Anjem Provocateur

Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Sean Hannity’s beady left eye looked like it was about to pop out of its socket. The conservative shock jock, whose radio programme ‘The Sean Hannity Show’ has an audience of 13 million Americans every week, is one of the best known, most influential right-wing media figures in the States.

His Fox News show, ‘Hannity’, is famous for its legendary “Shoot Outs”, essentially a chance for Hannity to shout over the top of whichever “whining” liberal is in his crosshairs that week.

But this time the man in his sights was Anjem Choudary, the British Islamist often described in the media as “the most dangerous man in Britain” thanks to his high-profile campaign to implement Shariah law in the UK. And now he’s gone Stateside. Choudary had just told Hannity that the reason for his anger was because he knew, deep down, that “Islam is coming to [his] back yard.”

Choudary had already raised the ire of the Fox News presenter when they ran an extract of an interview he’d given to during which he declared: “I’m in the camp of the Muslims, and at the moment, that is headed by Sheikh Osama bin Laden.” This led Hannity to say, “the point is, you are a radical, murdering-supporting fascist [sic].”

Being roundly abused on US television might not seem like a particularly positive encounter, but for Britain’s Shariah Svengali it represented a publicity coup. Choudary had been a leader of al-Muhajiroun and then Islam4UK, both fundamentalist organisations that wanted to see the Shahada flying over Downing Street by 2020. But both organisations were banned by the Labour government under anti-terrorist laws, the latter largely thanks to the controversy that followed a plan to march through Wootton Bassett – the town through which Britain’s war dead are repatriated – complete with empty coffins to highlight what it considers to be the West’s crusade against Islam.

Choudary used the pro-Gaddafi demonstrations on 21st March 2011 as an opportunity to push his belief that Shariah law should govern the UK. Photo: James Montague

Choudary used the pro-Gaddafi demonstrations on 21st March 2011 as an opportunity to push his belief that Shariah law should govern the UK. Photo: James Montague

Having learnt his lesson from the ban – as well as the deportation of his spiritual leader Omar Bakri Muhammad to Lebanon in 2005 – Choudary was now a freelance agent provocateur, attached to MAC, or Muslims Against Crusades, the latest group to call for Shariah for the UK through the use of high profile, ultra-controversial publicity stunts. By using the internet, social networking sites and YouTube, Choudary could spread the word and arrange flash demos against anti-Muslim targets.

He was greeted like a rock star by his followers and the press followed suit, gathering around him for the killer soundbite”

His appearance on CNN and then Fox had seen his notoriety go global. “You are one sick, miserable, evil SOB [son of a bitch],” Hannity concluded, as Choudary was faded out midway through noisily condemning Hannity and the rest of the American nation for bombing Baghdad.

“But thank you for coming on, anyway.”

“I invite you to Islam, which is the reason I invited you today. Open your heart to the Quran [because] the natural disposition of humans is to be inclined towards the truth.” Anjem Choudary was eating mango ice cream in an Arabic café in Leyton, east London. After months of back and forth he had agreed to an interview, but had spent the first 40 minutes talking about the Prophet Muhammed, Steven Hawking, the respective underpinnings and flaws of communism and capitalism, ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ (the medical dictionary, rather than the TV series) and Islamic jurisprudence in an effort to convince one more person to convert to Islam. He performed his dawah, the Islamic principle whereby Muslims invite non-Muslims to Islam through dialogue and which Choudary believes is the only basis for the two to interact, in a soft, quiet voice. He was friendly; charismatic, even. It was a stark contrast to the anger-filled rants on Fox.

“When you go in public, in society, you have to act differently,” he explained when asked about the difference between his gentle ice cream proselytising and his TV persona. “You are talking about the law of the land. The public arena. [In public] I am not inviting you to Islam, I’m considering the evil. If you look at the way the Prophet talked to individuals, and the way he talked to society, it’s different. When the prophet became public, he was harsh with the evil and surrounded it on all sides. He would never compromise.”

