“Hassan! Hassan! look at this!” shouted my father from the living room. I hurried downstairs and found him standing in the middle of the room staring at the TV. The scene looked like a military parade of some sort, but something had gone badly wrong. It was chaotic, people were shouting in Arabic and I could hear the crack-crack-crack of automatic weapons. In the centre was a podium with chairs strewn about. Soldiers standing at the back of an army truck were firing towards the centre of the podium. One soldier ran right up to it, raised his rifle and began shooting down onto the chairs below. It was October 1981, and this was the assassination of President Sadat by a previously unheard of group called “Islamic Jihad” – amongst its members was Ayman Zawahiri. If I had ever been in doubt as to the political nature of Islam, those doubts were soon dispelled. Muslims were rarely off the TV screens, at the time, from the Iran Hostage Crisis to the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut.
It had been my spiritual search for truth that had brought me to Islam. I was attracted by the mystical passages of the Qur’an and the promise it offered of inner knowledge and enlightenment. But once I became a practising Muslim it was taken for granted that I would support the political stance of other Muslims on issues such as Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan and later on Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq. This assumption was made, not only by Muslims, but by non-Muslims too. As soon as someone knew I was a Muslim, there would be remarks such as
“Wasn’t it stupid of the Americans to send helicopters to try and rescue the hostages in Iran?”
“I think dividing Cyprus in two states is the only solution, don’t you?”
“Did you hear what President Asad did to the Muslims in Hama?”
At the time I knew very little about these issues, but I soon realized I was expected to be an expert, simply by virtue of being a Muslim. Only days after I had returned from Egypt in 1979 I was sitting at my brother-in-law’s house with my father and a young Arab student.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
I had heard the word Palestine many times. When I was very young, my father showed me a scar on his leg, saying, “This is where I was shot by the Jews in Palestine.” It was one of the few times he talked about his past. I thought the scar was very cool, but had no idea what he meant by ‘Palestine.’ Both my father and the young Palestinian were horrified at my ignorance. After giving me a quick history lesson, my father again proudly related the tale of how he had been wounded in 1948, fighting with the Muslim Brotherhood, against the ‘Jews’. I felt ashamed at my lack of knowledge of such an important issue and made sure I read up on the subject.
Unlike Christianity, Islam sees no division between politics and religion. There is no “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. Prophet Muhammad was a military and political leader as well as a spiritual leader, and he made it clear that Islam applies to every part of one’s life, both the public and the private. Muslims are to be regarded as one body; as he said, “If one part of the body feels pain, then the whole body suffers.” Therefore I felt my commitment to Islam meant a commitment to my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world. I began to take a keen interest in global politics and read about conflicts and countries I had previously known nothing about. The two major issues at the time were the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and of course Palestine.
The plight of the Palestinians was highlighted in 1982 when unarmed Palestinian men women and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, were massacred by Christian militia while the camps were surrounded by the Israeli military. I remember seeing pictures of whole families lying dead in the narrow streets, their bodies bloated by the hot sun, their hands still clutching the ID papers they had been desperately showing. The images created enormous anger within me. I also felt huge frustration that Muslim leaders were doing nothing to help. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan triggered quite different emotions. The struggle of the Mujahideen against the might of a superpower was inspiring and it confirmed to me the belief that only by returning to Islam could Muslims ever put right injustices we had suffered.
Another factor that helped politicize Muslims in the UK at the time was the influx of Muslims from other countries, particularly Arabs. Some were exiles and dissidents who brought with them an international agenda, but most were students or low-paid workers, who came here looking for a better life. Many were not practicing Muslims when they first arrived. Feelings of isolation and estrangement brought them to the Mosque and then to a local study circle where many soon became very devout. I’ve always thought it ironic that Muslims who were not religious in their own country should become religious only after coming to a non-Muslim country. There appears to be a close connection between loss of identity as a result of being uprooted from one’s environment and the sense of belonging and self-esteem that religion provides.
