It was reported earlier this week that the extremist preacher, Anjem Choudary, was secretly filmed calling for his followers to live off welfare payments to finance their pursuit of “jihad”. Revered Islamic figures, he is reported as saying, had worked only for a couple of days in the year, being occupied with “jihad and things like that.” It was normal, he claimed, for believers to take money from non-believers, and that they should take a “Jihad-seekers’ allowance” off the British state.
Mr Choudary has railed against “Democracy, freedom, secularism, the parliament, all the MPs and the Presidents” as being ideas manufactured by the “unbelievers” or “kufrs”, and fit only for destruction. Yet, for all his disgust at “un-Islamic” concepts, I rather fear that many of his ideas are in fact inherited from the Ancient Greeks.
In this case, it is his attitude towards work, wealth and poverty. Austin and Vidal-Naquet put the matter succinctly in their Economic History of Ancient Greece. First, in general amongst the Greeks there was no dignity attached to labour. Second, there was a different attitude towards the relationship between work and wealth. In our society, one may be regarded as wealthy if one has more than is necessary to live decently, even if one is compelled to work for this status. Amongst the Ancient Greeks, this was different. “A Greek was wealthy if he could live without having to work, poor if he did not have enough to live on without working.” Thus, one might be affluent, but if one had to work for it, then that was not wealth, but poverty.
Choudary ridicules the daily life of the UK working population: “You find people are busy working the whole of their life. They wake up at 7 o’clock. They go to work at 9 o’clock. They work for eight, nine hours a day. They come home at 7 o’clock, watch EastEnders, sleep, and they do that for 40 years of their life. That is called slavery.” Yet, if an Ancient Greek could be telepored to present-day London, he would undoubtedly say exactly the same. He would go on to reckon Choudary, who receives £25,000 a year in benefits without working, as amongst the wealthy.
If Mr Choudary could be teleported back to 5th century Athens, he would find it surprisingly congenial. The wine-drinking and polytheism might rankle (though by the 5th century the intellectuals thought of the Greek pantheon as a manifestation of a single divine power), but the confinement of women to the house and the monopoly of men over the public sphere would certainly tickle his fancy. And if he were lucky enough to sneak in at the back when Socrates was discussing his ideal of the state (a dialogue immortalised in Plato’s Republic), then he would hear a vision of an anti-democratic totalitarian state ruled by mullah-like philosopher kings where music and theatre were banned. Perhaps Mr Choudary is in fact wearing his huge and unkempt beard as a tribute to Socrates and Plato.