Anjem Choudary rubs his hands in the chill, winter air. He is standing behind a table in the centre of London’s Chinatown, protesting about Chinese oppression of the Uighurs, largely to the indifference of passers-by more interested in the aromas of dim sum and roasted duck emanating from the surrounding restaurants.Choudary’s tailored black thobe appears to offer little resistance to the afternoon cold but he has higher forces keeping him warm, he says. Growing up the son of a market trader, Choudary spent the best part of two decades shivering behind market stalls in south London.
“Children’s and ladies’ wear,” he recalls. “We didn’t have the patter like some of the other traders.”
Choudary has the patter now; these days his stall sells Sharia law and the Khilafah. In recent years, he has been on most of the British media’s speed dial for on-demand extremism; provocative stunts, such as burning poppies on Remembrance Day; and denunciation of British foreign policy.
But, since the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May, Choudary’s willingness to put words to arguments widely considered beyond the pale of acceptable public opinion has been under scrutiny as never before.
After footage emerged of Michael Adebolajo, one of Rigby’s killers, standing behind him at a rally in 2007, Choudary said he had lost touch with the man he knew as “Mujahid” about three years earlier. “Very peaceful chap actually, not violent at all, very pleasant,” he recalled at the time.
Michael Adebowale, in footage released after he and Adebolajo were convicted of Rigby’s murder, was also filmed at a demonstration also attended by Choudary as recently as December 2012.
The case has focused renewed attention on the al-Muhajiroun network which Choudary founded with radical cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed in 1996 and which gained notoriety for celebrating the 9/11 hijackers as the “Magnificent 19” in 2001.
Al-Muhajiroun and its various offshoot guises such as Muslims Against Crusaders and Islam4UK and have been periodically banned, while Syrian-born Bakri has been barred from the UK since leaving the country shortly after 2005 London bombings that killed 52 people.
But last month, a report by Hope Not Hate, an anti-extremism campaign group, described Choudary and al-Muhajiroun as “a gateway to terrorism” and identified at least 70 people convicted of terrorism offences or involved in plotting or carrying out attacks which it said were linked to the network.
“Groups like al-Muhajiroun are essentially gateways into more extreme forms of activity,” Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told Al Jazeera.
‘Pumping people with hatred’
“They are pumping people up with so much hatred. They are basically walking them to the brink and they are then saying, ‘Okay, you take the last step on your own and we have nothing to do with that’. And that is quite disingenuous because they know exactly where that is going to go.”
The British government has also taken a harder line since the current coalition took office in 2010, with Islamist extremism now seen as fuelling terrorism and radicalisation, rather than being tolerated and even channelled as a means of drawing people away from violence.
That was crystallised earlier this month with the release of a government report on extremism which proposed measures to give authorities new powers to silence radical preachers, censor extremist websites and curb the activities of individuals and groups suspected of promoting or raising money for terrorism.
Choudary says he is only expressing grievances which many Muslims share and has not encouraged anyone to go abroad to fight or carry out attacks on British soil, calling allegations of his links to terrorism “complete fantasy”.
He has repeatedly said that British Muslims live under a “covenant of security”, though he acknowledges that others such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabab “hold differing Islamic opinions”.
“What took place in Woolwich is a result of what is happening around the world. He was picked out because he was a British soldier fighting in Afghanistan. That’s what brother Mujahid said, and the context of that is something which I would find difficulty in disagreeing with,” Choudary told Al Jazeera. “I wouldn’t do something like that because I do not believe for me that is allowed, but other people have a different opinion.”
Tougher rules on extremism would “push people into our arms”, he added. “People already know the government has no scruples when it comes to demonising and vilifying Muslims, and the youth will be further pushed towards us by these kind of measures.”
During his trial, Adebolajo told the court he had attended Al-Muhajiroun demonstrations, but said he “didn’t agree with everything they said”.
Asked about Choudary, he told the court: “If he would speak about jihad I would find it very difficult to accept what he had to say because I never knew him to fight jihad. I think he is a good man, however he encourages his followers that jihad in this country is not allowed.”
Some of Choudary’s closer followers have also recently fallen foul of the law. Earlier this month, three members of a self-styled “Muslim Patrol”, which attempted to impose Sharia law in areas of East London, were jailed on charges relating to an assault on a group of men drinking alcohol in the street and harassment of a couple holding hands.
Commenting on that case, Choudary said: “I did have a word with them afterwards and said there are certain things that can’t be changed physically, but these guys should be patted on the back for some of the other work they have done.”
Critics say stunts such as Muslim Patrol inflame Islamophobia, pointing out that the far-right English Defence League was formed as a direct consequence of al-Muhajiroun demonstrations against British soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
Nick Lowles, the co-author of Hope Not Hate’s report, told Al Jazeera that Choudary and his supporters had a “symbiotic relationship” with far-right counter-jihadist groups.
“Their antics and stunts and connections to violent extremism have brought trouble on Muslim communities and obviously they have to deal with the consequences,” said Lowles.
Choudary is deeply reviled by many British Muslims, with many also criticising the media for giving him a platform.
“Every community has its nutters and extremists,” said Azad Ali, head of community development for Engage, an organisation encouraging greater Muslim involvement in British civic life. “Choudary capitalises on it but where is the responsible journalism? Why would the BBC invite him on? To give the other view? What other view? The view of 10 people? What about the view of three million people?”
Others point out the lack of scholarly credentials of a man who describes himself as a “renowned caller to Islam”.
“Some people have tried to hijack the term ‘Salafi’ of late, especially Anjem Choudary’s risible band of followers, and that is something we won’t stand for at all,” Abdul Haq Ashanti, a spokesman for Brixton Mosque, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s unhelpful for him to talk about the iniquities of British foreign policy. Obviously there are iniquities but I don’t want to hear it from him because actually it does more damage, someone like him spouting off.”
Some experts also question the validity of drawing a simplistic link between Choudary and terrorism.
“You have individuals who movement shop. They’ll say, ‘Oh, these guys aren’t extreme enough for me. Does anyone know someone who talks to me?’ So is Anjem Choudary the cause, or is it that people who are orientated towards [extremism] seek out Anjem Choudary?” said Jonathan Githens-Mazer, an expert on radicalisation at the University of Exeter.
“Understanding how and why someone is radicalised or why someone engages in terrorism is hugely complex and there is no presence of a single factor.”
Choudary says he has no issue with being labelled an extremist. A few weeks later he leads a march calling for the prohibition of alcohol through Brick Lane, a street at the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community that is famous for its curry-and-lager fuelled nightlife.
Numbers are small but vocal, with activists distributing leaflets warning that shopkeepers would face public lashings for selling alcohol in an Islamic state.
“When you live in Britain and the majority of the people are integrated into the liberal democratic lifestyle and they believe in secularism and freedom and democracy then obviously you are going to look extreme from those views,” says Choudary.
“I am extreme to people who believe in manmade law. We are a minority definitely, but we are a growing minority around the world who believe in the Sharia, who believe sovereignty belongs to God, and who want to implement it.”
A version of this article was published on Al Jazeera on 18 December 2013.