Choudary’s strict adherence to the Quran began in 1993, when he was in medical school (he later switched to study law). It was while studying that he met Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian preacher vilified in the press in much the same way as Choudary is today. Bakri set up al-Muhajiroun in Saudi Arabia, but the organisation was banned for its extremism, and he fled to Britain. Yet Bakri is probably best known for appearing in Jon Ronson’s book Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson dedicated a whole chapter to the “Tottenham Ayatollah”, whose efforts to turn Britain into a caliphate seemed so farcical that the chapter might as well have been called ‘Carry On Jihad’. Ronson observed Muhammad taking advantage of Office World’s price promise to photocopy his leaflets damning capitalism, his love of The Lion King, and his “secret jihad training group” in a scout hut near Crawley. Bakri came across as little more than an oddity on the fringe; no different, and to be taken no more seriously, than another subject in Them: David Icke and his theory that the world was ruled by a shadowy organisation called the Babylonian Brotherhood, staffed by 12-foot, shape-shifting lizards.

But after 9/11 and 7/7 that all changed. Britain, whose freedoms had provided shelter for Islamist organisations and preachers from Algeria to Indonesia who would otherwise be tortured or put to death in their homelands, suddenly started to deal with the extremism on its doorstep. In 2005, al-Muhajiroun was banned and Bakri was deported to Lebanon, forever to remain persona non grata. For Choudary, far from being a joke figure, Bakri was a brilliant Islamic scholar who saved him from hell.

Photo: James Montague

Photo: James Montague

“I wasn’t always this way, [I didn’t always] think this way or dress this way,” he said, ordering a latte. “When I first met Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad in 1993, it was when my life started changing. I spent more time with him than with my family, translating fatwas, sitting in court. I was with him when he built al-Muhajiroun, which he built from one person. I learnt a lot from him about how Islamic movements can infiltrate” – he paused to correct himself – “impact on societies, to deal with the media; it was a one-on-one experience. That changed my life. What happened before, that’s not important. It was eradicated. What matters is what happens now.”

What happened before was gleefully retold by the Daily Mail when Choudary first came to prominence in 2009. Under the headline “Swilling beer, smoking dope and leering at porn, the other side of hate preacher ‘Andy’ Choudary”, the paper detailed how Choudary enjoyed much the same experience that most teenagers did at university: smoking weed, taking LSD, getting drunk and trying to have as much sex as possible. In one picture Choudary is seen laughing in front of a table crammed with half-drunk pints, three cans of Woodpecker cider and an open copy of Mayfair (headline: “Caught Without Her Knickers!”).

Today, possibly mindful that two previous organisations he was involved in have been banned, Choudary says he has no official role at MAC, but is a teacher and lecturer invited to MAC events, a freelance Islamic gun for hire. “I’m officially retired. What’s the word you used? Agent provocateur.”

Twelve days before we met for ice cream, on the first day of spring, dozens of green flags, swastikas and adulterated pictures of Nicolas Sarkozy – his eyes and mouth filled in with blood-red pen, his face flecked with spit from angry passers-by – had been hung on the railings outside Downing Street.

Hundreds of angry people – middle-aged dentists holding identical computer print-outs of the same burnt, bloated and recently deceased face; young uncovered female students wearing designer sunglasses as they denounced the West; covered housewives crying as they pointed to placards prophesying the imminent demise of their menfolk – gathered outside the Prime Minister’s home to protest against the bombing of Libya.

There can be few causes less venerable than a pro-Gaddafi march. But here they were, marshalled by suspiciously organised men who were filming the anger for the Brother Leader’s enjoyment. It had been less than 72 hours since France, America and Britain had begun their strategic bombing campaign, and a small group from the Libyan diaspora had gathered to show their anger at the attack on their homeland. Most were students, in London thanks to one of the thousands of Gaddafi scholarships handed out to buy loyalty.

But over the noise another set of voices could be heard: shrill, loud and vying for the attention of the press like a spoilt child on a sibling’s birthday. A few metres away the black Shahada fluttered as, on one side, bearded men with British accents shouted in mock-solidarity. Next to them, as if an invisible line had been drawn in front of the statue of Field Marshal Montgomery, stood an equal number of women dressed in long flowing abayas, niqabs and gloves. Only their eyes were visible over the large cardboard placards proclaiming “Jihad to Defend the Muslims” and, most tellingly, “SHARIAH will dominate the world”. One woman thrust a placard in front of her young children, oblivious to the commotion as they played on the pavement, to stop me from taking a photo. “No offence: you could be a paedophile,” she part-apologised to me through her veil.