The Arabs in particular soon discovered they were looked up to by other Muslims in the UK. A racial hierarchy has always existed amongst Muslims with Arabs at the top, despite the fact they make up only about 12% of Muslims world-wide. The main reason they are looked up to is that they hold the key to understanding the words of God: the Arabic Language. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the literal speech of God and cannot be translated. Once it is translated, it is no longer the speech of God, but merely one person’s interpretation of the meaning. A non-Arabic speaker will always be at a disadvantage in any dispute over the meaning of the Qur’an, with an Arabic speaker. When all else fails, the Arabic speaker can simply claim that the other cannot understand the true meaning of God’s word. Another reason for this hierarchy is that the Prophet himself was an Arab. This has a religious implication, since imitating the Prophet Muhammad is an important aspect of Islam. Muhammad reflected the Arab culture in which he lived, and as a result, Arab customs, clothes, and dietary habits heavily influenced Islamic customs, clothes and dietary habits. Many traditional schools of Islamic thought also stipulate that the Khalifah (leader of the Muslims) must be an Arab from the tribe of Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe.
Many Arabs who came to the UK reveled in the feeling of self-importance their new role as Islamic ‘experts’ gave them and swapped their western lifestyle for a Jilbab, white cap and the title of Sheikh. This transformation of westernized young men into religious leaders was exemplified by Abu Hamza. He arrived in England in 1979 – the same year I became a practicing Muslim – though the only thing he was practicing at the time was his chat up lines in the Soho night club where he worked as a bouncer. It’s hard to conjure up an image of Abu Hamza that is different from the one-eyed, hook handed gargoyle, so beloved of the tabloids, but according to his English ex-wife he was a handsome, romantic and tender young man who had many women chasing after him. But, in 1984, after attending radical talks at a local mosque, he began to become deeply religious, traveling to Afghanistan to fight Jihad against the Russians, where he lost a hand and the use of his left eye. He then retuned to the UK and began preaching as Sheikh Abu Hamza. Although Abu Hamza was a spectacular example of this transformation, it was a pattern I witnessed often. A common factor in all of them was the simplistic literal view of Islam they adopted which allowed them to explain the Qur’an at face value, without reference to the centuries of traditional Islamic scholarship, which none of them had any formal training in.
The majority of indigenous British Muslims were Asians from South East Asia or East Africa. Their parents had come here in the 60s or 70s and still regarded themselves as Pakistanis or Indians rather than British. Their children, on the other hand, felt less connection to their parents’ countries, having grown up here in England. They were keen to learn more about an Islam that was free from cultural baggage in order to incorporate it into their daily life, and they saw religion, rather than nationality, as being the basis of their identity. But they were cut off from the Islamic traditions and communities of the Indian sub-continent. Their parents were unable to offer much guidance in Islam. Having come to the West as economic migrants, they either only paid lip-service to Islam or their knowledge was minimal and confused with their local culture. As a result, the younger generation became increasingly influenced by the more recent Arab immigrants. This combination created the right ingredients for literalist and militant movements to take root in the UK. The egalitarian nature of literalism attracted the young, as did the sense of rebellion that militant ideology offered. In reality, these groups had more in common with the sort of revolutionary political parties I had experienced at university than with traditional Islamic movements.
Despite this, most Islamic meetings in the early 80s were broad-minded and inclusive to begin with. ‘The East Finchley Da’wa Society’, of which I became a member, was a typical example. It was as a meeting specifically for young Muslims who wanted to learn the basics of Islam. The meetings were mixed and informal and we rotated the leadership amongst the members on a weekly basis. A diverse array of speakers were invited, including Sheikh Darsh, a delegation from The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, a speaker on alternative medicine, an expert on Yoga, the modernist Dr. Essawi, and brother Yusuf Islam. On one occasion we invited some American evangelicals to share in our meeting. They spent the whole evening trying to convert us all to Christianity. Something everyone there took with good humour and impeccable hospitality.
