years".

If we accept the idea that Choudary, by his words and actions - amplified by the British media - somehow contributed to a process of radicalisation among a certain demographic of British Muslims, is it really that far-fetched to then wonder if the British media's hysterically negative coverage of Islam has also contributed to radicalisation in some manner? 

Not only might it contribute to a general sense of alienation and besiegement among Muslims who already face discrimination, but also might it not have contributed to the disturbing rise in Islamophobic hate crimes that the UK has witnessed in recent years? 

Choudary's conviction concerns his incitement for people to support IS, something he did privately, but we have a media that consistently produces stories that portray Muslims negatively, including by over-emphasising his noxious views, despite his being an extremely marginal voice within British Islam.

One might ask who and what this has incited? When well-known Muslim figures say that they've come to accept abuse as common occurrence, or when a publicly anti-Islamophobic MP is assassinated during an EU referendum campaign wherein the Leave side appealed to Islamophobia in the most grotesque ways, the answer to that question becomes worryingly clear. 

Even more worrying is that, unlike Choudary, the perpetrators of this form of incitement or radicalisation keep getting away with it.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.