Photo: James Montague

Photo: James Montague

It was Choudary who had sent a text message to the media the night before, declaring that a protest would take place to show solidarity with Libya and its people. It was little more than a Trojan horse. The Libyans soon realised that all wasn’t as it seemed when one MAC protester raised a placard that said “Gaddafi and all world leaders need to be removed”. No cause, it seemed, was immune from being hijacked in the name of Allah.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a MAC protest. Last November, the English Defence League, who believe Shariah law is the biggest threat to democracy that Britain currently faces (a statement with which, back in Leyton, Choudary gleefully agreed), had held a counter protest in support of British troops after MAC threatened to burn a large poppy at 11am on Remembrance Day. Back then I was reporting from the other side of the fence (DG#1 ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’), embedded with the EDL.

UK, you have failed! Islam is on its way… Obama is a dog! I know it doesn’t rhyme, but he is a dog! Even Sarkozy’s wife is a dog!”

Choudary was nowhere to be seen that day, but the young radicals outside Downing Street eagerly awaited his arrival this time. He turned up late with what appeared to be a bodyguard in tow. Dressed in a long, grey shirt and a green knitted kufi and sporting a large beard flecked with grey, he was greeted like a rock star by his followers, and the press followed suit, gathering around him for the killer soundbite he was only too happy to give. Last March, Richard Peppiatt, a former Daily Star journalist, resigned because of what he perceived as the paper’s anti-Muslim agenda. At the same time he exposed how Choudary was catnip for tabloid editors. “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 wrote in his resignation letter, which was later published in The Guardian.

Choudary held court as the press pack jostled for the best position for the speech. His followers, including several young white Muslims who had recently converted to Islam, crowded around for the main event as others prayed in the shadow of Montgomery’s statue. It was a lesson in rabble-rousing for the press gallery.

“Your freedom of speech is something we will exploit!” he shouted through a megaphone, before describing the Japanese earthquake and tsunami as a punishment from Allah for aligning with America. “UK, you have failed! Islam is on its way… Obama is a dog! I know it doesn’t rhyme, but he is a dog! Even Sarkozy’s wife is a dog!”

The pro-Gaddafi protest, now losing the propaganda war on the new front that had opened next to it, melted away. Only a solitary figure stood, fixing a different flag to the now empty barriers. A golden sun set atop a red, green and white tricolour: the flag of the Kurds.

Choudary answers questions from the press. Photo: James Montague

Choudary answers questions from the press. Photo: James Montague

“Are you here to show solidarity with Gaddafi or MAC?” I asked him. “Neither,” replied Kawar, a 43-year-old grocer from Kilburn, London. “It was Kurdish new year yesterday. We, as a people, are split between between five countries [with no homeland]. We should have a few hundred people here. But not until after 5.30pm, so they don’t pay the Congestion Charge.”

The rhetoric next door grew as the press pack thinned. “Islam is on its way!” “Democracy! Hypocrisy!” “UK, you have failed!” Kawar looked at his neighbours with confusion: “We want to be a country like the UK.”

The question is, what kind of country does Choudary want the UK to become?

“There will be fundamental differences under Shariah [in the UK],” Choudary told me in Leyton. “There will be no monarchy. No House of Commons. No House of Lords. There will be one Khalifa [ruler]. The land will be divided into governates. The authority will be in the hands of the Muslims, and they will ensure security. No pubs. No alcohol. No gambling. No pornography. No mixing between men and women, segregation in every aspect. Men and women will cover themselves appropriately: women will at least wear the hijab. Whether they wear a burka is up to the Khalifa. Men will be covered from the chest to the knees. No mixing of the sexes in the public arena. No pork. All the meat will be halal.”

Choudary is busier than ever, having learnt from his controversial attempts to picket the war dead at Wootton Bassett that there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Did he not feel any sympathy for the victims of his pickets, the families of those who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq?

“Wootton Bassett can’t be put on the same scale as mass butchery,” he said. “You are talking about one billion Muslims feeling this oppression. I’m trying to prevent the death and murder of my people. And I think I’ve been effective. I went to Indonesia and people were talking about Wootton Bassett there. They didn’t speak any English, but they knew Wootton Bassett. This kind of impact on the global stage outweighs any supposedly negative impact at home.”

He has started to build a profile of international proportions, as his appearances on CNN and Fox proved, even if both descended into farce. In fact, such was the interest in the aftermath of the ‘Hannity’ appearance, that Choudary felt emboldened to announce a march on Washington, to demand Shariah for the US. And although the march didn’t happen, it attracted the attention of Terry Jones, the pastor who runs Florida’s rather misnamed Dove World Outreach Centre church and whose threats to burn the “evil” Quran had even President Obama worried about the backlash in the region.