“I wanna preeyyy with ya Hassaan!” said Tom, a tall and broad-shouldered man from Tennessee, as he placed his hand on my thigh and squeezed it affectionately.
“OK”, I said trying not look down at his hand.
The party of Americans then bowed their heads as Tom prayed.
“In the name of Jeeezuz we thank you Lord for the opportunity to share your love with our dear Mooozlem friends. We ask in the mighty name of Jeeezuz, that you open their hearts and receive your Word. May you shine your face upon them, and show them that your love is greater than anything that we can imagine. In Jeeezuz’ name, we pray these things.”
“Ay-men!” they all said in unison.
Tom then led the discussion explaining to us the ‘errors’ in the Islamic understanding of Jesus and Christianity and urged us all to let Jesus into our lives so that we may be saved. We then shared tea and Jammie Dodgers.
The Da’wa society produced its own magazine called “The Clarion” which I edited and included articles about Islam and topical issues. They were sometimes serious, but often light-hearted and humorous, such as a spoof recipe by Benazir Bhutto, then President of Pakistan, called “Political Hot Pot,” and an Agony Maulana dispensing advice on how to stop one’s husband snoring and a mock interview with President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, father of the current president. The interviewer asks:
“You have been the ruler of your country for many years. What is the secret of your success?”
“It’s quite simple. I don’t hold elections. They cause too many problems, like the possibility of someone else winning. So I’ve banned elections and torture and kill all opposition.”
“Torture and killing seem to be key factors in your policies, don’t they?”
“Oh yes, I find the best way to deal with people is to kill them. Some of my most trusted allies are dead people.”
“But your body guards are not dead?”
“No, no… of course not, after all they wouldn’t be much good if they were dead, would they? I’ve only had their brains removed, tongues pulled out and eyes skewered.”
“You left their hearing?”
“I’m not the heartless Capitalist, Zionist, Communist, Right wing, Left wing, Western, Eastern and everyone who ever existed, butcher that the press, make me out to be. Besides, I want them to hear my orders.”
We also organized sports activities, camping trips and excursions. On one outing to Exeter, to meet local Muslims there, we took a break in a nearby park and the men soon began selecting teams to play football. As we were short of numbers we did our best to encourage some of the more senior members of our group to join in. Amongst our party was Sheikh Hamid, one of the Imams at Regents Park Mosque at the time. He was a huge figure with a big round belly, and was dressed in his full Friday Sermon robes and turban.
“Come on Sheikh!” I said; “Playing sports is part of being a good Muslim!” I teased.
To our surprise Sheikh Hamid gamely got up and began walking towards us.
“He’s on my side!” I said, grabbing Sheikh Hamid by the arm.
“That’s not fair, you have a Divine advantage,” chuckled Khalid.
“They can have him,” mumbled Ishfaq; “I don’t think he’s going to be much help.”
However Sheikh Hamid took the game seriously and used his weight to barge everyone over like skittles before thumping the ball in any direction he happened to be facing. Everyone was laughing so much we could barely play. After the game, as we walked back, with Sheikh Hamid carrying his turban and robes over his arm and sweat pouring down his chubby face, he smiled and said,
“When’s the next game?”
“Well, whenever it is, Sheikh,” said Khalid. “Next time you’re on my side!”
But by the mid 80s the Da’wa Society had already begun to change. A current of hard-line and narrow-minded doctrine began creeping into meetings, rather like a hidden infection. Often it was a casual comment that someone had heard ‘somewhere’:
“You’re not allowed to say Salam to a non-Muslim.”
“It’s forbidden to cut your beard.”
“You mustn’t draw faces.”
These comments were passed on unquestioned, because most didn’t have the knowledge or expertise to challenge them. Meetings became more divided as those who were pushing a particular doctrine insisted that only they had the ‘true’ Islam and everyone else was wrong. We started seeing new members attending the Da’wa Society, each of them with their own agenda.
