Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (west London to be precise) there lived a group of Muslim students who were eager to gain wisdom and learn the ways of life. Then one day, there arrived on their doorstep a funny-looking wise man. He came from across the seas, from a distant land somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula and he brought with him that most sought after entity, “truth.”The students invited him to deliver the Friday sermon. He accepted. In his sermon he told us about warfare, the Islamic way. “Everything in Islam is done ethically, even fighting,” he told us. The wise man stressed that even weapons must be designed and used ethically. Above all, he argued, every attempt must be made to ensure that non-combatants are not affected by their use. We were all impressed. The name ofthat wise man? One Omar Bakri.
Bakri’s more recent utterances on the acceptability of noncombatants as collateral damage in certain circumstances ( “self-sacrifice missions ” he calls them) make that sermon he delivered all those years ago really seem like a fairy tale. Those were the days before he became an international celebrity, before he was unexpectedly cast in a minor, but not altogether insignificant role in that lead drama of our times, “The War on Terror.”
There exist two Omar Bakris. There is the living, breathing Omar Bakri, the one who lectures Muslims on the virtues of self-sacrifice missions but then flees the country once he is aware that the game is up, that in the political climate following the London bombings on July 7, 2005, his brand of politics is likely to end him in prison. Then there is the other Omar Bakri, the one whom you and I have created, the one who lurks in the darkest recesses of our minds, feeding off our fears and anxieties.
Don’t get me wrong; the real Bakri was no Gandhi-type pacifist before fame came knocking on his door. In the early 1990s he took his newly formed British branch of Hizb-ut Tahrir on the road, visiting the university campuses of London and beyond to preach his unique form of firebrand politics. We had never seen the likes of him before. Our response? We hated Bakri, we despised Hizb-ut Tahrir, we argued with their supporters, but most of all, we flocked (in the thousands) to see the Hizb-ut Tahrir traveling circus. Why? Because at each stop on their tour, they would throw down the gauntlet and let out a battle cry, a challenge to take on all comers in a fight to the death over, Your God versus My God, Your Ideology versus My Ideology. These debates (in the loosest sense of the term) threw up mouth-watering, tantalizing contests: The Islamic Society versus The Christian society, The Islamic Society versus The Gay and Lesbian Society, The Islamic Society versus The Socialist Society, etc. Enticed, seduced, intoxicated, we simply couldn’t resist succumbing to that part of the human condition tucked far away in some remote corner of the human psyche, the one that we would rather pretend does not exist. It is that part of us that feels a perverse sense of enjoyment at seeing the humiliation of another. It is the reason why so many flocked to see a man hanged. It is the reason why so many watch Simon Cowell (of “American Idol”). Omar Bakri and Hizb-ut Tahrir (and later Al-Muhajiroun) might think we attended to observe an intellectual debate; we convinced ourselves that this was the reason we went. Who were we trying to fool? We went to such events for the same reasons that people watch talk-show host Jerry Springer. We went as voyeurs of human humiliation, to watch a verbal duel between two combatants who’d agreed that their weapon of choice was that part of them that they considered most sacred, most dear, and that which the other would attempt to violate. In doing so we began to feed the monster, little by little, bit by bit, until it grew large enough to register on the radar of that most unique of British institutions: the tabloid press.
In the biopic Private Parts about the American shock jock Howard Stern, there is a scene in which an executive for Stern’s radio station informs him that the average listening time of those who are horrified and shocked by the DJ’s outbursts is in fact noticeably longer than of the show’s selfconfessed fans. In that repressed far-flung corner of the psyche, juxtaposed to our perverse sense of pleasure in seeing another human humiliated is another unhealthy trait, the one that shock jocks and tabloid editors feed off. It is our inability to turn away, switch off, or remove ourselves from that which we consider most shocking, controversial or scandalous. We can’t help it, we have to look, we have to read. And so the British tabloids took our fledging monster and fattened him up, adding grotesque caricatures and deviant traits to his already controversial persona. It helped that in the eyes of the non-Muslim world, his appearance resembles that of what they consider a dodgy fundamentalist type. But like the talking dolls that utter half-a-dozen pre-recorded messages, the tabloid media playing doll-maker inserted into our talking monster the most salacious, most controversial, most shocking of his comments (whether they were actually made or just distortions), ensuring that our Frankenstein’s limited vocabulary fitted the hypothetical personality of an Islamic “fundamentalist” terrorist type. Of course, to give any monster credibility and believability, you have to give it a history, a bio. And from the real Omar Bakri, they unearthed two gems that completed his wickedness. Firstly, that Britain granted him asylum when he was fleeing persecution. Secondly, that he maintains himself and his very large family through the British welfare system. And there we have it, the modern day Fagin, used by tabloid editors and others to create shocking headlines, tempting us to buy their paper so we can “read all about it.”
Then on the seventh of July last year, four suicide bombers, four British-born Muslims, detonated explosives on the London transport system killing dozens of innocent people, causing havoc for community relations and destroying the myth that many people had: that we in the UK could not breed such people, that the soil in which suicide bombers grow can only be found in warmer climates such as the Middle East. In the days that followed, we have tried to search for an answer to how it is that such people can be created in our society. “An evil born from a perverted ideology “was the answer we consistently arrived at. But from where did these people get their evil, perverted ideology? Where else, but from our monsters? From the Bakris and Captain Hooks of our society. We had found our answer; we had found our scapegoats. And so the British government is introducing legislation to deal with these Frankensteins, to muzzle, mute and if necessary, detain or deport them. Except of course, they won’t be detaining the monsters; those don’t exist. They’d be detaining the real Bakri. The real Bakri has never committed an act of terrorism, he has never instructed someone to commit an act of terrorism and he has even gone on record several times to say that if he discovered that a person was about to blow himself (or herself) up, he would use all his might to stop them.
In response, it is said that Bakri and his ilk foster hatred, they glorify terrorism and it therefore may be reasonably argued that the real Bakri’s hate speech (and that of his contemporaries) is a variable that is an important contributing factor in helping to create a mindset that is more susceptible to the idea of becoming a suicide bomber – and so monster or no monster, such legislation is necessary. Such an argument isn’t dissimilar to the claim that some video nasties may play a role in the commission of violent crimes by some individuals. But we do not ban violent movies, even though some research tells us the link is there. And yet in this proposed legislation, we seem to have bypassed any discussion, debate or research into the proposition that Bakri and his contemporaries’ heavy criticism of so many facets of the Western way of life leads to some Muslim youth arriving at the conclusion that it is OK to blow up some of their fellow human beings. (Looked at in this way, the link between Bakri’s anti-West ranting and suicide bombings appears tenuous).
Why should it matter that there is no research that proves a causal link between Bakri and would-be suicide bombers? After all, many Muslims and non-Muslims wish he would just go away and stop speaking. (He has done the former but not the latter.) It matters because one of the defining features (supposedly) of Western society is the individual’s right to criticize any or every aspect of the society, regardless of howmuch the rest of society disagrees or finds repugnant that individual’s comments. However British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s regime may spin it, the proposed anti-terror legislation eats away at this right. And it is, in part, our fault. Bakri and his like were nobodies and they should have remained nobodies, but it was we who paid them attention when we should have listened to our better side and ignored such non-entities. But no! We had to look, we had to read – and in doing so, we created and nurtured monsters that have grown up and we feel we can’t control them any longer. Those who govern us tell us the monsters can be controlled; we just need to sacrifice some of our sacred cows. And so our fairy tale doesn’t end happily ever after, for the monsters that we created are now eating us and if this new legislation is passed, a part of us will have died and that indeed is a very sad ending.