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Them: Adventures with Extremists
Chapter One: A Semi-Detached Ayatollah
It was a balmy Saturday afternoon in Trafalgar Square in the summertime, and Omar Bakri Mohammed was declaring Holy War on Britain. He stood on a podium at the front of Nelson's Column and announced that he would not rest until he saw the Black Flag of Islam flying over Downing Street. There was much cheering. The space had been rented out to him by Westminster Council.
The Newsroom South-East TV reporter talked the afternoon's events up with a hard, fast, urgent but cool-headed voice. She was a Muslim. In his speech, Omar Bakri referred to people like her as Chocolate Muslims. A Chocolate Muslim is an Uncle Tom.
(The next day, the Daily Mail would run a photograph of a cold-eyed Omar Bakri on their inside front page under the headline, Is This the Most Dangerous Man in Britain? From his cold eyes, he looked as if he could be.)
There were maybe 5,000 of Omar Bakri's followers there in Trafalgar Square. After his speech, their plan was to release thousands of black balloons, carrying the call to war on little attached postcards. The balloons would fly high into the London sky, painting it black and then falling across London and the Home Counties. The balloons were being stored in a net, underneath the podium from which Omar Bakri was outlining his post-Jihad vision for the U.K.
He who practiced homosexuality, adultery, fornication, or bestiality would be stoned to death (or thrown from the highest mountain). Christmas decorations and store-window dummies would be outlawed. There would be no free mixing between the sexes. Pubs would be closed down. The landlords would be offered alternative employment in something more befitting an Islamic society, like a library, and if they refused to comply they would be arrested. Pictures of ladies' legs on pantyhose packaging would be banned. We would still be able to purchase pantyhose, but they would be advertised simply with the word "pantyhose."
I visited Yacob Zaki, a Muslim fundamentalist who often shared a platform with him.
Yacob Zaki is white and Scottish, a former Presbyterian who converted to Islam when he was a teenager. He lives in Greenock, a port near Glasgow. He is Greenock's only militant Muslim convert. He said he had suffered much bullying at school as a result of his conversion, but it was well worth it.
"Do you think that Omar Bakri might succeed in overthrowing the Western way of life?" I asked him.
"Well," said Yacob, "Omar is our best hope at this time."
"Charisma," said Yacob. "He's the most popular leader of the disaffected youth. People queue around the block to see him talk. Although we disagree on some matters."
"Well," said Yacob, "one time I wanted to release a swarm of mice into the United Nations headquarters. Women hate mice, you know. I thought it was a brilliantly simple idea. One swarm of mice would have crushed the whole UN process, don't you think?"
"Women standing on chairs," I agreed.
"But Omar said no," said Yacob. "He said it was a stupid idea."
"What other disagreements have you had with Omar Bakri?" I asked Yacob.
"Well," he said, "Omar got very angry with me when I announced that Hillary Clinton was a lesbian. But I have the proof."
"One mysterious case," said Yacob, "is that of the peanut farmer who attended a Bilderberg meeting and overnight became the most powerful man in the world. Yes. I'm speaking of Jimmy Carter. So you can see that they are extremely secretive and powerful."
I didn't really take it in. I stared blankly at Yacob. I didn't realize that the people Yacob spoke of would come to occupy — in the most unpleasant ways — a tremendous part of the next five years of my life.
Yacob looked at his watch. He wanted our meeting to end. He had a tip on where he could purchase Hitler's binoculars, and he didn't want another collector to beat him to it. He gave me Omar Bakri's address. I got his telephone number from the phone book.
I wrote to ask him if I could follow him around for a year or so while he attempted to transform Britain into an Islamic nation. He called back right away. There were so many anti-Muslim lies, he said, generated by the Jewish-controlled media. So much misinformation, in the newspapers and the movies. Perhaps this would be an opportunity for the record to be set straight. So, yes. I was welcome to join him in his struggle against the infidels. And then he added, "I am actually very nice, you know."
"Are you?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," said Omar Bakri, "I am delightful."
"What's your daughter's name?" I asked him.
"It is a difficult name for you to understand," said Omar.
"Does it have an English translation?" I asked.
"Yes," said Omar, "it translates into English as 'the Black Flag of Islam.'"
"Really?" I said. "Your daughter's name is the Black Flag of Islam?"
"Yes," said Omar.
"Really?" I said.
There was a small pause.
"You see," said Omar, "why our cultures can never integrate?"
The Lion King was playing on the VCR. We watched the scene where the warthog sings "Hakuna Matata," the song about how wonderful it is to have problem-free philosophies and no worries. Omar sang along, bouncing the baby on his knee.