“Any announcements?” I asked at the end of one meeting.
“Yes, the Islamic Association of North London is holding an event at the Community Hall next Sunday to celebrate the Birthday of Prophet Muhammad. Everyone is invited.”
“That’s Bid’ah!” interjected a young man who had appeared at the meeting for the first time. “We are not allowed to celebrate the prophet’s birthday. It’s Haram!”
After a short silence we moved on to other announcements.
He called himself Abu Zubayr, although that wasn’t his real name. He travelled regularly all the way from East London, along with his friends, to give us lessons about the ‘correct’ Islamic beliefs.
“Islam is perfect and complete. It cannot be changed in any way. Anything new is ‘Bid’ah’ – innovation – and will take you to Hell-Fire.”
He spoke slowly and precisely as though he were following a well rehearsed script.
“Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – said, ‘Every Bid’ah is a going astray and every going astray is in Hell-fire.’” He paused to sip his water, taking three sips just as the Prophet did.
“Today Muslims are indulging in all sorts of evil deviations. They have become misguided and corrupt. Brothers and Sisters! We must return to pure Islam. Return to Islam as it was practiced by the Prophet and his righteous companions, if we want success in this life and the next.”
Over the next few weeks we learnt that many more things were forbidden – such as, telling jokes that were not literally true, as it was considered a form of lying. This meant that most jokes are forbidden, since there are few that don’t create imaginary situations. Listening to Music was also forbidden – apart from playing a drum made of animal skin on Eid. Abu Zubair told one new convert that she wasn’t allowed to attend Christmas dinner with her non-Muslim parents because she would be committing Shirk (associating partners with God) the greatest sin in the sight of God. Abu Zubayr and his companions represented a minority of those at our meeting, but the majority of us did not have the skills or the energy to fend off his onslaught.
“We must always remain God conscious,” I said during a talk I’d prepared. “We should try and remember God is always with us. He is everywhere!”
“That is Kufr! (Infidelity),” interjected Abu Zubayr.
“To say Allah is everywhere!”
“Because Allah has told us in the Qur’an that He is on the throne above the seven heavens; “The Beneficent One, Who is established on the Throne.””
“But it’s simply a figure of speech. God is beyond our understanding.”
“By saying God is everywhere you are implying that God is also in the toilet – wa ‘Aoothu billah (I seek refuge with Allah)!”
Abu Zubayr and his friends were Salafis – also known as Wahhabis – who espoused a literalist and puritanical form of Islam that seeks to cleanse the religion of what they regard as innovations, superstitions and heresies. Throughout the 80s, Saudi Arabia financed the spread of Salafi doctrine and subsidized Salafi books flooded Muslim bookshops up and down the country. They also set up offices such as the Muslim World League, in Tottenham Court Road, that gave financial help to Islamic organizations, mosques, schools, students and individuals who were willing to adopt their views. Since Muslims had no other source to turn to when they needed help, most, if not all, were willing to accept the strings attached, thinking it was not a serious problem. I myself applied to the Muslim World League for a grant to study Arabic and Islam in Egypt. I was offered a place, not in Egypt where they considered the teaching to be deviant, but at Medina University in Saudi Arabia. There the curriculum was carefully prepared and taught by Salafi teachers, to ensure that all the students would learn ‘true’ Islam. Fortunately by the time I had to make my decision, I had been offered a place at SOAS and so was able to turn it down, though my brother Lutfi decided to take up a similar offer and studied at Medina University for several years. He returned with a very dim view of Saudi education and many shocking tales, such as when he fell asleep in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medinah, only to be awoken by the Mutawwa (Religious Police) beating him with sticks. The Mutawwa were appointed by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to ensure that everyone complied with the Islamic Law. This involved enforcing Islamic dress, prayer times, dietary laws, arresting boys and girls caught socializing and seizing un-Islamic items such as Western music and films. They also prohibit idolatry, which is loosely defined and apparently includes falling asleep in the Prophet’s mosque. In 2002 they prevented schoolgirls from escaping a burning building in Mecca, because the girls were not covered properly. Fifteen girls died and many more injured as a result. The Mutawwa have even enlisted the help of modern technology to enforce Shari’ah Law, launching a website where people can anonymously tip off the authorities about un-Islamic activity.
