An audience with the 'Tottenham Ayatollah'

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The Independent Online

They are Britain's most notorious, militant Islamic clerics. They initially rejoiced at the terrorist strikes on America that killed almost 6,000 people though they've since gone back on that position – but they now claim the deaths were a CIA plot.

They are Britain's most notorious, militant Islamic clerics. They initially rejoiced at the terrorist strikes on America that killed almost 6,000 people though they've since gone back on that position – but they now claim the deaths were a CIA plot.

Despite their extremist views, however, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad and Abu Hamza al-Masri have so far managed to stay on the right side of the law. Until now.

A new law, to be introduced by Home Secretary David Blunkett, will make incitement to religious hatred an offence for the first time – and that will make the two clerics a prime target for a legal crackdown.

That will delight the mainstream Muslim community that has been trying to shut the "sheikhs" up. "They are a joke but... they are a danger," warns Inayat Bunglawalla of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), pointing out that out of 800 mosques in the UK, these two men are the leaders of at most 2,000 people.

And one of them does not even operate out of a mosque but out of the unlikely surroundings of the Lee Valley Techno Park. Office number 304 on the anonymous, north London business park, next to a children's nursery, is home to Islamic fundamentalist group Al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants).

Its leader is Syrian-born Omar Bakri Muhammad, also known as the Tottenham Ayatollah for a series of fatwas on leaders ranging from the former British Prime Minister John Major to the present President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf.

Omar Bakri, wearing jogging pants and a sweatshirt, greets me at the reception desk and we wander down the corridor and into his HQ, a room with two computers, piles of leaflets, rows of desks and six young men inside. The room is stuffy and he admonishes his followers: "Can you open the windows? You people all sweat but you never seem to open the windows." He turns to me. "You want Sprite or water juice? You like water juice? So what can I do for you?"

Omar Bakri is used to giving interviews. The 43-year-old arrived in Britain in 1986 after being expelled from Saudi Arabia. Although much of his rhetoric is clearly offensive, it is hard to feel threatened by a man who quotes from the trashy daytime television show Kilroy and cracks jokes between the ranting. Such as: "I only have one wife. Nobody else will marry me because of the negative publicity." Or: "I have semitic features. People say to me 'shalom' in the street. I have no problem with the Jewish people, they give me discounts when I buy something in their shops."

His is a weird mix of knockabout banter and bizarre extremist views, which include denial of Muslim involvement in the terrorist atrocities of September 11. "Most likely the CIA or it could be Mossad [the Israeli secret service] behind it" said Bakri. "It is all completely fabricated."

That is a view shared by Abu Hamza, the one-eyed leader of the Supporters of Sharia fundamentalist group. He has metal claws for hands blown off by a landmine in Afghanistan. He is wanted in Yemen accused of organising an armed group and planning terrorist attacks. His son and stepson are in jail in Yemen for kidnapping.

While setting up an interview with Omar Bakri is not difficult – he invites you to visit within about 10 seconds of calling – establishing a dialogue with Egyptian-born Abu Hamza is a more arduous process. At his mosque in nearby Finsbury Park, two huge men bar the way while a largish police presence looks on. I ask to see him and am told no. After some discussion, I am told to write down five questions on a piece of paper which will be passed onto the cleric. If he likes the questions he may give an interview in one hour's time.

In the meantime I am given two pieces of paper to study – one is headed "Who Is Responsible for World War 3"; the other "Who is Behind US Nightmare... THINK???"

Proudly boasting his qualifications as a British civil engineer, Abu Hamza is con- vinced the World Trade Centre was destroyed by a "large amount of professionally distributed explosives" and not by the planes crashing into the towers. "Zionists are the only beneficiaries from the plot!" concludes the article. The questions handed in, I return after an hour to be told to go away and come back in 10 minutes. A supporter then informs me Abu Hamza will give an interview but by telephone, because of a fear of hidden cameras. I trudge back to my car and call him from there.

So you point the finger at the CIA or perhaps Mossad, I ask? "I don't really point fingers at anybody," he replies. "Because I don't have any fingers." He adds ominously: "There will be an incident this week coming... this is a fight between good and bad. And George Bush is bad and the Taliban are good... Bush is preaching hatred."

That Abu Hamza is allowed to continue preaching in this county may well be a result of deficiencies in the law or perhaps the Government prefers it that way so as to keep him clearly in its sights. Earlier this year the Yemen government suggested exchanging him for five British prisoners, including his son, convicted of terrorist acts in the country. So far the UK Government has resisted.

For the vast majority of Britain's Muslims, the two extremists are a huge cause for concern. "Their comments are inciting hatred towards Muslims. These two characters are generating enormous dislike towards Muslims," explained Mr Bunglawalla. Their outbursts serve only to fuel the likes of the British National Party, which produced leaflets after the US attacks condemning Islam as a faith that "creates religious hatred" and "spawns psychotic mass murderers".

The same law that would curb the excesses of the "sheikhs" of north London would equally apply to any such rhetoric from the extreme right. For the Muslim community, that makes it doubly welcome.