Few of the cafes on his home turf — London’s East End — will accommodate the bearded 42-year-old firebrand and self-styled “most hated man in Britain”.
Indeed, just after he flounces out of our interview in one of the few that will — a halal diner in Whitechapel — a waiter asks me: “Is that the coffin man? I can’t bear him.
All he wants is fame, and the easiest way to get that is say that Christian people should be persecuted. I don’t see much difference between him and Nick Griffin.”
Two weeks ago Choudary, a British-born Muslim of Pakistani origin and the leader of the now-outlawed extremist group Islam4UK, caused a storm when he announced a plan to march 500 coffins through Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, a town that regularly honours the British soldiers killed in Afghanistan and repatriated to nearby RAF Lyneham.
He wanted to “highlight the tens of thousands of Muslim dead in Afghanistan”, he says now, squeezing into a booth. “But as soon as I had the idea — and it was only ever an idea — Gordon Brown said it was disgusting, abhorrent, and that the home secretary, Alan Johnson, would see to any request to ban it.”
As it turned out, Choudary ended up cancelling, but not before Johnson had taken steps to proscribe Islam4UK under anti-terrorism legislation. Still, when we meet on Wednesday afternoon, just eight hours before the ban comes into effect, Choudary remains defiant. “Business as usual,” he barks. “I’ll be going to debates, going into the street, having meetings . . .”
Indeed, he’s got five followers in tow right now, a noisy rabble of bearded young men, who pile into the cafe, ordering lattes, fielding calls, telling me about their conversions to Islam and recent trips to the Middle East, “on holiday”, emphasises one, while the others giggle.
Well, they won’t be giggling for long; they’ll be winding down Islam4UK, shutting the website and ... that’s pretty much all.
The group is “more an affiliation of ideas”, says one, so there aren’t any formal tokens of membership such as cards or fees. Amid concerns that the group will simply change its name and continue, Choudary, who says he learnt about the ban from “the News of the World on Sunday”, insists he has “no option” but to do just that.
“Look, Audrey” — he calls me Audrey throughout the interview, although he has demanded to see my press card — “I have no choice but to propagate Islam and invite people. Certain things are obviously illegal so the government will be monitoring . . .”
Like what? According to the 2006 act under which Choudary’s group has been proscribed, it is illegal to promote terrorism or to glorify terrorist acts.
One Whitehall insider indicated last Sunday that members of the group had been making posts on the web in contravention of the act; in the past, Choudary himself has been accused of posting incitements on the internet under a false name. The Home Office has not given any precise indication of Islam4UK’s crime. “They haven’t contacted me,” Choudary says. So what does he think are the reasons for the ban?
“Well, no reasons really,” he puffs, “but both you and I know, Audrey, they banned us because they were embarrassed because of Wootton Bassett. But also because of our continuous exposing of the British government, our call for imposing the sharia, the fact that we advocate not co-operating with the police in their fight against terrorism.”
Choudary has been shut down before: a previous group he belonged to, Al-Muhajiroun, was banned in 2004. Jointly led by Choudary and Omar Bakri Mohammed, a fundamentalist cleric from Syria known as the Tottenham Ayatollah until he was excluded from Britain by Charles Clarke in 2005, Al-Muhajiroun had referred to the 9/11 bombers as “the magnificent 19”.
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