The Salafis were not the only militant group gaining ground at the time. Hizbu-Tahrir (literally, the Party of Liberation) was their main competitor for the hearts and minds of young British Muslims. One of their prominent members at the time, Farid Kasim, became a regular visitor to Da’wa Society meetings. His one overriding obsession was the “Islamic State” (Khilafah). He listened to our talks, not to learn or contribute, but to hijack them and talk about the Khilafah.
“Democracy is completely against Islam. An Islamic State run by the Khalifah is the only form of Islamic government acceptable; “And those who do not rule by what Allah has revealed are infidels.””
“But there are many principles within Democracy that are completely Islamic,” I replied. “The idea of Shura (consultation), for example, is the basis of democracy!”
“Democracy is totally incompatible with Islam. Democracy is about giving humans the right to make laws. It gives man that which is entitled exclusively for the Creator. It is obligatory upon every Muslim to reject Democracy.”
“Muslim countries aren’t much better are they?”
“That’s because they have abandoned the Khilafah and the Shari’ah.”
“But you can’t just impose an Islamic State on people.”
“If you wait for the people to be ready, then you will never have an Islamic State. We need to change the government first, then people will change.”
“Isn’t Islam about transforming the individual?”
“Islam is about establishing God’s Law on earth.”
Farid was a very confrontational young man with an incredible energy and drive that typified the party he helped establish in the UK with Omar Bakri and others. In fact he and Omar Bakri were too radical even for Hizbu-Tahrir and they left to form an even more militant group called Al-Muhajiroun famous for, amongst other things, “The Magnificent 19” conference in praise of the suicide bombers responsible for the September 11th attacks.
At universities too, Muslim students were becoming more radicalised. When I joined SOAS Islamic Society in 1980 it was a very scholarly society that attracted professors as well as students. I continued this tradition after I became president and organized talks on the development of Sufism, exhibitions of Islamic Art and seminars on archeological finds. But by the end of my presidency there were a growing number of Hizbu-Tahrir militants trying to muscle their way in. During one meeting, a non-Muslim peace activist who I’d invited to talk about the Palestinian situation was heckled by Hizbu-Tahrir members who stood up and shouted slogans and abuse, eventually bringing the meeting to a halt, in a chaotic atmosphere. Gradually, the audience we used to attract stopped coming. It was difficult to exclude the radicals from either the Islamic Society or Da’wa meetings. By definition, they were for Muslims, and we felt unable to exclude people who were, in every way, pious Muslims. Although their approach was confrontational and aggressive, they were at least trying to do something about what was happening to Muslims. So we tolerated their presence in the hope that they would moderate their stance. But they became ever bolder, taking control of Islamic societies and setting out a much more militant agenda. By the late 80s the influence of these groups had reached a high point and many young British Muslims had become radicalized and were no longer willing to passively accept the perceived injustices or attacks on their religion. They were ready to show their anger and frustration at the slightest provocation. In 1988, that provocation came in the form of a book, “The Satanic Verses.”
The first time I heard about “The Satanic Verses” was at a Da’wa Society meeting. After the usual talk and discussion, I asked,
“Any other business?”
“Yes,” said Naeem a gentle, soft spoken young Asian from Kenya. “I have some photocopies from a book called ‘The Satanic Verses,’ by Salman Rushdie.” He passed them around. “This book blasphemes against our blessed prophet Muhammad, and the mothers of the believers.”
