Anjem Choudhary was a regular outside mosques in the 1990’s. Berating imams and abusing the ‘West’ through his fiery rhetoric, he was always more careful than his mentor Omar Bakri Mohammed, also known as the Tottenham Ayatollah for his activism in north London. Today Bakri Mohammed lounges in a Lebanese prison and Choudhary is one of a set of prisoners who will serve his sentence in solitary confinement, part of the Prison Service’s containment programme for radicalisers in prisons.
I had the misfortune of meeting and being harassed by Choudhary in my ward when I was a local councillor in North London in 2007. Even though Al-Muhajiroun had been banned by then,Choudhary would travel across London and the country with a group of young people whom he had influenced and who were aggressive, inflammatory and deeply radicalised.
I remember that Sunday afternoon in mid-2007 when Choudhary turned up in my ward and starting shouting through a megaphone that England would soon become Muslim and that women would have to cover themselves up, whilst he pointed at young women going about their leisurely Sunday shopping. As I came out of a local shop at the time, I recall seeing Choudhary arguing with a woman and telling her that the West was actively murdering Muslims because they were ‘scared of Islam’ and that Islam was her salvation. Without it, he said, she would go to hell.
Choudhary’s inflammatory language continued as the group of young men around him starting shouting ‘Takbeer’ (invoking God’s name), followed by Allahu Akbar (God is Great).
To say that residents were frightened and afraid would be an understatement, which also angered me as Choudhary was maligning my faith with his twisted interpretations of Islam, right in front of my eyes and in my ward.
It was only a matter of time before Choudhary saw me and he approached me and called me a ‘Kaffir’ – an unbeliever, because I had been involved in the Liberal Democrats for many years, and he saw Muslims like me as the enemy who were supporting democracy.
As soon as he had targeted me, I had about 15-20 young men around me abusing me and calling me an apostate in Islam. These were the extremist and toxic set of narratives that were already in place, well before 7/7 and which fuelled a paranoia and aggression within Choudhary’s group of supporters.
These narratives of hatred and extremism were in play for at least 15 years before 7/7, fed by a constant diet of Islamist extremist leaflets which Al-Muhajiroun handed out to young people outside mosques and which were circulated to mosque worshippers as they left prayer.
To their credit, after 7/7, Choudhary and his supporters were blocked and challenged outside mosques, though he always used these challenges to re-affirm to his followers that he was being victimised because fellow Muslims did not want to accept the true version of Islam – his.
The 1990’s also saw a potent and toxic mix of events taking place in our country. Al-Muhajiroun were active, Islamist extremists were heavily involved in promoting a victimisation narrative of Muslims being globally persecuted and massacred and many Muslims were expressing and exerting their Islamic identity more after the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, as a reaction to it.
Allied to this, the genocide in Srebrenica of 8,000 Muslim men took place in July 1995 and which hardened attitudes within Muslim communities. It also built a perception within them that Europe could turn against Muslims.
In the minds of many Muslims at the time, they believed that Bosnia was a precursor to the ‘West’ turning against Muslims. For a tiny minority of Muslims, their automatic knee jerk response was to turn to violent Jihadism as a response and to rally around it.
Islamists played on this victimisation narrative time and time again and in effect, charismatic preachers and Islamist groups called for men and materiel from the United Kingdom to go to Bosnia to fight against Serb paramilitaries in the name of Jihad.
Layered onto this multiple set of ingredients was the fact that many foreign Islamist activists fled from their countries of origin in the 1990’s due to persecution and because they were actively involved in destabilising regimes back home. They found a new home in London by claiming asylum.
For many years, many Muslims saw Anjem Choudhary as a clown and a buffoon, someone who was an irritant but ‘harmless’.
Hanging around exit and entry points to major Islamic events, he seemed determined with his group of young men handing out leaflets and calling for people to ‘turn to Islam’ and give up on the ‘Kaffir’. Many leaving these Islamic events looked at him as some kind of fringe character.
The reality we now know, is that he was central to influencing a range of individuals, some of whom were later involved in bomb plots led by their belief in violent Jihad.
Those involved in the murder of Lee Rigby, the London Bridge attacks and many others at some point had been in the circle of influence of Al-Muhajiroun and its off-shoots.
Choudhary and his ilk, laid down a generation of Islamist sympathisers whose views were based on anti-Semitic rhetoric, isolationism, Jihad as a means of conquest and hatred towards minorities within Islam.
The regressive twisted view of Islam, was hyper-politicised so that world events were intricately intertwined with rallying calls for action by young men to demonstrate, stand outside of mosques and target worshippers with propaganda around global Jihad and thereby drawn in other young men, many lost in their sense of who they were.
This loss of identity and a sense of twisted purpose that Choudhary provided, allied to a belief around religious superiority meant that it acted like a re-assurance blanket to these vulnerable young men. The scene was set for the problems that we are seeing, where today, security services state that there are 23,000 Islamist extremists in the UK.
Many of these would have gone through Choudhary’s circles of influence, exposed to his virulent hatred of the West and feeling as though their fellow citizens are ‘enemy combatants’. Islamist extremism, if unchecked and allowed to fester, creates a mindset that which places fellow citizens within the danger zone of being targets, because of a belief that Islam and Muslims are at war with ‘unbelievers’.
At the soft end of this ideological scale, is the view that non-Muslims have fewer morals than Muslims, are ‘unbelievers’ and destined to serve Islam. On the more aggressive end of this ideology, are a set of views that non-Muslims are a so-called ‘legitimate target’ because they have (collectively) killed Muslims and damaged the Ummah, (family and community of Islam). At either end of this spectrum,Choudhary plied his trade in hatred.
What we are seeing today, partly is due to the decisions and to the lack of action taken against Islamist extremists in the 1990’s. The sad reality is that we may well be challenging and countering extremist rhetoric and terrorism for the next 10 years.
Let this be a lesson to us all. If we do not challenge those espousing hatred, extremism and division when we come across it, the cancer and scourge of such ideologies will settle and bed down into the minds of vulnerable people. When that happens, the consequences are not only deadly, they are very long lasting.