Extreme reactions

As radical Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun sets out its plans for the UK, why do we listen?

Josie Appleton

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‘Allah is the owner of Britain, the owner of the universe’, shouted Abu Hamza, radical imam of Finsbury Park mosque, at the Rally for Islam in Trafalgar Square on 25 August (1).

Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, leader of the group Al-Muhajiroun that headed the rally, said that he had a ‘religious obligation to invite non-Muslims to Islam’, and directed his call to Queen Elizabeth II herself: ‘Come over to Islam!’

It might seem difficult to see the difference between the Islamic demonstrators and the United Church of something or other that occupied Trafalgar Square after them. Only the Muslim demo was filmed by a number of cameramen, and there was a journalist every few yards – so there must have been something to it.

This something was not easy to see. One Muslim convert after another filed up on to the stage to tell how they had found out the truth. One man said that he used to be a Hindu and worshipped animals, whereas now he is enlightened and only worships Allah. A young English woman gave a long and high-pitched speech on how ‘Allah has given us a system of life’, and how you will ‘burn for eternity if you don’t come over to Islam’. Her voice got louder and more shrill, and began to bounce back off the National Gallery.

The afternoon was made still more surreal by the presence of counter demonstrations from the Iraqi and Iranian Communist Parties, who somewhat belatedly shouted ‘Taliban, out, out!’; the far-right National Front (NF) and British National Party (BNP), who slouched about in a clump surrounded by a ring of police, mustering the occasional football chant; and a few Christians clutching copies of the Holy Bible.

At times, this made for some amusing interactions. Bakri saying that he would pray for the BNP, for example (I wonder if he did); or the Christians responding to whatever was said on the stage with cries about Jesus (Bakri: ‘Bush says, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”‘; Christian: ‘I’m with Jesus!’).

The demo had been hyped for weeks, labelled by the London Evening Standard as the march for bin Laden. Certainly there was a braggadocio about these Islamists – their ‘invitations’ to the Queen and prime minister Tony Blair, for example, or their calls for an Islamic state of Great Britain.

But there was also a real attempt to look respectable. After waving his hook at the crowd, Abu Hamza said: ‘Thank you all, Muslims and non-Muslims for taking part and taking care in this demonstration.’ He emphasised how, unlike other groups, Islam was not racist: ‘From the whitest white to the blackest black’, Islam would ‘accept anybody’, even ‘as leaders of the whole Muslim people’.

Bakri complained that ‘people in the West’ misunderstood the nature of the demo: they ‘think you are coming here to condemn everything’. The media, he said, was highly intolerant of Islam: ‘In a civilised society, people must show respect for each other.’

For people who present themselves as tough Muslim warriors, those around Al-Muhajiroun seem to have a terrible vanity about how they are portrayed in the media. Speaker after speaker criticised the ‘biased Western media’ that ‘portrays Islam as terror’; or attacked the ‘propaganda machine of press and politicians’. I doubt the Prophet Muhammad ever worried so much about what people said about him.

Perhaps Al-Muhajiroun is so sensitive to the media because it is so dependent upon it. This is not an organisation with swathes of members – in many ways, it lives and breathes by its publicity wing. Even Al-Muhajiroun itself only claimed a ‘3-4000 strong crowd’ at the Rally for Islam (and that was including the NF, communists, police and the media) – realistically, only a few hundred genuine supporters turned up.

Over the past few years, Bakri has built a media presence for himself, partly through his endless issuing of Fatwas against all and sundry. Under his leadership, Al-Muhajiroun provides the radical Islamic horror stories that the media are hungry for – in the wake of 11 September, for example, Bakri boasted of the hundreds of UK converts that he had sent to fight overseas. Al-Muhajiroun issues regular press releases and held a press conference a week before this latest demo.

But Al-Muhajiroun doesn’t actually do anything – it’s not going to raze the English countryside or seize Downing Street. It is a Professional Association for Sounding Off. There is a clear pattern: Al-Muhajiroun issues a provocative statement; the media reacts with howls of outrage. Its website now features a video of one of the planes flying into the World Trade Centre, and announces its upcoming conference, September the 11th 2001: A Towering Day in History – which will no doubt spark the intended reaction.

Al-Muhajiroun wins media attention because it keys into fears and insecurities. Rather than gaining notoriety through its own strengths, it is parasitic upon society’s weaknesses. The group only has to mutter something about killing infidels and everybody runs around in panic.

It was apt that the Al-Muhajiroun demo was attended by the BNP, as this is another tin-pot organisation that is blown up to huge proportions by the media. The BNP is no more going to lead a revival of fascism than Al-Muhajiroun is going to carry out an Islamic holy war. In both cases, these ideas are whipped up by the fearful imagination of others.

Part of this, is the attempt to ban these groups from speaking – as if their mere words could spark off chaos. London Mayor Ken Livingstone attempted to ban the Rally for Islam – apparently because, as a spokesman said, the group might make ‘anti-Jewish and homophobic comments that would be insulting to a lot of people’. No wonder Al-Muhajiroun seems to think it is so important, if it can cause such a reaction so easily.

But the organisation does win a handful of converts. A number of the people I spoke to on the demo were young people in their twenties, who were attracted to Islam because it seemed to provide an answer to many of their problems.