There were several derogatory quotes about someone called Mahound, some swearing, and comments about the prophet’s wives being whores and the Holy Ka’ba a brothel. None of it made much sense to me. But it didn’t matter; we were all in agreement that it was a vicious attack on Islam; and there were several mutterings of “Astaghfirullah!” (May God forgive me) and “Aoozobillah!” (I seek refuge with God) and even the odd cry of “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great!). The action we decided to take was fairly mild in comparison with what was to come later. Naeem had the address of Penguin Books, and we each composed individual letters demanding the immediate withdrawal of the novel and a public apology to Muslims.
Soon, however, more militant action was demanded as word about the book was passed around. A momentum built up and the book took on a much greater significance, triggering a wave of pent up anger. Demonstrations and marches were organized. Many countries started banning the book, but this only seemed to increase the level of protest, and book burnings were held in Bolton and Bradford. Then in February of 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa saying,
“It is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has, his life and his wealth, to send (Rushdie) to hell.”
Although Khomeini was Shi’a and most Muslims in the UK are Sunni, his Fatwa met with approval from many Muslims on the street. There were some more sane and reasoned voices who argued that since Rushdie did not live in an Islamic State, such a punishment simply wasn’t applicable, but their voices were drowned out by the hysteria now surrounding the whole issue.
I knew many Muslims who supported the death sentence on Rushdie – not because they knew anything about Islamic Law – but simply because they felt that was what was expected of them by fellow Muslims. They didn’t have the knowledge to argue against the Fatwa and didn’t want others to think their resolve was weak. Few – if any – had the slightest idea what the book actually said. To this day, I have never met anyone who has read “The Satanic Verses”. I did try reading it myself once, I read the first few pages, several times, and then put it down, thinking I’ll read it later. I never did. But it no longer mattered what the book actually said, it had become a symbol of evil and declaring one’s opposition to it was to declare one’s allegiance to Islam. There were few Muslims, at the time, that weren’t caught up in the hysteria surrounding it, including Yusuf Islam.
I first met Yusuf in 1980 when I attended a circle called “The Companions of the Mosque” which he led in Regents Park Mosque, but got to know him well during the fifteen years I worked as a teacher at Islamia School. In the early days he was very influenced by traditionalists with dogmatic and literalist views. In some ways his spiritual journey reflects the stages many converts go through, ending in a reconciliation with their past. Of course the difference for Yusuf is that he is famous. New converts, by definition, have yet to gain a full understanding and experience of their new faith and must inevitably rely on the guidance of others. With Muslims, that means lots of people telling you different things. This is bewildering enough for an ordinary convert, but in Yusuf’s case it was much worse as there was a huge competition to have such a famous personality endorse their particular views and stances. When Khomeini issued his Fatwa, the media were watching Yusuf’s every move, eager for a sensational headline. A few months later Yusuf was giving a talk at Kingston University, about how he became a Muslim, when someone asked him about Islam’s view on apostates. Yusuf gave the straightforward and honest reply that the punishment according to “Shari’ah” (Islamic Law) is the death sentence. He couldn’t have said anything else, because that is the plain fact of the matter – at least according to the views he followed at the time. The headlines the next day read, “Cat Stevens Says Kill Rushdie!”
I have never understood why the media singled Yusuf Islam out in its anger, as though he had written Shari’ah Law himself. Although there were a few Muslims who argued that the death sentence wasn’t applicable to Rushdie, most were placed in the position of having to defend – in principle at least – a law that said it was morally right to execute someone for choosing what they wished to believe. These days there are a growing number of Sheikhs and Imams who have made strong arguments against the death penalty for apostates – and more crucially these arguments have become more widely known about amongst Muslims. But in those days they were very few and those that did were either not known about or did not get the media attention that those who supported the Fatwa did. This meant that although some Muslims may have privately disagreed with the death penalty for apostates, they were unable to express their opposition publicly for fear of bringing their own faith into question.