"We always watch The Lion King," he said. "It's the only way I can relax. You know, they call me the Lion. That's right. They call me the Lion. They call me the great warrior. The great fighter."
Omar showed me his photo album. His teenage photographs make him look like a matinee idol. He came from a family of twenty-eight brothers and sisters. His father had made a fortune selling sheep and pigs and cows. They had chauffeurs and servants and palaces in Syria, Turkey, and Beirut. Omar escaped Saudi Arabia in 1985. He had heard that he was to be arrested for preaching the Jihad on university campuses. So he ran away. He escaped to Britain. Now he is a big man with a big beard.
"I was thin because I always worried," he said. "I was always on the run. Now I live in Britain, I never worry. What's going to happen to me here? Ha ha! So I got fat. A leader must be big in stature. The bigger the body, the bigger the leader. Who wants a little scrawny leader?"
Omar's plan for the morning was to distribute leaflets outside the Holborn underground station entitled "Homosexuality, Lesbianism, Adultery, Fornication, and Bestiality: the deadly diseases." He said he'd planned to travel by public transportation, but he couldn't help but notice my car in his driveway, so perhaps I would give him a lift instead?
"OK," I said.
I dropped him off near the tube station. I went to park the car. Ten minutes later, I found him standing in the middle of the pavement with a stack of leaflets in his hand.
"How's it going, Omar?" I asked.
"Oh, very good," he smiled. "The message is getting across that there are some deadly diseases here and there."
He turned to the passersby.
"Homosexuality!" he yelled. "Beware the deadly disease! Beware the hour!"
Some time passed.
"Homosexuality!" yelled Omar. "Beware! There are homosexuals everywhere!"
I expected to see some hostility to Omar's leaflets from the passersby. But the shoppers and tourists and office workers seemed to regard him with a kindly bemusement. Nonetheless, after ten minutes nobody had actually taken a leaflet.
"Beware the hour! There are homosexuals everywhere! Beware the hour!" continued Omar, cheerfully. "Be careful from homosexuality! It is not good for your tummy!"
Omar Bakri was unlike my image of a Muslim extremist.
Then he told me that he had a good idea.
"Just watch this," he said.
He turned the leaflets upside down.
"Help the orphans!" he yelled. "Help the orphans!"
"Omar!" I exclaimed, scandalized.
The passersby started to accept his leaflets.
"This is good," chuckled Omar. "This is good. You see, if I wasn't a Muslim I'd be working for...how you say...Saatchi and Saatchi."
"There is a Cash and Carry just off the ring road near Tottenham," said Omar, "that sells very good collection boxes. Could you give me a lift?"
"OK," I said.
So we drove to the Cash and Carry. Omar sat in the backseat, which made me feel a little like a taxi driver.
"Left," said Omar. "Left at the junction. No. Left!"
At some traffic lights, I asked Omar where his wife was when I was at his house.
"She was upstairs," he said.
"Really?" I said. "The whole time I was in your living room, watching The Lion King?"
"Yes," said Omar. "She wouldn't come down until after you left."
"What would happen if I tried to interview her?" I asked.
"I would declare Fatwa on you," said Omar.
"Please don't say that," I said.
"Ha ha!" said Omar.
"Even as a joke," I said.
"These are good collection boxes," he said. "Very big and lightweight."
"It seems strange to me," I said, "that you plan to collect for Hamas and Hizbullah in novelty Coca-Cola bottles."
"Ah," said Omar Bakri. "Very good. I am not against the imperialist baggage. Just the corruption of the Western civilization."
"But nevertheless," I said, "Coca-Cola is such a powerful symbol of Western capitalism."
"Yes, indeed," mumbled Omar.
"So you are utilizing our symbols in your attempt to destroy them?" I said.
"Oh, yes," he murmured, distantly.
Omar didn't seem too keen on this line of questioning. He seemed uncomfortable talking about his allegiance to Hamas and Hizbullah. He was in the process of applying for a British passport, and the Conservative government was attempting to pass a law criminalizing those who raised money in Britain for terrorists overseas — a law that was widely believed to be targeted primarily at Omar.
"I do not collect only for Hamas," said Omar. "I collect for all the Muslims worldwide."
He wandered away, pushing his six large novelty Coca-Cola bottles in a trolley through the Cash and Carry. He stopped at a shelf full of picture frames. The manufacturers had filled the frames with a sample photograph, portraying a sunny beach. A young woman in a one-piece bathing suit lay on the sand underneath an umbrella. She was licking a vanilla ice-cream cone in a borderline-suggestive manner. Omar shook his head sadly.
