Many Muslims in this country, as correctly reported by the media this week, will not be sorry to see the back of Omar Bakri Muhammad, the leader of the former al-Muhajiroun. He had a small, marginal following, which mostly preached in the streets and was banned from some mosques. His, and his group’s, opinions were the subject of much disagreement, particularly his insistence that voting for non-Islamic parties was against Islam, even when it was intended to keep an even worse candidate out. There were also doctrinal issues, both those dating from the time when al-Muhajiroun were an offshoot of the British section of Hizbut-Tahreer, and from the Salafi movement they later embraced.
His decision to leave the country for Lebanon, where he holds citizenship, demonstrated that his claim of refugee status in any case has no merit. If you fear persecution in a country, you don’t go there for a holiday or to see Mama or to “take the pressure off the Muslim community”, as if he has shown much concern for that with his behaviour since 2001. “Not conducive to the public good” is a fairly good assessment of his presence in this country, unless his contributions to the economy by helping to sell papers with his various pronouncements and interviews counts as “public good”.
His presence has been so damaging that I have heard it suggested on many occasions that he is an agent provocateur. I first heard this suggestion well before 9/11, but this impression was reinforced by what took place in May: a group of his followers turned up at a demonstration outside the US embassy and chanted bellicose anti-American slogans. The media reported that such slogans were chanted at a demo at which the likes of Martin Mubanga, the former Guantanamo detainee, spoke, without mentioning that the people chanting the slogans were from a group which pronounced the organisers of the demo as being “very close to becoming munafiqeen (hypocrites)”. I found all of this out when I asked about the incident at a subsequent demonstration in Whitehall organised by the same people, and people wondered why OBM was getting away with his outrageous behaviour when the likes of Abu Hamza and Abdullah Faisal had not. Discussion of him on one traditional Muslim forum I regularly visit was not friendly; the news of his plans to have a heart operation on the NHS was greeted with surprise from one contributor that he had a heart!
Two particular articles on the OBM issue have caught my eye this weekend. One was in Saturday’s Daily Mail, entitled Inside the Fanatic’s Lair, and told how “secret tapes obtained by the Mail give a chilling insight into the Sheik of Hate’s web of terror … and the wife who loathes us as much as he does”. You might wonder what’s in his lair, but they found nothing more sinister than a cat called Michy, some Islamic textbooks and some “well-thumbed political tracts by Muslim extremists”, three computers and, of course, Omar Bakri’s fire-breathing wife.
The wife is the subject of some preposterous statements. Apparently, when she goes to the school to pick up her children, aged seven, eleven and sixteen, none of the other parents knows she is OBM’s wife and that “she, like her husband, preaches a gospel of hate against this country and its people”. How long can you keep secret information about who your dad is? And further on, we find no evidence that she actually preaches hate against the British – merely that she doesn’t like them and has said so, on the telephone to a personal friend. And the article gives the impression that her friends don’t know that she has pretty, wavy hair. Nonsense. Everyone who knows about Arab and Muslim culture knows that women take off their hijabs in front of other women, particularly Muslim women (and, incidentally, that the sight of “her head closely scarfed” is not a sign that she is a fanatic).
The other article, by Rod Liddle in the Spectator, expresses his personal distaste for Islam itself, but suggests that the likes of OBM be left free to spew their rubbish. Actually, there are some good points in the article – observing that those most keen to criticise Islam are those most likely to agree with some of its moral standpoints, and that British tolerance “does not extend to people who challenge our social mores”. I don’t for a moment agree with his assessment of Islam as a “primitive creed”; I find it very coherent indeed.
I have two problems with Liddle’s article. One is its conclusion, in which he advocates banning hijab in the education system. I wouldn’t blog on this here, except for the discussion that ensued when I blogged it on my own site. I predicted that it would lead to a mass withdrawal of Muslim girls from state schools into home education, unless banning that is on the agenda as well. I happen to think home education is a very good thing – it’s certainly preferable to being shoe-horned into a bad school, which is what happened to me – but it hardly fits their agenda of integrating Muslim communities into wider society. An anonymous commentator calling herself “Kafir” suggested another possible result: that the law would be enforced and girls would be educated without their hijabs.
Besides the differences in political culture between the UK and France, I somehow don’t think the British government considers it worth taking the risk, because the results might also include disrupted lessons, riots and a spate of vandalism and arson against the education system. There is much goodwill at the moment between the Muslim community and society in general, despite the Iraq war. The first state Muslim schools have been incorporated under the present government, which has to date hardly interfered at all with the workings of mosques and other Muslim organisations. Whatever goodwill exists now would evaporate very quickly if the state turned to harrassing Muslim schoolgirls.