“It [the march] was supposed to be in Washington, and Terry Jones was supposed to face me out there. He announced that they would put the Quran on trial. He emailed me and said: ‘Do you want to be an advocate for the Quran?’ I said fair enough. ‘But if the Quran is found guilty of being a book of violence, I’m going to burn it.’ I told him I’m having nothing to do with that. He burnt it anyway. And he did that because we were calling for Shariah in America.”

The fall-out was every bit as fierce as the American and British governments feared. Protests and riots broke out in Pakistan. A UN compound was attacked in Afghanistan, and 12 of the staff were killed. Two were beheaded. “Nobody wants the Quran to be burnt, but if you are in the public arena you will have an impact on relations between countries. The fact that we are out there talking about Shariah for America, that obviously provoked him to what he did. And that had an impact on what is going on in Afghanistan. And lo and behold it made the Americans hated even more.”

It’s this view – justifying violence and terrorist attacks as a legitimate response from a community under attack – that has gained Choudary the most notoriety. He has repeatedly professed his admiration for Bin Laden and said he agrees with “99 per cent” of the beliefs of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born Yemeni preacher, whose sermons have inspired at least three terrorist attacks on the US and who is the only American ever to feature on the CIA’s kill list.

“In probably most things there is agreement, on Shariah, Muslims needing to be liberated… I’d say 99 per cent,” he said. “Sheikh Awlaki and Sheikh Zawahiri [described by the BBC as Bin Laden’s “right-hand man”] believe nothing good can come out of Britain and America, therefore they carry out an operation… I appreciate there’s a difference of opinion.” Choudary paused, looking down at his half-full bowl of dessert to provide a metaphor. “It’s like we both have ice cream. Yours is cherry, mine is mango. But if you said that [your bowl of ice cream] is a double-decker bus, and I have ice cream, then someone is obviously wrong. It’s more cherry and mango, than cherry and a double-decker bus.”

Choudary and MAC have big plans for the coming year. But first there was a TV appearance to catch.

“Make sure you watch ‘My Brother the Islamist’ on BBC3 tonight,” Choudary urged.

The programme followed a filmmaker looking for answers as to why his half-brother Rich, a white twenty-something from Weymouth with no previous religious beliefs, had converted to Islam, changed his name to Salahuddin, and was now a prominent member of MAC. One of the most poignant moments was when Salahuddin refused to use his right hand to shake his brother’s, instead proffering his left hand, the hand he reserved for his ablutions and non-believers.

Choudary only appeared fleetingly in the film, portrayed largely as a shadowy snatcher of confused young white men from good, middle-class homes, although he claims he was interviewed for the programme and it was left on the cutting-room floor.

Before my interview was finished, Choudary had one person he wanted me to meet – Jamal, a 17-year-old with paper-white skin and the kind of ginger, scrappy proto-beard you’d expect of a teenager. His friends knew him as Jordan until he converted to Islam four months previously.

“The way of life in this country, when you first look at it, it looks positive. You can be successful. You step back and realise the poor get poorer, the rich get richer. You will never be successful unless your parents are successful,” Jamal explained when asked why he was drawn to Islam.

Jamal says he used to mix with the wrong crowd. He used to get into fights and has been placed on probation. Like many young working-class men, he was looking for something that made sense of the chaos, something that offered a sense of belonging. Most choose a different path: boxing or football hooliganism or heavy metal. Jamal chose Islam.

“Every part of your life, Islam has a solution for you,” he claimed. “I started realising, democracy and freedom, they won’t really help you. Islam is the only way it can help families and communities,” he continued, scratching his beard.

“Look around, things are going downhill. People are fighting, there’s a lot of crime. And Islam has a track record for stopping stuff like that. You know, rape, murder, having gays and stuff like that, it’s absolutely ridiculous. You would never have thought 20 to 30 years ago that a man and a man could get married or adopt a child. If someone doesn’t take a stand it’s going to get worse and we won’t be able to do anything about it. Personally, I believe Islam is the only way to stop it.”

With that Choudary, who had been watching silently, got up to leave, offered me his right hand, made a joke that MI5 had just picked up the tab for his ice cream, and ushered Jamal out into the street.

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