If a curious stranger asked you to name a British Muslim commentator, I guess you would name Mo Ansar. So omnipresent has he become, he seems at times to be Britain’s only Muslim commentator.
‘Mo Ansar: Open for business,’ read his first tweet on 8 August 2011, and business has been rolling in ever since. Ansar understands better than most that if you want to exploit the media you must always be available to harassed researchers on rolling news programmes. ‘He invented himself as a rent-a-quote commentator,’ says the LBC broadcaster Iain Dale. ‘We know he’ll always say “yes”. And when you’re setting up a topic, that’s worth its weight in gold.’ A producer recalled marvelling as Ansar bombarded him with ideas for films. ‘This man wants to be on television more than anything else in the world,’ he thought.
Until recently programme makers were happy to oblige. Broadcasters made him the voice of British Islam, even though no electorate had voted for him, and no organisation had appointed him its spokesperson. Ansar was not an Islamic scholar. He had not published a book or led a movement. He was a planning manager at Lloyds-TSB in Winchester until 2006, and has had no visible means of support except appearance fees and state benefits for years.
He looked the part, I’ll give him that. He dressed in a prayer hat and flowing robes, but spoke with a slight London accent: a mixture of the exotic and the familiar broadcasters appreciated. More tellingly, he was among the first to understand that Twitter could turn you into a minor celebrity. Ansar has issued tens of thousands of Tweets: picking fights, issuing proclamations, and seeking endorsements. Alongside the official Mo Ansar account, there is a Twitter alias – a ‘sockpuppet’ account in the jargon – called @The_TruthTeller, which denigrates Ansar’s enemies. It was originally called @MoAnsar2, and is written either by Ansar, who was unavailable for comment, or by a besotted fan determined to fight his every battle.
If those battles were just with racists, then Ansar would not now be wondering if he is yesterday’s man, Although Ansar does not need bodyguards, he will know from experience that the popular right-wing view that anti-Muslim prejudice barely exists is a fairy story. Ansar came to prominence in 2011 when the English Defence League was at its height. He has enemies any man should be proud to call his own. But they are not his only enemies.
The greatest cause of confusion in liberal Europe is the existence of two far-rights: the nativist white far-right, which hates and targets Muslims because they are Muslim; and the religious far right, which hates and targets critics of fundamentalism, including critics who are liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims. Ansar deplores the former. His attitude towards the latter is equivocal to put it politely.
I first saw the immoderate side of the media’s ‘moderate Muslim’ after Tom Holland published In the Shadow of Sword, a history of early Islam, which dismissed its its founding myths. ‘It takes some guts to do that,’ I thought. True to form, Ansar toured the TV studios denouncing Holland as a fraud. Holland challenged the ‘expert’ to name the first Muslim philosopher to condemn slavery. Ansar did not know but came up with a Boko-Haramish defence of slavery in Muslim states: ‘If slaves are treated justly, with full rights, and no oppression whatsoever… why would anyone object, Tom?’
Like so many on the white far Right, Ansar has Jews on the brain. To him, David Miliband is the ‘Zionist Jew Miliband,’ while he will pass on his crackpot theory that Jesus was not a Jew to anyone who will listen. To look only at Ansar’s ideology is to look the wrong way, however. Media exposure gives some a huge adrenalin rush. The broadcasters’ attention makes you feel important. It turns you into a minor celebrity, a man of consequence. And yet at the back of your mind you must realise that opinion formers are like newsreaders, supporting actors or any other semi-skilled worker. Thousands could do their jobs just as well. Without valuable skills or a mass following, the haunting question ‘Why me?’ has no compelling answer.
If producers dropped Mo Ansar, he would have nothing to fall back on. He would become what those who have felt the thrill of fame fear most: just another face in the street. Some minor celebrities respond to insecurity by being brittle and melancholic off camera. Others go on the attack. No one has experienced Ansar ‘s fury like the men who have threatened his career as an ‘opinion former’.
The case that turns Ansar from a chancer into something more sinister is the case Maajid Nawaz. The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate and director of the moderate Muslim think-tank, Quilliam, made Ansar look like a fool in the BBC documentary When Tommy Met Mo. Ansar was to show Tommy Robinson of the English Defence League that his prejudices about Islam were wrong. A wiser and better Robinson would then renounce extremist politics.
Nawaz challenged Ansar’s claim to be a moderate. Did he agree that thieves should have their hands chopped off? ‘No’, Ansar replied. Nawaz understands Islamism better than most interviewers, and did not stop there. Should an Islamic state cut off the hands of thieves or stone adulterers? ‘I’ll tell you my answer “no”. What’s yours?’ The cornered Ansar could only waffle.
Robinson realised that Nawaz was the authentic moderate. He left the EDL, but he left at the behest of Quilliam, and announced his conversion at a Quilliam press conference. Nawaz reduced Ansar to the role of bit player at what was meant to be HIS triumph.
Earlier this year he had his revenge after an argument about the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo. It is a sign of how neurotic our society has become that the supposedly controversial cartoon featured Jesus saying ‘Hey’ and Muhammad saying ‘How ya doing?’. The tameness of the image – its meek and anodyne mildness – did not stop religious reactionaries going for Nawaz when he tweeted the cartoon, and said it did not offend him. A fellow Liberal Democrat called Mohammed Shafiq accused him of ‘denigration of the prophet,’ a charge which can lead to assassination by freelance fanatics anywhere or death at the hands of the state in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries. Ansar joined the campaign against Nawaz with full-throated enthusiasm. Nicky Campbell, who had had Ansar on his Radio 5 show scores of times, warned, ‘take care you don’t come over as whipping this up my friend’. Ansar took no notice.
Nawaz received death threats, and had to call in the police. For Ansar to go along with a campaign, which was at best indifferent to his safety and the safety of his family in Pakistan, was unforgiveable. ‘Can I go to Pakistan now?’ he asks when I speak to him. ‘Will a mob or the government try to kill me? Will someone try to kill me here?’ Needless to add, his contempt for Ansar is absolute.
Others are not far behind. Nicky Campbell dropped him from his show. Abusive tweets and texts followed. Iain Dale dropped him from LBC for the less high-minded reason that Ansar had missed scheduled interviews. They had a Twitter row, which ended with Dale calling Ansar ‘a gobby prick’ and Ansar accusing Dale of subjecting him ‘to anti-Muslim prejudice’. He implied that only this prejudice could explain why Dale had barred him from his show. The next thing Dale knew Ansar had reported him to Hampshire Police and Tell Mama, which monitors crimes against Muslim. He produced no evidence that substantiated the charge that Dale was a racist or Islamaphobe, and both dismissed the complaint.
His vindictiveness and self-regard will be his undoing. Broadcasters are a tolerant bunch. But they take exception to guests who try to set the cops on them. BBC Radio 5 will not have him on. Meanwhile everyone in commercial radio knows Iain Dale’s story. Maybe the Russian and Iranian propaganda channels will return his calls. Apart from that, it’s over.
We should not forget Mo Ansar, however. For all the talk of ‘diversity,’ we live in an era of uniformity. Instead of recognising the vast range of views within British Islam, officialdom created a monolithic bloc ‘the Muslims’. It then decided that self-appointed and invariably reactionary voices should be ‘the Muslims’ sole representatives.
Maajid Nawaz calls official British attitudes ‘neo-colonial’. To understand why white readers should ask how they would feel if the broadcasters pushed forward a white Mo Ansar, and said without a shred of evidence that he was the authentic voice of white Britain. Admit it, you would feel patronised and disgusted.