Quilliam Open Letter to Channel 4

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ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS 

Last Wednesday, Channel 4’s ‘4thought.tv’ aired an interview by a former member of banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun.  ‘Abu Nusaybah’ as he calls himself, continues to do the same work he always did for extremist Islam in Britain, recently attending the poppy burning march in South Kensington.  The Quilliam Foundation has rightly criticised Channel 4’s presentation of this man as a representative of the wider Muslim community.

Both Nusaybah and former head of al-Muhajiroun Anjem Choudary are appearing alongside mainstream British rabbis and priests, giving them an air of legitimacy and respectability.  

In an open letter to Channel 4, reproduced in full below, Quilliam’s Talal Rajab asks that, in future, the channel’s producers show more responsibility in their portrayal of British Muslims.

David Abraham

Chief Executive

Channel 4 Television

124 Horseferry Road

London, UK

Dear Mr Abraham,

I am writing to you on behalf of Quilliam, the world’s first counter extremism think tank, to express my deep disappointment at the recent coverage which your network, through its ‘4thought.tv’ strand, is giving to two prominent Islamist extremists from the fringe organisation al-Muhajiroun, banned by the British government in January 2010.

On Wednesday 24th November 2010, ‘4thought.tv’ aired a two minute first-person piece presented by ‘Abu Nusaybah’. In it he argued, amongst other things, for the introduction to the UK of ‘Islamic’ punishments such as the cutting off of the hands of thieves. On Sunday 5th December 2010, just over a week after the Abu Nusaybah interview, ‘4thought.tv’ will also be airing a first-person presentation by Anjem Choudary on the ‘persecution’ of Muslims in Britain, in which he will be able to put across his opinions unchallenged. The previous Muslim featured in this series, on 9th November 2010, was Yvonne Ridley, a presenter on Press TV (a propaganda channel for the Iranian regime), and an outspoken supporter of many of Islam’s most violent and intolerant strands.

It is deeply worrying that Channel 4 has chosen to give a prominent and unchallenged platform to two individuals from a banned fringe organisation at the expense of more representative and mainstream Muslim voices. Although we believe that the public should be made aware of such extreme views, we believe that it is deeply irresponsible of Channel 4 to allow these individuals to broadcast their messages across the UK without their views being challenged or without their agendas put into their proper context.

These cases are even more problematic because Channel 4 has introduced both speakers inaccurately and has given the impression that they represent mainstream Muslim opinion – all without explaining how fringe and unrepresentative their extreme views are. For example, Abu Nusaybah was merely introduced as ‘a Muslim from London’ despite his well known association with al-Muhajiroun and its front groups. Likewise, Anjem Choudary, the former leader of al-Muhajiroun in the UK, is currently being introduced on the ‘4thought.tv’ website as ‘an expert on Sharia law’. This last statement is demonstrably false. Choudary has no religious qualifications whatsoever. Indeed, he is banned from preaching in every mosque in the UK, and his lack of learning or Islamic qualifications has led to him being widely ridiculed among British Muslims. In at least one instance, he was challenged on live TV for not even understanding simple Arabic, a basic prerequisite for being any sort of ‘expert’ on Islamic law.

Channel 4’s decision to air de-contextualised first-person pieces by these two extremists has serious consequences for the UK. Firstly, there is a real risk that non-Muslims will watch such programmes and think that such extremists are representative of ordinary British Muslims. Separately, Muslims may watch these programmes and think that these extreme individuals are in fact prominent, respected and representative Islamic authorities and that their extremist interpretations of Islam are in fact correct.

Another consequence of Channel 4’s decision is to undermine the hard work of many Muslims and non-Muslims who have been struggling to tackle such extremism. For instance, since al-Muhajiroun’s banning in January 2010, most mainstream media organisations have refused to cover Anjem Choudary’s increasingly desperate media stunts while British Muslims around the country have also worked hard in order to limit the group’s damaging influence in Muslim communities. Channel 4’s decision is therefore a slap in the face of such individuals who are struggling to make our country a more tolerant and integrated country. A comparable scenario is one in which Channel 4 gave members of the British National Party the only two consecutive slots on the programme in order to speak on issues of their choice, without noting their political allegiances.

With these issues in mind, I would politely ask that you urgently review your decision to air Anjem Choudary’s film and also to examine your own commissioning procedures in order to ensure that such mistakes do not re-occur in the future. While freedom of speech is important and Anjem Choudary and his followers undoubtedly have the right to put forward their repugnant views, we find it inexplicable that they should be allowed to monopolise such an important strand of Channel 4’s programming at the expense of other British Muslims who are overwhelmingly tolerant and good-natured people. Such programming makes our country a more divided and less tolerant place and does a huge disservice to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

We at Quilliam are happy to work with Channel 4 to ensure that free speech is upheld in a way that does not marginalise and misrepresent British Muslim communities – as we have previously done with a wide variety of other media organisations. We would very much welcome a meeting to discuss these concerns further.