Julie Siddiqi is a consultant, mentor and activist and has worked in the Muslim community for over 20 years, not afraid to challenge or call out those who push division and intolerance, regardless of their backgrounds.
Today she co-chairs Nisa-Nashim, the UK’s first Muslim and Jewish women’s network, which focuses on building and strengthening relationships between the two religious communities, and was one of those involved in Walk Together a commemoration of 7/7 victims
I interviewed her about the recently-released extremist, Anjem Choudary, whom she has directly confronted, and about the many challenges facing the Muslim community in Britain today.
When did you first hear about Anjem Choudary?
I can remember his name as far back as the 1990s, certainly in the 2000s. He had regular interactions with people in the area I live in. But after 9/11, he became much more prominent on social media. It was the most frustrating thing that the media – and the BBC in particular – constantly went to him and gave him a platform.
Why do you think that was?
I think he said the right kind of stuff; he was charismatic in his own kind of way so they obviously saw him as making good TV. He was very antagonistic and he deliberately said stuff he knew would provoke people. He said what other people wouldn’t dare to say and he just didn’t care. It was sickening. The damage he did then, in terms of people’s understanding of what Islam is about, we’re going to be trying to deal with for decades.
What was that damage?
When I think about the stunts he pulled, the poppy one in particular, it makes me so angry – and it was literally a handful of people and they managed to take that moment and it has done damage ever since.
He would have big, ugly, in-your-face banners out in the streets, in marches and at events, pitching Muslims against everybody else. So that narrative became very strong and people just presumed that’s what all Muslims thought. Sometime he would only have 10 people with him but they were very clever in using the right wording to get maximum impact.
Your own polls show more people than not believe there are ‘no-go’ zones in Britain, where non-Muslims cannot enter – where else would people get these views? Yes, it’s perpetuated by far-right figures but it must be coming from somewhere.
Then to actually have him on BBC mainstream primetime slots! He could absolutely weave his way through an interview; the interviewer couldn’t really do anything. Choudary could just say anything. It’s not dissimilar to Stephen Lennon [Tommy Robinson], they are both very arrogant and they just say what they want to say. They don’t need to answer the question, we saw that regularly and it would leave me really frustrated and angry with the BBC.
They [Al-Muhajiroun] never were a big group, but it’s not about the numbers, it’s about how they get things out. Choudary will be very restricted and limited over what he can do [now], but it won’t stop other people. You only need a couple of people saying that stuff again and it will come back in the headlines. I also cannot imagine he wants to stay quietly at home and read the newspaper.
Did you ever meet him?
I went on Newsnight with him. Well, against him! It was a big thing for me, I didn’t want to go, and it was intimidating. I remember getting a call from the Newsnight people, and you have to decide very quickly, things move very fast. A couple of Muslim men rang me and said: ‘We don’t think you should go because it gives him credibility’. I was thinking: ‘I ain’t giving him credibility, the BBC have already done that by giving him a platform for the past five years. It’s not me, it’s them’.
Once again he would be the only person on there talking about this stuff and viewers would see no alternative. So I ended up deciding to do it, and I was glad I did it. I remember going to a takeaway about a year later and a young Muslim boy behind the counter said: ‘You were on Newsnight with Anjem Choudary, I just want to say I’m really glad you did it’. I always get emotional about it, there are so many people out there that need to be reached.
Then, shortly after the Lee Rigby murder [in 2013, by two men both with links to Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun network], Radio 4’s Today invited him onto the programme. It was an absolute kick in the teeth for so many of us. There were some petitions and Facebook groups to put pressure on the BBC. I remember listening to that in the car and I started crying, I was so frustrated and angry, I couldn’t believe they had given that slot when it could have been anyone of us, if they wanted an opinion. They gave it to him. I think they realised they had crossed a line and from that point on, they never invited him again.
How do you prevent another Anjem Choudary from rising?
Mosques could see that Anjem Choudary and his followers were a problem, so they wouldn’t let them have space to speak and certainly never from the pulpit. Then obviously it became much easier to reach people through videos online. I remember at that time, they would do very small events. A table in a random hall somewhere with a tiny audience and they would record it and post it online. It’s difficult to see how you could slow that down.
I look back and wonder, whether as regular Muslims we did enough to put pressure on the BBC to stop them from giving him a platform. I’m not sure we were organised enough.
I think we would have to work together more, Muslims and others, to clamp down on these people, to be much more outspoken, to give an alternative but also to specifically call them out for what they are, because we can’t allow that to happen again.
Some would say, and rightly so, that Muslims have always spoken out against these types of character and not been part of what they’re doing. And I agree with that. I’m just not sure we put enough pressure on the media, and called it out enough.
Is calling things out something the Muslim community should do more in general?
A few years ago, I worked with HNH and we set up CAASE – the Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. For me it was really important to have these voices around calling it out, it still is. I’ve never felt grooming was a Muslim or Islamic issue of course, but I do think that Muslim communities have had and should have a role in how we help the girls that have suffered.
I still feel mostly disappointed at the response of Muslims in Britain who just use it as an opportunity to be defensive and to blame everyone else. I understand Muslims don’t think that the overemphasis on that particular form of sexual abuse and group of men having more headlines is fair, that actual statistics about abuse show a different story. But ‘whataboutery’ doesn’t help.
I’ve always held the same line – that we need to prevent it from being an issue that the far right can utilise the way they have. But also, don’t be so defensive. It’s because of the vacuum that they’ve [the far right] been able to exploit that and Muslims feel that by somehow speaking out, and owning the problem, we’re admitting fault. They say, people think enough bad stuff about Muslims, we don’t want to add to it.
