First it was WikiLeaks, and Anonymous. Then came Occupy. Now the movement to watch is Shariah4, as in Shariah4France, Shariah4America, or Shariah4Belgium, members of which threatened earlier this month to break the neck of Muslim activist Irshad Manji during a debate in Amsterdam. Their numbers are growing, and their voices are increasingly being heard in the media around the world. But who are they, exactly? Do they comprise a real movement, even a real threat – or are they just a bunch of religious nuts carrying on as religious nuts often tend to do? (After all, it’s hard to take seriously an organization that calls, as Sharia4America does, for a burqa to be placed over the Statue of Liberty. But should we take them at their word when they describe plans to destroy the statue altogether?)
The Web site for Shariah4Belgium, one of the more active of the Shariah4 chapters, describes its mission as follows (translation mine):
“Shariah4Belgium is a group comprised of Muslim youth from Belgium who answer to the Command of Allah: the call to the good (Tawheed, or Islamic Monotheism) and the warning against the bad (i.e. apostasy). With bleeding hearts they watch the growing number of those who take part in elections, who vote for democracy and so, allow the love for (the implementation of sharia) to vanish – and with it, Islam in her purest form.”
The Belgian group takes its cues from Shariah4America, an initiative masterminded by British cleric Anjem Choudary, founder also of Muslims Against Crusades and Islam4UK, (organizations now banned in Great Britain), and whose Web site asserts simply: “The Islamic revolution has begun” (cue video of the White House with minarets).
Yes, in itself, it’s laughable; but other statements by Choudary, who warned of attacks during the wedding of Kate and William, contends that America is colonizing Muslim countries and claims the “call for the Shariah is a universal one,” are somewhat more ominous. Case in point: a statement on his own personal Web site, asserts his belief that “one day Britain and indeed every part of the world (including the rest of Europe, USA, China and Russia etc…) will be governed by and under the authority of the Muslims implementing Islamic Law. This is something that I believe in and strive to see Insha’Allah.”
Choudary has been described by the journalist Farheed Zakaria as “an activist who has praised the 9/11 attack and 7/7 bombings” and a “jihadist.”
Both of these are true, and Choudary, when I spoke with him recently, was proud to say so. Though he has never been convicted of an act of violent jihad (a term he himself, it should be noted, rejects as a “media invention” with pejorative undertones), Choudary wages what some call “stealth” or “creeping” jihad – a non-violent and often insidious means of fostering fundamentalist (political) Islam within democratic societies in an effort to establish a new Caliphate. Much of his work is performed via the distribution of books, CDs, videos, and other propaganda, and through his frequent appearances on television (he has been interviewed by Zakaria for CNN, Christine Amanpour for ABC, and by Sean Hannity, among others). Yet the irony, of course, is one that Zakaria also pointed out during the CNN interview: “If you said what you say here in Iran,” he noted, “they would kill you. If you said it in Saudi Arabia, they would at the very least imprison you. Here, you get to be on television.”
It’s hard to miss, when listening to Choudary’s remarks in various interviews (available on his site), that he is happy to indulge in some of the wilder conspiracy theories out there (suicide bombers in Afghanistan in Iraq are not Muslims, but agents for American and British governments; Israelis go house to house for the purpose of murdering women and children). And clearly he is quick to take advantage of legal nuances (while he was a leader of an organization banned in the US and Great Britain and supports the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York, 3/11 in Madrid and 7/7 in London, he repeatedly points out that has never been personally convicted (emphasis on the word “convicted”) of any crime. He will take any opportunity to proselytize, having even sought recruits at local “Occupy” demonstrations, promising a reformed economic system based on the Sharia. (Shariah4America’s motto, conveniently, is “”Communism is dead. Capitalism is dying. Islam is the Solution.”) He talks fast, frequently dodges questions, and refuses inconvenient evidence of events he’d rather had never taken place. (He insists, for instance, that Manji concocted the threats against her in Amsterdam, declaring that “these people would not say such things.”) So you’d think that he carries more bluster and ego than any real influence or power.
But the fact is, his movement is growing, both in visibility and in numbers. Islam is, as he notes, the fastest-growing ideology both in Europe and in the USA. Conversions in America are on the rise, largely thanks to Saudi-backed imams within the US prison system, and many of those prison converts adhere to Wahhabist strains of the faith, which promote violent jihad. More notably, the number of Shariah4 movements is multiplying by the week. Like the Occupy movement, he says he “offers an alternative,” and it is an alternative that, again like Occupy, is finding followers in cities and countries around the world.
Certainly it has its appeal for some: as an anti-democratic movement (“we are against democracy. We are against freedom,” he has said), the Shariah4 movement is based on the notion that even a minority can rule – and therefore that even if Muslims remain a minority in Europe and America, they can – and should – hold sovereignty over the people, reigning as a Caliphate governed by Sharia law. And just as Occupy began as a fringe movement that has now affected the economic debates and political landscapes of America and our allies, so, too, is it the hope of Shariah4 leaders that their ideology will become part of the political debates across the globe. How that happens is immaterial to Choudary – be it by conversion or by conquest. What matters is the victory of the Islamic state, its flag flying high from sea to shining, deepest sea.
So should we be worried? Is Shariah4 a real threat?
Probably not, at least for the moment. Largely, they seem to be yet another version of Nation of Islam extremists like Louis Farrakhan, or even Christian crazies like Jeremiah Wright. (Remember him?) And they are probably too visible to get away with any kind of terrorist activity. But when they start acting out, as the Belgian group did in Amsterdam, with violence and death threats; when their seditious intentions become subversive, inciting violent action among their members – then we need to start taking precautions. And it’s more than evident that Chaudory endorses such actions: his opinion, for instance, about the killing of Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh is that “it should be a warning to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie not to offend the Prophet.” So, too, does Shariah4Belgium leader Abu Imran, who last year allegedly issued a death threat against the Belgian defense minister.
Also problematic are the dilemmas these groups pose to non-radical Muslims who insist that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have “hijacked” Islam. To the contrary, Choudary and Shariah4 members maintain; this is “true” Islam, according to the written word of god. Muslims must defend themselves in any way necessary when their people are attacked, Choudary says, and hence the attacks on the US and other Western states are thoroughly justified under Islam.
Such talk also feeds in to racist, anti-Islam hate; both racists and radical Muslims will agree on this one thing: the claim that “moderate Muslims” do not exist; either you are a Muslim and live according to the words of Mohammed, seeking the conquest of Islam over the world, says Choudary, or you are simply not a Muslim. It is a position that dovetails disturbingly with the view that “all Muslims are terrorists.” Moreover, by threatening activists like Manji, who advocate for a modernized, moderate Islam, Choudary and his minions threaten, too, the possibility of a future resolution to the “clash of civilizations” between democracy and Islam – a clash that defines post 9/11 culture throughout the world.
But these are long-range concerns, and ideological ones that may or may not pose a serious threat to Western culture. (I think we can safely say that it will be a long, long time before anyone sees Lady Liberty in a burqa.) Even so, it is high time that Americans begin having what Barack Obama would call “honest conversations” about the issue. We – the media and the public – need to recognize fully what these groups signify: the growing radicalization of Muslims throughout the West. And we must acknowledge the fact that many of those same radical Muslims are indeed already pressuring democracies to modify some of our most sacred freedoms. These are inconvenient truths. But they are truth, just the same.
And here’s another: Whatever the problem of our time, Islam – Chaudary’s protestations notwithstanding – offers no solutions. Religion never does.