Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Boyd Tonkin: The scribblings of dreamers are catharsis, not crime

Let's hope no anti-terror officer ever browses in that banquet of butchery, 'The Iliad'

Monday 12 November 2007 01:00 GMT

Thought crime has come to Britain. We knew that in principle, as wave after wave of legislation has pushed the scope of anti-terror laws from deeds and plans to words. The case of Samina Malik, the Heathrow airport worker and jihadi fantasist convicted on Thursday under the Terrorism Act, confirms it beyond reasonable doubt.

True, the legal core of the prosecution's case lay in the Islamist horror handbooks ("How to Make Bombs" and so on) found on her computer – although there is no evidence that she ever lifted a finger to act on them. But the mood music of insinuation played out entirely around the poems, the scribblings, the postings of the self-described "Lyrical Terrorist". With the whole of Catholic Europe desperate to dethrone her, Elizabeth I famously said that "I would not make windows into men's souls". Now the British state, which politely declines to raise the issue of human rights when it entertains the Saudi autocrats who have funded the export of jihadi extremism around the world, makes those windows, kicks them in, and tells young Muslim hotheads that every stupid brainstorm may send them straight to jail.

Besides, if trite bloodthirsty verse of the sort that helped to convict Malik agitates our law-makers so much, perhaps they should start their crackdowns in higher places than a bedroom in Southall. Take George Bush's new best buddy, Nicolas Sarkozy. Every day, this patron of terrorist lyrics permits – no, commands – the singing of Rouget de Lisle's "War Song of the Rhine Army", better known as the "Marseillaise". And what does every rugby team or village fete bellow each time the chorus comes around?

The final couplet's invitation to massacre the counter-revolutionary infidel could hardly be clearer: "Let impure blood drench our fields!" Even closer to home is an inflammatory anthem crammed with sanguinary images of "scarlet standards" and the "martyred dead", sung by a British political conspiracy once dedicated to overturning the entire economic order of society.

After a spine-chilling evocation of "martyrs" who died in ideological battle, the sinister ditty ("The Red Flag") explains why this movement's symbol is "deepest red": "ere their limbs grew stiff and cold/ Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold". Truly chilling stuff. Surely, the leader of an organisation who sanctioned the singing of such a grotesque hymn to sacrificial death should at least have his hard drive examined by our Thought Police?

The glamour of bloody strife in a higher cause has appealed to dreamers and drifters since the first tribal bard brought news of shattered limbs and spurting arteries from the first battlefield. And if Malik's gory imaginings rendered her a "complete enigma" to the Recorder of London, then much of western culture – which has often gloried in sanctified slaughter – must remain a closed book to him. Let's hope that no anti-terror officer ever bothers to browse in The Iliad, that banquet of butchery served up with a relish that has excited writers for 2,500 years: "Achilles slit open his liver/The liver spurted loose/ he reared and jammed his lance through the man's ear".

From Homer to 50 Cent, lonely and frustrated youngsters have sought to compensate for the limitations of their lives via the vicarious thrill of spoken or written violence. Malik's own non-Islamist inspirations included Tupac Shakur, the rapper who lived the "thug life" as well as singing about it. His posthumous stock as a poet of the gang-ridden ghetto streets rose so high after his death by shooting in 1996 that Harvard University hosted a conference on his work. I find Tupac's literary charms pretty resistible ("I want to piss on his head/ I want his family dead" and so on, ad nauseam) but the usual defence of gangsta rap deserves a hearing.

This material acts as catharsis, not incitement; as purgation and not provocation. Puerile it may be, but the bellicose doggerel of the "Lyrical Terrorist" herself looks like a feeble attempt to graft hip-hop style onto the Islamic tradition of counter-crusading warrior verse ("Move to the front line/ To chop chop head of kuffar swine"). Of course, the Muslim world came rather late to the poetic pleasures of holy gore. The medieval Chanson de Roland, another pillar of European literature, boasts enough smiting and slicing of the Saracens to keep the "Islamophobia" hunters busy for weeks. As for her beheading riff ("It's not as messy or as hard as one may think/ It's all about the flow of the wrist"): this feels rather like a sexual fantasy gone astray. And we know that cults of holy war and martyrdom tend to thrive in cultures where sacred violence leads to honour but sexual expression leads to shame.

Whenever police officers, politicians or our not-so-secret service chiefs decide to scare us again, they summon up the current menace to the "British way of life". Curiously enough, the "Lyrical Terrorist" case has helped define the features of that way of life that urgently need defence. They include a sense of proportion and a sense of the absurd; an unflustered sympathy with human oddity and eccentricity; and – these days, above all – a common-sense refusal to be stampeded into repressive hysteria by every youthful folly or fantasy just because it wears a headscarf or a beard. How the real predators must rejoice to see our blinked enforcers open up a ring-binder full of unwisely scribbled desires and dreams, and cry "Wolf!".

Join our commenting forum

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


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in