London: capital of the revolution

Why do Islamic dissidents in exile flock to the UK? Emma Daly reports on the eve of a major rally
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The Independent Online
''London", shouts the press release for next weekend's Rally for Islamic Revival, "the capital of the world-wide Islamic movements". The rally, aka the 1996 International Islamic Conference, is intended to draw thousands of Muslims, local and foreign, to London Docklands to discuss the way forward to a single Islamic state.

It will, continues the press release, "maintain London's leading position in the Ummah as the centre for political revival of Islam, and the main opposition centre for the eventual Islamic revolution in Muslim lands".

This might surprise those accustomed to seeing Islamic dissent as the intellectual face of terrorism and to hearing Michael Howard's assaults on asylum-seekers. But Britain has a glorious history of hospitality to political radicals - and with the demise of apartheid and the fall of the Wall, Muslims opposed to their own governments are the last dissenters of the 20th century. Most flee authoritarian repression; some are seeking liberal democracy; others want Allah's heaven on earth.

Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, the man behind the Rally for Revival, is a Syrian opposed to all the present Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim regimes. For him, even the Islamic Republic in Iran is heathen and corrupt, let alone the dictatorship in Iraq and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Egypt and Algeria have complained about the meeting and asked the British Government to ban it; some delegates, Mr Muhammad says, have been denied visas for Britain or have been turned back at airports.

However, he has few complaints about the authorities in Britain, acknowledging that he is able freely to conduct his mission for a global Islamic revolution. "They believe in freedom of speech, so they must practise what they preach,'' Mr Muhammad, who has applied for British citizenship, says. He relishes the paradox that his proselytising is aimed at destroying the system that allows him to preach in the first place. He adds that the British sowed the seeds of their ultimate downfall through their support for Kemal Attaturk and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the single Islamic state cherished by Mr Muhammad. "Because London called for the destruction of the Khalifate on 3 March 1924,'' he says, "the conspiracy against Islam and Muslims comes from Britain.'' But "this has backfired on [the British] ... from that day, the Muslims looked to Britain as the head of the Western powers that caused destruction.''

Other Muslim expatriates explain London's premier position in the Islamic opposition scene differently. "It is because of the history of Britain and the Empire,'' says Mai Ghossoub, who runs the Saqi bookshop in west London. "All English-speaking Arabs come to London. It is a tolerant city - people can dress the way they want to, for example.'' Moreover, a large section of the Arab press - both official and dissident - is printed in London, which assumed the mantle of Middle Eastern communications centre from Beirut as a result of the Lebanese war.

"Most of the so-called fundamentalists in this country are only dangerous to themselves," says Fuad Nahdi, editor of the Muslim weekly Q-News, who feels that British Muslims are constantly and unfairly tarred with the brush of dangerous fundamentalism. "For the vast majority here there's a lot of worry about anti-Muslim bias, about how they're going to pay their mortgages and educate their kids. After that they don't have time to think about the global Islamic movement."

Ms Ghossoub and Mr Muhammad agree that in Britain, Muslims and/or Arabs of all persuasions can meet on common ground. For her, London offers a common language and a "cultural space" in which people can browse through political tracts or poetry, and wear anything from the floor-length black chador compulsory in Riyadh to the smart Western suits that she favours.

Mr Muhammad would almost certainly have been imprisoned if he lived in Syria. His rally is supposed to hear videotaped messages from jail cells: a blind Egyptian cleric imprisoned over the World Trade Center bombing, a leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front robbed of election victory in 1992, the head of Hamas jailed by Israel, to name a few.

The rally is merely a talking shop, Mr Muhammad says. "The messages will not contain any anti-Semitic messages or any incitement to terrorism, because that is against our principles.''

He has been asked to pay for extra security around the Arena nevertheless, and the Jewish community at least is worried about the presence of Islamic radicals. "We regard it as one of the major threats facing both us and the general community,'' says Mike Whine, spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. "Many Islamist groups are violently anti-Western. They regard Britain as an enemy ... [and] contain to a greater or lesser extent anti-Semitism within their general outlook."

Mr Whine does say that such extremists represent "a very small minority" within the Muslim community, but his fears are shared by the Government. It plans a law to give British courts jurisdiction over "acts of conspiracy and incitement" committed in the UK in respect of offences committed abroad. This, the Home Office says, "will also help to control the activities of foreign extremists who use this country as a base to plan or encourage criminal acts abroad".

But one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Activists of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front continue to operate in Britain. Last week, Nadir Remli, an Algerian with British citizenship, was handing out copies of The Enlightenment, an FIS newsletter, outside the Regent's Park mosque. "No room left to reason [with] the criminal military regime in Algeria!" says the headline. An inside page offers "News of Jihad and Mujahadeen" in Algeria, with an approving tally of soldiers and policemen killed recently.

But he says he does not want to remain in Britain for ever. "This is not paradise, this is a bridge. We will go back [to Algeria] when it is like Britain and we can worship our God and we are in full control of our destiny."

Should the FIS win control of Algeria, it is unlikely to repeat the democratic experiment that would have brought it to power in 1992 - Algeria will never be like Britain. At the very least there is a risk that this weekend's conference is exploiting Britain's liberal tradition; but banning it would diminish the principles that uphold our society and be a victory for those who seek its destruction.