Living with the enemy

The US raids have focused attention on Islam, and British Muslims are feeling beleaguered.

Steve Crawshaw@stevecrawshaw
Tuesday 01 September 1998 23:02

Forget the far-flung dramas of the past fortnight - including the smoking ruins of the pharmaceuticals factory in Sudan, and the local fury when cruise missiles hit Afghanistan (on purpose) and Pakistan (by mistake). For Britain at least, the most significant potential effect of the strange American punitive raids could perhaps be seen in recent days in an unexceptional little mosque-cum-community centre - a kind of Islamic church hall - in north London.

Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, one of the fieriest supporters in Britain of Osama bin Laden - the alleged terrorist mastermind who is now congratulating himself on his new found international fame - was in full flow at the Turnpike Lane mosque. He is a would-be Ian Paisley for the British Muslim world - full of fire and brimstone and eloquent invective. His anger never lets up. He wags his finger and shakes his bushy beard. He modulates his voice from a roar to a whisper and back to a roar. Always the message is the same: "The war that has been declared by America has been declared on all Muslims."

He is scornful of "chocolate Muslims" - brown on the outside, white on the inside, always ready to melt - saying that their compromises have got them nowhere. "Those moderate, chocolate Muslims voted for Tony Blair. And what did he do? He slapped them in the face."

His mostly young audience sit rapt, interrupting the two-hour discourse only occasionally with enthusiastic chants for radical action - including violence. Bakri tells them: "Continue the struggle, support the mujahedin, support the Islamic movement." Occasionally the sheikh is interrupted by a trilling noise, indicating that somebody has forgotten the stern injunction on the walls: "Have you switched your phone off? If not, do it now." From behind a set of hospital screens comes the noise of children playing with their mothers, separated from the male members of the audience.

Bakri's readiness with an inflammatory quote has got him into trouble. Donald Anderson, Labour chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, called for the Government to examine the possibility of expelling him from the UK, because of his active endorsement of attacks on US "government targets". In Mr Anderson's words, "Most people in the UK will be asking themselves why we are harbouring people who are inciting terrorism." James Clappison, the Conservative home affairs spokesman, weighed in with warnings of a "threat to national security".

It would no doubt be easy for the authorities to find grounds for expelling the Syrian-born Sheikh Bakri - as he himself seems cheerfully ready to acknowledge. "Don't worry about being deported - Allah will provide," he tells his listeners. Mr Bakri, leader of "al-Muhajiroun" - the Emigrants - was granted refugee status in 1990. But he is not the Government's favourite guest; he is under constant surveillance. As he himself notes: "It's a hostile relationship. The Government comes to interrogate us all the time."

The package of anti-terror legislation that Tony Blair announced last week would for the first time make it an offence to conspire to commit terrorist offences outside the UK. The proposals have been in the pipeline for a year - and a government consultative paper was due to be published in January. It was delayed because of the difficulty of framing the legislation. One problem has been that foreign governments are often quick to accuse their radical critics of being "terrorists" without providing acceptable proof.

According to critics of the existing rules, Britain has become a haven for extremists because of an alleged excess of British laissez-faire. Omar Bakri and his al-Muhajiroun represent just one of a clutch of groups that delight in clashing with what they perceive as the imposed, un-Islamic values of the host state. The buzz-phrase is "the sovereignty of God" - in other words, no loyalty to a secular state. Certainly, Mr Bakri shows no enthusiasm for loyalty to the Crown. He applied for a British passport when he first arrived in the UK, and says that he would still be happy to have one, though that is now hardly on the cards. He would, he says, find the passport useful "as a travel card".

If he is expelled, he says, he would be glad to go to Afghanistan, home of the Taliban and of his hero, Osama bin Laden. "It would be an honour." So far, so good. That might make everybody happy.

The removal of Mr Bakri would, however, scarcely tackle the problem of alienation. He seems ready to encourage his audience to go further than he can, because of the terms of the agreement he signed when he was granted refugee status. "Those of us who are refugees cannot indulge in struggle. But those who are British..." The sentence is left dangling in the air. Mr Bakri's accent betrays his Middle Eastern birth. Most of his audience, by contrast, are Londoners born and bred; no legislation in the world could get rid of them to a foreign country. Bakri himself argues: "Don't they realise that if Osama bin Laden is killed and Omar Bakri is deported, the struggle will continue?" In this at least, it seems difficult to challenge his logic. Omar Bakri is not alone. And as for Clinton's "pre-eminent organiser of international terrorism in the world today", Osama bin Laden (assassinated martyr) does not sound like a scenario that would enable American citizens or visitors to Planet Hollywood to sleep easier in their beds than Osama bin Laden (troublemaking bigmouth).

Many Muslims point out that Omar Bakri does not represent all Muslims, or even the mainstream. Some argue that he must be a stooge, because he is so "extremely suspect" - a gift to Muslim-haters everywhere. Certainly, Bakri's enthusiastic young supporters are wrong to suggest "100 per cent" support. Even his own estimate of 80 per cent is clearly overstated. None the less, the American action is a boon for Bakri - as even his critics reluctantly admit. He himself says that he has received a flood of support in the wake of last month's raids. He has been giving a string of well attended speeches - in Birmingham, Leicester, Sheffield and Derby in one day alone - and claims that attendance is much higher than usual.

