The media should not play in the hands of extremists like Choudary

The media must learn a wider lesson about promoting self-proclaimed representatives who espouse the most extreme views to drive views or clicks.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Anjem Choudary leaves a bail hostel in northern London after his release from Belmarsh Prison, on October 19. (AP)
Better late than never. Anjem Choudary leaves a bail hostel in northern London after his release from Belmarsh Prison, on October 19. (AP)

I don’t want to be writing about Anjem Choudary. As a London-born British Muslim, the hate preacher and the rhetoric spread by his ilk are unfortunately all too familiar to me. For those of my generation, Choudary was one of the most prominent faces of British Islam.

Choudary was a mainstay on mainstream UK media in the late 2000s as a self-proclaimed “representative” of British Muslims. Whenever a terrorist attack occurred or the government pushed through a piece of legislation affecting Muslims, the media would flock to Choudary, who was ready with a pithy comment or sensationalist quote.

He described the 9/11 attackers as the “Magnificent 19,” lauded Woolwich attackers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who brutalised and killed off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013, and said “not many Muslims” disagreed with the abhorrent crime. Adebolajo and Adebowale were involved with the banned Al-Muhajiroun group, which was set up by Choudary.

The BBC and other domestic and even international news channels routinely gave Choudary opportunities to promote his hateful ideology. After the Rigby killing, Channel 4 News invited Choudary on to discuss his role in the radicalisation of Adebolajo and Adebowale. Asked to apologise, Choudary said: “I’m not going to apologise for exposing the crimes of the British government in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

On being pushed to answer a question on his precise role in their radicalisation, he responded: “Let me answer the question in my way” and criticised the British government more.

Unfortunately, the British media let Choudary get away with answering questions in his way for far too long. Choudary’s fame helped him radicalise young British Muslims and also radicalised the anti-Muslim far-right. The media absolutely played a role in Choudary’s fame and influence, which led to real-world violence and terrorist attacks. This must be acknowledged and learned from.

As far back as 2011, the duplicity of the media using Choudary to stoke sensationalist coverage was clear. The Guardian published an open letter by journalist Richard Peppiatt after he resigned from a major British tabloid over its anti-Muslim coverage, specifically citing the newspaper’s use of inflammatory quotes from Choudary.

“Many a morning I’ve hit my speed dial button to Muslim rent-a-rant Anjem Choudary to see if he fancied pulling together a few lines about whipping drunks or stoning homosexuals,” he complained.

After years of Choudary walking a fine line between freedom of speech and illegal hate speech, he went too far by pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. He was convicted of inviting support for a proscribed terrorist organisation and is on a UN terrorism sanctions list.

Choudary and his hateful ideology have been exposed and he has been transformed from a media darling into a pariah. His release from prison might have returned him to the headlines but, with any luck, for the last time. I hope this is the final time I dedicate column inches to Choudary.

Still, the media must learn a wider lesson about promoting self-proclaimed representatives who espouse the most extreme views to drive views or clicks. Unfortunately, many British media organisations failed to absorb this lesson and are making similar mistakes with far-right British radical Tommy Robinson.

Robinson — real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — is founder of the English Defence League, an Islamophobic group that grew out of a counter-protest against Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun in Luton in 2009.

In many ways, Robinson is the antithesis to Choudary.

Like Choudary, Robinson has proclaimed himself an unofficial and unelected spokesman and representative of his own community — in this case white working-class Britons.

Like Choudary, Robinson found himself in trouble with the law. For him, it was a contempt of court charge involving the trial of a Huddersfield grooming gang made up of mostly Asian men.

Like Choudary, Robinson is promoting a dangerous us-versus-them narrative that only results in a vicious and endless circle of radicalisation and counter-radicalisation.

Robinson, who bills himself as a “citizen journalist,” was interviewed on Sky News. Many criticised the move and called for Robinson not to be given more air time. “Last week I wrote how we let hate preacher Anjem Choudary use his platform to radicalise and spread violence. Robinson is doing the very same,” warned journalist Michael Segalov in a recent tweet.

I hope we have seen the last of Choudary and I hope we soon see the last of Robinson.

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