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Article
9 February 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Abu Hamza: imprisoned for talking rubbish
His incarceration for incitement is the political equivalent of a panto villain being booed off stage by excitable kids.

by Brendan O'Neill

First, there were riots over some silly cartoons published in a dry Danish paper some three months ago. Now we have the imprisonment of a cartoonish bogeyman in Britain. Abu Hamza al-Masri, the one-eyed, hook-handed weirdo, formerly of Finsbury Park mosque, has been sentenced to seven years in jail for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder. If the anti-Danish protests represented, in Mick Hume's words, a 'cartoon caricature of a political debate', then the trial and banging up of 'Hook Hamza' is pure pantomime politics (1). Hamza was never more than a panto villain, a raving loon whom no one except some cranks in keffiyehs took seriously - but he was transformed into public enemy no.1 by politicians and hacks. His imprisonment is the equivalent of the bad guy in a panto being booed off stage by excitable children.

The papers have gone out of their way to present the radical Islamic cleric as a 'terrorist mastermind'. The Sun, which has been campaigning for Hook's arrest and imprisonment for the past three years, says 'Evil Hamza is finally jailed for terror crimes'. The frontpage of The Times said 'Abu Hamza and the 7/7 bombers', revealing that three of the young men who blew up themselves and scores of others in London last year had listened to him preach in Finsbury Park mosque (2). All of the papers have published pictures of some of the dodgy materials discovered at the mosque: blank-firing guns (hardly the terrorists' ideal weapon, you would think), a chemical protection suit and some hunting-style knives. Yet none of these shock headlines and pictures can disguise the fact that there was little clear evidence linking Hamza to actual terrorist actions, and that he was - in effect - sent down for talking bollocks.

Hamza was not found guilty of aiding and abetting or committing acts of terrorism; rather, he was convicted on 11 out of 15 charges of incitement to murder and threatening behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred. In other words, he was imprisoned for his words, not for his actions. The closest he came to being convicted for his actions was for some kind of involvement in sending wannabe jihadists to Afghanistan and for possessing a document called 'The Encyclopaedia of the Afghani Jihad', which apparently, in the words of the Terrorism Act 2000, is 'useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'. Yet it was some leap to go from revealing that he had a copy of this 10-volume treatise, which praises Osama bin Laden and says Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower would make dramatic terror targets, to saying that 'Hamza plotted to target Big Ben', as numerous newspaper headlines did (3). The hapless Hamza may have read about blowing up Big Ben (although he claims not to have seen that part of the document - which amounted to one paragraph in thousands of pages - 'because I am not a diligent person'), and might even have fantasised about it, but there was no evidence to suggest he had the materials, manpower or, I would wager, the nous to pull off such a stunt.

Nor was he convicted of possessing deadly weapons. Even the court could not bring itself to describe some hunting knives and air pistols as being 'useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'. The photos of these items were released after the verdict, and dutifully splashed across the pages of the press, in an attempt to give some urgency and oomph to the imprisonment for seven years of a crackpot for talking nonsense. They might just as well have published pictures of breadknives from his kitchen drawer, or a sledgehammer found in his shed. The links made by some in the media between Hamza and the 7/7 bombers were also tenuous indeed. We are told that three of the bombers had heard him preach; not that he had coached them or armed them or given them instructions on whom to blow up and why, but that they had been in his congregation once or twice while he spouted rubbish from the pulpit. In his summing up the judge said Hamza had 'helped to create an atmosphere' in which some saw killing as a religious duty (4). Helped to create an atmosphere? When it comes to 'incitement' to murder, that is about as indirect as it gets.

Hamza was effectively found guilty, not of being a terrorist, but of being a fantasist. In the absence of hard evidence that he has organised or executed terror attacks, we were treated instead to hours and hours of his bile-filled and nutty sermons in which he praised bin Laden, said vile things about Jews, and claimed that brothels are legitimate targets, etczzzzz. Hamza and his weird band of disciples might fantasise about being religious warriors taking on the Mammon that is British society, but that doesn't mean they actually are. Their hunting knives and air pistols reminded me of those geeky British guys who join the Territorial Army and talk endlessly about guns and knives, imagining that they are true soldiers of destiny. Hamza is pretty much the Islamist equivalent of Gareth from The Office: the cleric and his supporters might have discussed what to do if an enemy were to 'take them from behind' (apparently Hamza offered tips on how to stab the enemy), but that does not make them a threat to the nation, much less to Western civilisation.

Hamza is like an Islamist version of Gareth from The Office
If Hamza had fantasies about being a single-minded warrior against Western decadence and wickedness, then they were indulged - more than that, they were inflamed - by New Labour and sections of the media. There is no doubt that Hamza is a big-mouthed bigot and an anti-Semite who likes nothing more than winding people up by praising the 9/11 hijackers and saying that Allah loves it when his followers spill non-believers' blood. But it was politicians and journalists who transformed this north London-based radical into a terrible threat to life and liberty as we know it. For the past few years his mug has been plastered on the front pages of the papers under headlines such as 'EVIL HAMZA' and 'Hook is a threat to Britain'. In early 2004, then home secretary David Blunkett took the unusual step of declaring that Hamza was 'unfit' to be a British citizen. The Home Office became obsessed by Hamza; one former minister told Scotland on Sunday that, 'I would go to meetings where Hamza was almost the only thing discussed, [even if he] wasn't on the agenda' (5). Hamza was eventually arrested in a highly publicised dawn raid (details of which were leaked to the Sun the day before it was due to take place), and the government set out its case against him.

It was these political machinations, rather than his own capabilities, that made Hamza into public enemy no.1 - and which no doubt helped him to appear as the brave warrior he claimed to be in the eyes of his supporters. The transformation of a nobody in north London into an evil threat to the fabric of society revealed far more about British society's own sense of insecurity than it did about Hamza's powers or prowess. That everyone from the Home Office to various leader writers could be rattled by the anti-Western and anti-British rants of 'Captain Hook' suggested that many in Britain have a flimsy sense indeed about what they stand for and why. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hamza's trial was a showtrial; worse, that it was a showtrial of a straw man. Having turned him into a panto villain, the authorities then made a spectacle of throwing him off the stage while sections of the media whooped and cheered along. It doesn't say much for British society that it can only feel good about itself by trying and imprisoning a one-eyed whacko like Hamza.

You, like me, might not care very much what happens to Hamza now. But we should care about the implications of his trial. Yes, his words were offensive to many (and nonsensical to most), but is that any justification for imprisoning him for seven years? Surely, as long as we are talking about words and not actions, everyone should be free to say what they please, even if it is hateful nonsense. Ministers are already using Hamza's case to demand further clampdowns on free speech, with one claiming: '[This] shows why we need laws against the glorifying of terrorism and why we need to stop extremist Muslim clerics trying to enter the country.' (6) A precedent has been set, and it would seem it is now a crime to talk rubbish. A great number of people should be concerned.

Visit Brendan O'Neill's website here.

(1) Those cartoons: a caricatured argument, by Mick Hume

(2) 'Hook and a hooker', Sun, 8 February 2006; 'Abu Hamza and the 7/7 bombers', The Times (London), 8 February 2006

(3) 'Hamza plot to target Big Ben', London Evening Standard, 11 January 2006

(4) 'Guilty: the cleric who preached murder as a religious duty', Guardian, 8 February 2006

(5) 'Hooked at last', Scotland on Sunday, 30 May 2004

(6) 'Guilty: the cleric who preached murder as a religious duty', Guardian, 8 February 2006

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