"This," he said, "is the corruption of the Western ideology. You want to buy frames. What do you do with the woman in the frames?"
Nonetheless, he lifted a dozen or so picture frames from the shelf and put them in his trolley, next to the Coca-Cola collection bottles.
"So I will take these frames," he said, "and replace the picture of the woman with a decent message taken from the Koran." He paused. "OK, Jon," he said. "I am ready to go."
"OK," I said. "I'll bring the car round."
We packed the Coca-Cola bottles and the picture frames into the trunk of my car, and I drove Omar to the Finsbury Park Mosque, where he was to deliver a speech at a conference entitled "Democracy or Dictatorship?" Omar was speaking on behalf of dictatorship.
This was my first opportunity to meet some of Omar's followers. There were maybe five hundred of them in the audience. Things did not start well.
"Are you a Jew?" asked a young man.
"Uh, no," I said.
"Don't worry about it," I said.
Omar Bakri was fast-talking on the podium, as if he couldn't contain the words that needed to be said. He filled the room. He quoted from a letter he'd just received from an old friend of his, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh.
The Blind Sheikh was in jail for life in Missouri for "inspiring" the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
His coconspirator, Ramzi Yousef, a British-educated fundamentalist, had built a huge bomb and hoped to topple one of the twin towers, aiming for 250,000 fatalities — equivalent, he later explained, to those inflicted on Japan by the American atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
His plan failed when he ran out of money for explosives, and his conspirators planted the bomb next to the wrong support structure in the basement of the building. As an FBI helicopter took him to a cell in Manhattan, Bill Gavin, the head of the FBI in New York, leant forward and eased Yousef's blindfold away from his eyes.
"Look down there," he said to Yousef, gesturing towards the twin towers. "They're still standing."
Yousef looked out of the window.
"They wouldn't be if I had had enough money and explosives," he said.
(Ramzi Yousef was eventually locked up in Colorado's Supermax prison, in a cell adjacent to the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. Later, in 2000, a Timothy McVeigh fan wrote to McVeigh in the Supermax, enclosing a magazine article illustrated by the photographs of the famous Supermax cell-mates. She asked McVeigh to autograph the article. He signed it "The A-Team.")
The law of "inspiration" that Omar's friend the Blind Shiekh was charged with had not been utilized since the American Civil War. Omar used to eat with the Blind Sheikh back in Saudi Arabia. Now he was a martyr throughout the Islamic world, which believed he was framed by the New World Order, a secret clique of international bankers and globalist CEOs and politicians determined to crush Islamic freedom.
Omar reiterated the theory I had heard from Yacob Zaki — that this elite was secretly scheming to implement a sinister planetary takeover. I began to wonder whether I should attempt to locate the whereabouts of this secret room. If it existed it would, after all, have to be somewhere. Could one get in?
Have you heard of the strip searches? They order me to remove all my clothes, open my thighs, and bend forward. Then, like beasts, they search my private parts intimately while the others stand around watching and laughing. They humiliate me because I am a Muslim and because what they do is expressly forbidden by God.
Omar and the audience were enraged by this letter. As Omar read it out, one or two members of the audience gasped and shouted, "No!"
Omar said, "The world must hear of this. The world must know what they are doing to Sheikh Abdel-Rahman who is, I must remind you, an old blind man who has committed no crime. We will shake up the world. Together, we will shake up the entire world."
Afterward, Omar said he needed to do some errands in town, and could I give him a lift?
"OK," I said. "I'm meeting someone in Soho, so can I drop you off there?"
"No," he said, anxiously. "It is forbidden for me to go into Soho. Please don't take me there."
Soho would be razed to the ground, explained Omar, once the Holy War had been won.
"It is important for people to understand these things," he explained, "so they will be ready to adapt to the new ways."
"Which people?" I asked.
"The people of Britain," said Omar.
"Have you ever been to Soho?" I asked.
"Oh, no," said Omar. "It is forbidden."
"What do you imagine Soho to be like?" I asked.
"There are naked women everywhere," he replied. "Naked women standing on street corners."
So I drove Omar into town by a route that avoided Soho. We passed a poster advertising the Spice Girls' debut album.
"Such a very stupid thing," mumbled Omar. "Spicy Girls."
"What will become of the Spice Girls when Britain is transformed into an Islamic nation?" I asked.
"They will be arrested immediately," he replied. "They will not even be existing in an Islamic state. OK. We can go on. Turn right at the lights."
Geri Spice was wearing a Union Jack dress in the poster, which made me wonder about the future of our flag.