Twenty-six-year-old Ibn Aziz says that his parents were Muslim because their parents were Muslim. But his generation is different: ‘people starting to practise Islam now are from UK backgrounds, educated, they’ve tried having girlfriends and going to clubs.’ Some people in his generation have tasted the fruits of metropolitan life, yet are choosing Islam. Why?

Aziz sees a parallel between Western society of today and the disorder and immorality that the early Muslim warriors fought against. ‘Muhammad lived in times that were decadent and corrupt – there was alcohol and prostitution.’ He fought a war against it. ‘Today, we’re doing the same thing.’

Islam seems to offer people a complete system of belief; rules for living their lives in disorienting times. A young white convert, ‘Brother Nathan’, who spoke from the stage, said that: ‘Since I found out that there is one God my life has had a meaning, rather than making it up as I go along.’ Another convert praised the way that Islam provided a ‘complete way of life’ – ‘for every single problem there is an answer’.

That young people could find their answers in Islam has nothing to do with the power of this religion. The holy book of the Koran and tales of seventh century warriors have no compulsion of their own. Instead, some twentysomethings turn to Islam as an antidote to the aimlessness and lack of direction that they increasingly find in adult life in the West.

But Al-Muhajiroun also maintains its attraction by liberally adopting more mainstream ideas. At times, Bakri started to sound a bit like a New Statesman editorial – he criticised the ‘evil policies’ conducted by big ‘capitalists around the world’, and said that he opposed the ‘capitalist worldwide order which dictates foreign policy’. The problem was not Christians or Jews, he said, but the ‘system’ that doesn’t ‘address you as a human being’.

Like their contemporaries who march in anti-capitalist demos, many of those I spoke to were convinced that there was a US conspiracy against the world. Twenty-two-year-old Baber Islam was suspicious that America had not yet managed to find bin Laden – ‘bin Laden’s probably working for America’, he concluded, adding as corroborating evidence the fact that one of Bush’s sons is said to be a business partner of bin Laden. Another, a 19-year-old from Nottingham, said that America only invaded Afghanistan for the oil.

Al-Muhajiroun certainly has great ambitions for itself. It claims that we are in an era of decline and only Islam can save the world. ‘The Communist empire collapsed; the capitalist empire is collapsing’, shouted Hamza. ‘Islam is the answer for the decline of humanity’, said Bakri. Ibn Aziz said that this stage of ‘invitation’ to Islam was the first stage; the next stage would be ruling over the population and the levying of taxes; and only in the final stage might there be war against those who refused to convert.

These pretentious ambitions are fuelled by the fact that people refuse to challenge them. At the demo, there was a revealing interrogation of Al-Muhajiroun’s Omar Brooks by an American in sunglasses. Twenty-seven-year-old Brooks said that we should all live our lives according to the truth revealed in the Koran: practising homosexuals should be killed, women who commit adultery should be killed.

We should renounce free choice, said Brooks – after all, ‘you can’t believe in some bits of the book and put aside the bits you don’t like’. We should renounce reason as a way of deciding what is the best way to organise society – ‘I don’t try to rationalise [the laws]… ‘The one who made me knows best; I don’t know best’. The ‘fundamental evil’ is ‘manmade laws’, laws made by men for themselves rather than by Allah.

The American was clearly furious; his jaw muscles were clenched, his voice tight. But rather than take Brooks on, and say that it was better to live our lives through reason rather than superstition; that knowledge discovered through an investigation of the world was solid while revealed knowledge was flimsy; that the fruits of Enlightenment thought were all around, from the medicines Brooks took to the right to free speech he enjoyed….

Instead, the American tried to criticise Brooks for his wrongful interpretation of Islam. ‘Many Muslims want a more tolerant interpretation of Islam’, he said – ‘many Muslims’ want to preserve the ‘great and wise elements’ of the Islamic tradition, rather than becoming extremist.

‘You are not a Muslim’, Brooks replied. He had a point.

Since 11 September, non-Muslims have constantly tried to criticise Islamic fundamentalism by assuming the stance of moderate Muslims – from UK prime minister Tony Blair downwards. The battle is lost from the start; it looks feeble and dishonest, and it just doesn’t wash. Why should a Muslim care about what a non-Muslim thinks about Islam? Brooks wiped the floor with this guy.

The alternative way of avoiding the argument with Islamic fundamentalists is the Ken Livingstone method – to try and ban them. Again, this overreaction gives Islamic fundamentalists much more credence than their unoriginal dogma deserves.

There is something wrong when a twenty-first century Westernised society finds it so difficult to criticise Islam. Our society is built upon rational-secularism – this has been the most productive mode of thought in human history, and it continues to take forward our understanding of and ability to control the world. While scientists in Europe and the USA are exploring the interactions of genes that cause cancer, and studying the planets of our Solar System, a nuclear scientist in Pakistan recently proposed to solve Pakistan’s energy problems by harnessing the power of genies (on the basis of the Islamic belief that God created man from clay, and angels and genies from fire) (2).

The refusal to challenge Islam fuels Bakri’s world-historic ambitions, and allows him to assume blown-up proportions. This is one balloon that we would do well to pop.

Read on:

The fundamentalist question, by Josie Appleton

The war against modernity, by David Kelley

(1) See the on the 25 August press release Al-Muhajiroun website

(2) How Islam Lost Its Way, Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy, Washington Post, 30 December 2001

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