The other problem with this piece is the aspersions it casts on the Muslim community, specifically the mere existence of “moderate Muslims”:
The problem lies with the government and those Left-liberal multiculturalist commentators who continue to delude themselves that Islam as a whole is easily compatible with the Western notions of freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, democracy and equality. As a result, we now have a false dichotomy Ã¢â‚¬â€ between something called moderate Islam and this rogue creature, extremist Islam. Oh, 95 per cent of Muslims are moderate, we tell ourselves Ã¢â‚¬â€ and we are then rendered speechless with shock when the Iranians vote en masse for a fundamentalist headbanger as President and, worse, it is revealed that those London bombers come not from some dusty backward desert redoubt, but from England.
But the issue isn’t Muslims in Iran, who are not known to have had anything to do with the recent attacks in London. For one thing, Muslims in this country are not influenced by the Iranian state media and its propaganda, but even so, Liddle apparently doesn’t even consider the possibility that while westerners might consider him a “headbanger”, he might have some appeal to Iranians other than this – particularly given the Americans’ recent threatening noises. (Quite apart from the fact that candidature was restricted.) Iran is a totally different society to the Muslim community here; even in places where Islamists have stood, usually under the Respect banner, they have not been elected.
The mention of Iran in an article on Muslims in this country and whatever threat they might pose to public order is typical of something I’ve seen quite often in the British press since the bombings: the mention of an irrelevant fact in order to add scare value. Another example appeared in the Evening Standard on 1st Aug, in which Andrew Gilligan’s discussion of the low standards at a Muslim religious school in the suburbs of London kept going off on tangents about Kashmiri guerrillas, the Taliban and how an official at a madrassa in Birmigham was accused twice (and acquitted on both occasions) of terrorist offences. It’s ironic that Tony Blair, in his press conference of 5th August, told us that the mood had changed and people no longer talked of scare-mongering. Too right – they don’t talk of it, they just do it.
The British media since the July bombings have been full of reports which are at best irresponsible and alarmist and at worst mendacious and possibly malicious. This trend has occurred right across the political spectrum – I’m not just talking about the right-wing corporate media. For example, Shiv Malik has been able to rehash the “conveyor belt” clichÃƒÂ© on at least three occasions, claiming in last Sunday’s Independent that Zeyno Baran, who coined the expression, warned him of Hizbut-Tahreer producing “thousands of manipulated brains, which then Ã¢â‚¬ËœgraduateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ from Hizb and become members of groups like al-QaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ida”, giving the impression of Baran saying this to him personally. In fact, the words are quoted verbatim from an article she wrote in the National Review in April 2004.
Another example is the report in the Standard (9th Aug) of an alleged aspiring suicide bomber, Zeeshan Siddiqui, who was brought up in Hounslow and has recently been arrested in Pakistan. They print extracts from his diary, in which he writes of his distaste for the Pakistanis surrounding him and talks of martyrdom as “the only way I can be reunited with Mummy and Daddy”. The report mentions that his best friend at college was Asif Hanif, of Tel Aviv suicide bombing fame, without mentioning that Hanif was not known in Hounslow as a radical at all; what happened in Tel Aviv came as a shock to everyone. I visited Hounslow mosque a number of times and visited the Hanif family home also (the street name appeared in the newspapers after the Tel Aviv event); nobody in Hounslow has ever invited me to get involved with terrorism of any sort.
Or take the coverage on the BBC’s Today programme last Friday of the Muslim Boys, a criminal gang operating in south London whose members pretend to be Muslims and who have murdered people for refusing to “convert to Islam”, or rather, their version of it. It seems some people are more concerned about this gang’s potential to attract people to al-Qa’ida in the future, or (as mentioned in today’s Independent on Sunday) to get money through to al-Qa’ida, than about people being murdered by semi-automatic gun-wielding thugs on the streets of south London now. Or the Observer’s coverage of the Muslim Council of Britain’s “radical links”, which are actually to groups rather too conservative for Martin Bright’s liking.
One can never be sure whether these misleading scary reports are motivated by malice or some anti-Muslim agenda, or are simply the result of writers not knowing much and needing to pad out their reports. Certainly one Muslim commentator has gained the impression that hostile articles such as those by Patrick Sookhdeo, famous for his championing of the Christians of Pakistan but not so famous for championing those of Israel/Palestine, are attempts to foment anger against Muslims living in the west. (A lot of us will not quickly forget the affair of “Will Cummins”, the pseudonymous former teacher who contributed four inflammatory articles on Muslims and Islam to the Sunday Telegraph last July.) The upshot of this irresponsible, sensationalist reporting will not be any sort of drawing-together of the Muslim community, where it is isolated, with the general population; on the contrary, it will only increase suspicion and hostility.