But we are supposed to be people of justice, compassion and humanity. If we can stand up to this stuff together properly and genuinely, people would be much more respectful of that. Of course, those who have problems with Muslims will have that anyways, they will just find another thing. But if you constantly have these two polar sides beating each other and us lot in the middle staying quiet, it’s given oxygen to the extreme.
What can the Muslim community improve?
Our infrastructure is very weak and we are not very organised in terms of community itself. Our main organisations are international relief charities. They are of no use at all when it comes to the UK-based work that we need. We are not developing our young people in an organised systematic way.
I think this is starting to change, but what else does the community need to do?
I think we need much more inspirational and brave leadership.
There are so many good people doing good work but there’s also lot of infighting, so when it comes to a common voice on issues, it’s sometimes almost impossible for the government or for the media to know who to go to. So they pick on whomever they want and sometimes they get the right voices and sometimes they don’t.
I think we have good captive audiences on Friday afternoons in the mosque – we need to utilise these people better. We have people in every field, every profession, every type of business in the Muslim community, and we just don’t tap this enough. The mosques are too closed to themselves, so they have a committee of six old men who have been on it since 30 years ago and their congregation kind of often just comes, prays, and goes.
I don’t want to come across as if we aren’t doing anything because people become upset with me then, we are, there’s just so much more we need to do. I think Muslims are willing and able to do so much more than they are doing at the moment.
Are there any good examples to follow?
I also work with the Jewish community a lot and I have learnt a lot from them, of how they organise themselves, and they are pretty much on the opposite of the spectrum! They have so much structure; they have too many people vying for positions! They have so many charities in the UK and it’s crazy because there’s only a quarter of a million of them. But we can learn from how the synagogues organise themselves – the synagogues very much have a membership feel, people feel very much connected to their own place of worship.
I know so many amazing Muslim women now. But they are not very well connected to each other, which means they are not supporting each other enough and therefore not pooling their power in the way I think we can. That’s one of the things I’m going to work on now.
Is that your next project?
I’ve thought about it for a long time, and it’s something I need to put a bit more energy now, because there’s a gap. There’s a couple of Muslim women organisations, but none of them are really working together, that’s the first thing. Secondly they haven’t reached out enough, so loads of women are not connected to any of them.
Because I know so many people from all my years in this field, I think I’m in quite a good position to do it. And it gets me excited as well. There’s a lot to be unlocked that will make a lot of difference very quickly.
I’m amazed how, despite all the barriers, Muslim women are doing amazing things, either in their own personal career or in the community. But we need to get people connected, to get much better at mentoring, at putting the ladder down for someone else. We’re not getting Muslim women MPs in great numbers by accident. We actually need to find the people that are keen to do it and support them; it’s not just about everything being done in a Muslim bubble.
I just think, given that we are so discriminated against, and so talked about, and so misunderstood, that to an extent we have to do our own thing. It won’t happen by accident. We need to push our way in.
I always say now, Muslim women don’t need saving and we don’t need patronising commentary from basically everyone. We’re not interested in that, we just need support, for people to walk alongside us, open doors where they can.
What is government’s role in all of this?
The Government’s connection with the Muslim community at the moment is very frustrating, because we seem to be in a bit of a deadlock. This government has been too selective as to who the good Muslims and bad Muslims are. That sort of analysis is flawed and not very well structured, so it can lend itself to people just taking a lazy route to the people that say the right things.
Those are not the right people?
I think it could definitely be broader. It’s often easy for people to say all the right things and claim to have more influence than they actually do. Those of us that know the community know that they don’t have influence or that they have no buy-in.
The flip side is that the Muslim approach to government has become very toxic, which for me is crazy, because it’s our government.
For example, Muslims developed the narrative that any government funding from any department is not okay – that’s just crazy! We are citizens, it’s our money. If there’s money to do good work, we should do the good work. But there are Muslims who make it very difficult for others and that is so counterproductive it’s silly.
Because of Prevent?
Because of Prevent, anti-terrorism stuff, some of which I understand, some of which is exaggerated. I think there’s definitely conversations to be had about Prevent and how the government has messed up on it, and how there needs to be more. But we can’t always view our relationship with our government through that lens.
It’s all of our problem. We all suffer when there is a terrorist attack. Whether we be victims, or victims of the hate crimes that follows. We’re all in it. The more we can have a joined up approach, where Muslims feel at the table sorting it out just like everybody else rather than being the only ones who have to do anything, because the attacks are somehow our fault.
This defensive victimhood approach isn’t helpful, and that’s how I feel a lot of Muslims have approached this now. It stifles creativity, it stops people from doing positive things, it stops people from being able to admit there’s anything good happening. It’s really disappointing because that is not what our faith is supposed to be about.
I think to myself, where has the Muslim input been when it comes to the far right?
I look at HOPE not hate and the work they’ve been doing over many years and I think to myself: Muslims could have joined in with that lot better. Muslims are very quick to complain about stuff but they need to actually help. There’s a limit to what community organisers can do without having people on board from the community.
What about Muslims who talk about barriers to getting involved?
Yes, there are issues with certain pockets of government but every single police force, local or national authorities, are crying out for more Muslims to be at the table. You can put yourself forward and get involved in anything, whether standing as a local councillor, or in an activism type thing. Yes there is discrimination: we all know that, but what are we going to do? Speak about it for 10 years? I just think the general Muslim approach to Islamophobia is really off where it needs to be.
We get it, the numbers are going up, it’s frightening but what role are we going to play, rather than think we need to wait for everybody else to sort it out.
Who’s going to redress the balance when most of the people in this country still feel they don’t really know much about Islam or Muslims? We have to! You can’t expect someone else to do it! Why is it that a teacher who needs to do a lesson about Islam on their curriculum goes on the internet and can’t find the resources. Why haven’t we done that? Why have we not developed proper teacher training? That’s our problem!
Let’s just get our heads down, put some money in and just get this done!