"There will be no Union Jack," said Omar. "The Union Jack represents the old order. And it must, therefore, be eliminated."
We got talking about the word "fundamentalist." Omar said it had been redefined by the infidels of the West as a pejorative term.
"You use it as an insult," he said. "Turn left, please."
"But surely you are a fundamentalist," I said, "in the sense that you live your life by the rules set down in the Koran."
"That is true," said Omar. "The Koran rules every aspect of my life. It tells me how I eat, how I sleep, how I fight, and even how I will die." Omar paused. "You know," he said, "the Koran even tells me which direction I must break wind in."
There was a short silence.
"And which direction do you break wind in?" I asked.
"In the direction of the nonbeliever!" Omar said. "Ha ha ha! The direction of the nonbeliever!" Omar laughed heartily for some time and slapped me on the back.
"OK," said Omar, as I pulled up near Piccadilly Circus. "Thank you very much. Goodbye, Jon."
As I drove away, I gave my horn a little beep and I mouthed the words, "I'll call!"
Omar Bakri nodded and smiled, and he disappeared into the crowd.
Rupert was leading a campaign in the House of Commons to see Omar Bakri deported. Rupert was determined to ensure that Omar's passport application was rejected. He wanted to see Omar sent back to Saudi Arabia, or Syria, or anywhere but here.
"He can preach his message of hate anywhere he likes," said Rupert, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. "But not in Great Britain."
As we drove to the garden party, it crossed my mind that perhaps Rupert and Omar were not as unalike as they imagined. For instance, both were opposed to gay and lesbian rights and both were vigorously in favor of the death penalty. But Rupert considered my thesis to be fanciful and inaccurate.
"I believe," he said, "that every man is entitled to a fair trial. If he is convicted, he would be taken to a lawful place of execution where he'd be put down in the most humane method known to science, either by hanging or by lethal injection. Whereas Omar Bakri believes in dragging someone to the nearest square and stoning him to death in a manner I consider to be not only barbaric, but also wholly uncivilized."
We pulled up at the garden party, a Conservative Party fund-raising event, and Rupert made his way into the crowd. There were maybe a hundred of his supporters there, and they gathered around him, shaking his hand and offering him words of condolence. This was the week that the Daily Mirror had exposed Rupert, in a four-page spread, as an adulterer. Adultery was a crime that, under Islamic law, is punishable by stoning to death.
An elderly lady approached Rupert with a reproachful wag of her finger.
"I saw you in the newspaper," she said, "and I thought to myself, Rupert! You made me a promise!"
Rupert smiled urbanely.
"Did I?" he said. "Oh, dear."
"Never mind," she chuckled.
I imagined that Rupert's constituents would forgive him anything.
"You know," I said to Rupert, "under Islamic law a quintessentially English occasion like this one would probably be outlawed."
Rupert nodded. He played the garden some more, a glass of white wine in his hand. Then it was time for him to make a speech about Omar Bakri. He took his place next to the raffle stall, and the garden fell silent.
"I've long been campaigning against an Islamic extremist," he began, "a terrorist who believes in planting bombs and blowing up women and children in Israel." Rupert paused. "This man is applying for a British passport. Well, my message to him is that he can apply for a passport anywhere he likes, but not in Great Britain."
There was a smattering of applause.
Rupert scrutinized the garden. The sunlight made the swimming pool glitter. By a meteorological quirk involving the positioning of nearby hills in relation to the Atlantic drift emanating from the Gulf of Mexico, Torquay is one of Britain's very warmest places. This geographical fluke, says the Torbay Meteorological Department, makes Torquay's climate uncannily similar to the climate of Istanbul.
"This man," announced Rupert, "would like to see quintessentially English occasions like this lovely afternoon outlawed. In his totalitarian vision for Britain, the ladies would not be allowed to bare their arms nor wear the clothes of their choice, and doubtless there would be other disagreeable constraints on the men present. And I for one am not having it."
There was thunderous applause. And then Rupert announced the raffle winners.
After the prizes were handed out, Rupert became solemn.
"So, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for attending what is, we all agree, a quintessentially English occasion. We have much to be proud of. But we're not going to win the next election without the grassroots support only you can provide. Go out onto the streets. Campaign and campaign and campaign. Let's not hear gripes and groans. Let's remember all the wonderful things that the Conservative Party has done for this country. Thank you."
There was more applause, and we took our place at a table of elderly ladies. The conversation quickly turned to the issue of Omar Bakri.
"I believe in hanging," said a local magistrate named Margaret. "I believe in flogging. I believe in bringing the young people up to respect someone in higher authority. But this man..."
