When I embraced Islam in 1998, one of the first pieces of advice I received from Muslim friends was to learn the names of three people, and then stay far away from them. They were Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri and Abdullah Faisal.
A few months after that, I received an angry email from my father, demanding to know whether I had passed his email address on to a group of Islamic extremists. He had received a mass email purportedly sponsored by a vast array of Muslim organisations which told him to convert to Islam or face the consequences. I most certainly had not passed his email address on to anybody and, glancing at the other email addresses – other public figures in the church – I surmised that his email address had simply been harvested along with others from Christian websites.
My father was a Canon at the time and in charge of all of the lay preachers in his diocese. Rather distressed by my father’s anger, I showed the email to a fellow student who had been involved with Hizb-ut-Tahir a few years earlier: he told me about Omar Bakri, the leader of al-Muhajirun, characterising him as a nutcase, and advised me that none of the organisations listed at the end of the email actually existed. The man, apparently, had a habit of making up names to make his little band of followers efforts seem more credible.
They plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners. How little their trust in God: believing they had to send shocking emails to Churchmen, as if God could not guide members of their family without their intervention – like the arrogance of the Christian Right who rejoice in a Pentagon-led Armageddon, as if they can dictate their Creator’s timetable.
Over the next few years we heard a lot from the trio I was told to avoid. Around mid 2000, a close friend of mine found himself the focus of attention of an evangelical Christian colleague who spoke frequently of Islamic extremists in our midst; her husband worked for the Police force and apparently had much to say about Muslim radicals. Tired of her constant bombardment, my friend asked her to ask her husband why Abu Hamza was still free to preach despite frequent complaints from the Muslim community at large. That was a question that was never answered.
To be continuously told by the government, media and senior Police officers, therefore, that the British Muslim community is in denial about the existence of extremists amongst us is quite hard for me to grasp. The warnings I received were not from lapsed Muslims who were happy to compromise their beliefs for political gain, but from practising, active individuals. Prior to the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, I listened to many Muslims lamenting the authorities’ refusal to deal with people well known to be creating community tensions. Indeed, witnessing this laxity, some members of the community even began to entertain conspiracy theories about these free men. The Muslim community complained about their outrageous statements and the authorities appeared to do nothing.
No, I don’t believe the Muslim community is in denial about the threat of extremism. Taking issue with sensational investigations in the media in not indicative of a culture of repudiation. There are good reasons to oppose the trend of smearing individuals and community organisations – even if we may not like these people very much personally. Just because others say jump, it doesn’t mean we have to. Our criteria should always be truth and justice. Not accusation and innuendo.