Even at the super-tolerant end of the Islamic spectrum, nagging doubts and despair can be found, in response to the American raids and the British gung-ho support for them. Professor Akbar Ahmed, of Selwyn College, Cambridge, has played a key role in Britain working for Christian-Muslim tolerance and understanding. But he believes that the US raids, and the British support for those raids, have made the prospects for an integrated society worse than ever before. "I feel rather saddened, rather chastened. The attack was irrational; it draws in the wrath of the Islamic world so that there is no difference between moderate and radical. It unchains a spiralling cycle of violence, a tremendous sense of fury."

Speaking last Tuesday afternoon, Ahmed said: "Some guy in Cairo, Karachi, Delhi, Birmingham or London will see an innocent target, and they will suffer. It's just spiralling out of control." Hours later, a bomb exploded in the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Johannesburg, killing one person and wounding 28. Ahmed was bitter that he had been proved right so swiftly. "Unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me at all. Anyone, anywhere, any time is vulnerable." He speaks with bitter irony of the impact of Clinton's actions. "Brilliantly, Clinton has given a focus, to radicalise Muslims. We can try to put a lid on this. But it's open season."

It is hard to find a Muslim who does not feel battered by the events of last month. Bill Clinton began his speech with a few words of politesse about "hundreds of millions of good, peace-loving people" and about the "great religion" of Islam. But few seem to treat those words as anything more than a meaningless verbal twirl, to be capped by the "Oh and by the way, we've bombed you" punch line.

The East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road has a mixed congregation from different countries. Most are keen to distance themselves from the inflammatory rhetoric of Omar Bakri in the Turnpike Lane mosque. But they, too, are dismayed by the American raids. As one man said: "There's no point getting angry. I just feel sad." Another argued: "Let's put it this way. If it were the other way round - if a Muslim country did that to America or England - what would you feel?" A third makes a point that is repeatedly heard, with reference to last month's bomb in Omagh. "The fear of Islam is well known. When it is a Muslim, the headline always says `Muslim fanatic', or `Muslim terrorist'. But when 28 people died, who did it? The headline should have said `Christian fanatics kill innocent people'."

Interpreted generously, part of the reasoning behind the Sudan and Afghanistan raids seems to be that tough action against one group will decourager les autres. Bill Clinton's declaration that there would be "no sanctuary for terrorists" picked up directly on Ronald Reagan's famous declaration - "You can run, but you can't hide". In reality, as the bomb in Johannesburg made clear, the boot may be on the other foot. The perceived injustice is likely only to increase Muslim anger - and thus, from a small, "Real IRA"-style minority, the violence. In Northern Ireland, the prospects for further terrorism are poor - even the "Real IRA" seems to be on the retreat - because talking and compromise have topped the agenda in recent months. The contrast with the Middle East could hardly be more stark.

There are plenty in Bakri's congregation who share his radical views and his acceptance of violence. He is ready to "endorse attacks on US forces", saying: "We are at war with the forces that have occupied our land." But, with what in other contexts might be described as Jesuitical precision, he insists: "I don't say, `Do it.' I say: `It is allowed [by Islam].' It is a question of jurisprudence." And then, as a fiery postscript: "Do you want me to compromise?" The answer from his audience comes back: "No!" Bakri distances himself from civilian deaths - "collateral damage", as the military like to call it. "If I kill women or children, condemn me!"

But some of his congregation have no such qualms. One man, describing himself as a civil servant, declares: "We endorse the [embassy] bombings - and call for more. Military targets - anything to do with the government. If civilians die, and they're not targeted - that's what war is about."

Moderate Muslims argue that violence is itself abhorrent to Islam. Professor Ahmed notes that the two most important appellations of Allah are Rahman and Rahim - Compassionate and Merciful.

Tariq Azim-Khan, a former Commissioner for Racial Equality and now chair of the British-Muslim Forum, insists: "Islam preaches peace. We as Muslims condemn terrorism carried out by states or individuals - Osama bin Laden, Abu Nidal, whoever." He is dismissive of "self-appointed leaders" like Bakri, who "manage to grab headlines just because they say such nasty things". But he cannot understand why the United States, backed by Britain, "got involved in terrorism of a second type". "Previously, the US was the first country to go to the [United Nations] Security Council. In this case, it never involved the Security Council or its members. Nobody was told. It's very sad, and sets a wrong precedent." Despite his insistence that somebody like Bakri is a fringe figure, he believes the knock-on effects of last week's raids are clear. "One kind of terrorism is never curbed by another kind of terrorism. It only strengthens their case. It makes the world a more dangerous place."

Professor Ahmed, an increasingly embattled voice of moderation, sees the prospects in equally bleak terms. "Compassion, justice, tolerance - the West does not see any of these factors. It sees things only as a matter of geopolitics. I feel almost that I am facing a tidal wave. On the one hand, you've got the missiles. On the other hand, you've got the extremists. It's difficult to do a King Canute. But you just have to try."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments