Charlatans and fakes: who represents British Muslims?
It was a few short weeks after 9/11 that I began researching Muslim European communities – a research project and doctoral thesis that would eventually turn into a book entitled “Muslims of Europe: the European ‘Other’.” I remember early on, sitting with one of my academic mentors, who was an authority in the field, as he expressed his frustration over how the British media would cover that community on a popular level. “I’m convinced,” he said, “that there are certain journalists who just have a rolodex of contacts that they know will not give them an informative viewpoint – only a really catchy, extremist one. And those are the ones they keep on going to – and we, the public, don’t get to understand things more, but only less.” He might have been right, or he might have been wrong – but in the aftermath of the killing of Lee Rigby, the off-duty solider in Woolwich who was brutally killed by radical Islamist extremists, it seems my mentor’s point remains important to consider.
Anjem Choudhary, a firebrand Islamist extremist, is someone whom I have, alas, known of for more than a decade. In the 1990s, the radical, albeit non-violent, Islamist group of ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’ was active on British university campuses – and as with many different radical groups, it split, for a variety of reasons. One of those groups was “al-Muhajiroon” – the Migrants – which was led by a Syrian called “Omar Bakri Mohammad.” His real name was Omar Bakri Fostock – after the July 7 attacks on London, he fled to Beirut, but Fostock benefited from literally years of media attention within the UK. Even after he left the UK, members of the British media would go to Beirut to interview him. It was almost like clockwork – a radical Islamist attack takes place somewhere in the world, and Omar Bakri would be on TV, spewing extremist diatribes as a “Muslim leader.” After he left to Beirut, his protégé, Anjem Choudhary, would take his place as the pre-eminent replacement of the “Tottenham Ayatollah,” which the British media grew fond of describing Fostock as. There was also the Egyptian, Abu Hamza al-Masri (Mostafa Kamel), who earned the name of “Hook” in the British media, after the Islamist extremist, who had a hook-like prosthesis replacing his right hand. All of these individuals had two things in common – the ability to say remarkably provocative things to the press, and the ability to have that same press machine describe them as “Muslim leaders.”
Except, of course, they weren’t “Muslim leaders” at all. It is difficult to know who actually “represents” the Muslim British community, considering the vast diversity and absence of a church-like structure that would deliver a “representative” of Muslims to wider society. That indeed is a problematic issue at the best of times – and has given rise to a wide and disparate set of lobby groups and community organisations that claim to represent the ‘silent majority’ of Muslim Britons. Yet, it seems that the likes of Omar Bakri, Abu Hamza, and Anjem Choudary did actually serve Muslim British unity – because time and time again, prominent members of the Muslim British community, and leaders of various lobbies and community groups, have come out in public to say, “the likes of these do not represent us.” The corollary question then is fairly simple: if there is no evidence to show that any of these radical individuals have (or ever had) more than a handful of supporters, why were they ever given the platform to speak as “Muslim leaders” as though they had some sort of representative value?
Asking the right question
It is not a moot question. Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri are both in jail, on terrorism-related offences, and thus unable to offer their critical contribution to any debate – but Anjem Choudary, on the other hand, is more than willing to make up for their lack of input. He’s not been shy in the slightest and he does not require an exceedingly well-accomplished press agent or publicist. All he needs, it seems, is an email address and a mobile telephone number – and large swathes of the British media are happy to do the rest. In the aftermath of the killing of Lee Rigby, he was invited onto the BBC’s Newsnight program– and refused outright condemn the murder. After the culprits were brought to trial, and were delivered “guilty verdicts,” Choudary was brought on the BBC again, via Radio 4 Today, a noted program that scores of Britons listen to. Why was he invited on, when he has no particular expertise as a specialist, nor any representative value as a “Muslim leader?”
Frequently, the response to charlatans such as these is to call for their deportation from Britain, thus “sending them home.” It’s a cop-out. Choudary, a Muslim Briton from Ilford, may be a shame – but he’s Britain’s shame. If he has broken any law with regards to hate speech and incitement to violent, then he ought to face the consequences of English courts – not be shipped off in contradiction to other laws of the UK.
But not deporting the likes of Choudary, or not arresting them due to the lack of evidence, ought not constitute a license for presenting them to the British publish in a manner that is ultimately deceptive. Choudary and his ilk are not “Muslim leaders” any more than they are “British leaders;” they happen to be Muslim and they happen to be British. When Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far right extremist, wrote his own manifesto prior to killing 77 people, he also cited pseudo-religious (Christian) arguments in support of his stances, and also nationalistic ones – was he then described as a “Christian leader” or a “nationalist leader?” No, because to do so would have been preposterous.
There are serious issues to be discussed in the context of extremism in the UK – and elsewhere, it ought to be said. But they’re not going to be discussed with any degree of benefit if instead of genuine community representatives, we’re given charlatans, and instead of bona-fide experts, we’re given fakes by trusted media outlets. Let them spew whatever poppycock they might elsewhere – and not damage the reputation of the outlets like the BBC, which remains a model for responsible journalism the world over. We have enough bad models to learn from, after all.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is an ISPU Fellow and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Royal United Services Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
This article was published in Al Arabiya on December 23, 2013. Read it here.