"This man," agreed Rupert, "is living among us, and he's trying to overthrow our way of life."
"Well," muttered Margaret's husband, Frank, "I don't think he'll get very far. Particularly not in Torquay."
"Torquay in particular wouldn't stand for this sort of extremism," agreed Margaret.
"I suppose," said Frank, "everyone is entitled to their freedom of speech..."
"But it is extremism," said Margaret. "It really is. And not only would the people of Torquay not stand for it, I think that the whole West Country would feel the same way."
"I'll be seeing Omar soon," I said to Rupert. "Would you like me to deliver a message to him?"
"Yes I would," said Rupert. "My message to him is this: Peddle your extremism elsewhere."
Rupert folded his arms. He sat back in his chair. I was impressed at the way in which he'd stolen my line about the Islamic assault on quintessentially English afternoons and turned it into the centerpiece of his address. It takes a skill to be able to plunder a fragment of fleeting small talk in this manner. I imagined that Rupert could turn pretty much anything to his advantage, even the Daily Mirror's elaborate chronicle of his adultery, a scandal the likes of which had destroyed many a backbench politician in these times of political sleaze. But today Rupert responded with a glint and a wily smile, and I heard one young woman turn to her friend and describe Rupert as foxy.
I considered Rupert's warnings about the two encroaching foes, Omar Bakri and New Labour, to be overly cautious. It was a beautiful, hot Istanbul-esque afternoon. The garden party seemed indestructible, and so did Rupert.
But I was wrong. Rupert's political career was shattered by a bizarre chain of events that began one evening soon after the garden party at the Thatched Tavern in nearby Maidencombe. It was a Saturday night, two weeks before the 1997 General Election. Rupert had taken a break from his campaigning schedule to have a quiet meal with a friend. Perhaps he felt he'd earned a respite from the intense affability a politician must display during the weeks leading up to polling day, for that night, at the Thatched Tavern, Rupert was demanding.
"We went out of our way," said Suzanne Austin, Rupert's waitress that night, "and got him the very best table in the restaurant. I noticed that the flowers on his table were red, so I even rushed out into the garden to find him some blue ones."
"Do you think Rupert appreciated the attention you paid to him?" I asked.
"I don't think he even noticed," said Suzanne. "Anyway, he wasn't rude, he was just very demanding."
"So what happened?" I asked.
"Well," said Suzanne, "at the end of the night, the waitresses always sit down, have a chat, and share out the tips. So another waitress said to me, 'I bet Rupert gave you a very big tip.' And I said, 'No. As a matter of fact, he didn't give me a tip at all.' And she said, 'I can't believe it. You were running around after him all night. I bet you're not going to vote for him now.' And I said, 'Certainly not. I'm going to vote for the Lib Dems.'"
There was, said Suzanne, a murmur of agreement. Some of the other waitresses announced that, in sympathy, they would change their allegiance from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats also. They went home and told their husbands, some of whom agreed that a man who behaved like that in a restaurant couldn't be trusted to represent his constituents' needs in Westminster.
In total, it was estimated, Rupert lost fourteen votes as a result of his inappropriately demanding behavior at the Thatched Tavern and his refusal to leave a tip. Two weeks later, Rupert lost his seat in Parliament to the Liberal Democrats. He lost by the smallest margin of the election: twelve votes.
On my return to London there was a message from Omar on my answering machine. The Israeli Army had bombed a UN safe haven in Qana, southern Lebanon, killing a hundred Muslim civilians, women and children. Bill Clinton referred to the massacre as "a tragedy," as if it was a natural disaster. This choice of words angered Omar almost as much as the attack itself.
"It was not a tragedy," he said. "It was an act of terrorism."
Omar decided to organize a demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in Kensington High Street. He needed to get some leaflets photocopied. If I had a minute, could I drive him to Office World?
I agreed, although I feared I was beginning to cross the line between journalist and chauffeur.
Also, I didn't think Omar had realized I am Jewish. He hadn't mentioned it, and neither had I. He had once called Jews the lowliest disbelievers on Earth. I felt I was letting down my people somewhat in helping him coordinate his Jihad.
"If you find a photocopying service that's cheaper," explained Omar on the way, "then Office World will give you a discount."
"Capitalism," I said.
"Capitalism," said Omar. "Oh, yes. I benefit from your capitalism to convey the message. I benefit from your freedom of speech."
A Hasidic Jew stood next to us at the Office World counter. He wanted sheet music copied for a bar mitzvah. Omar sized up the Hasidic Jew, and the Hasidic Jew sized up Omar. Then the Office World employee said "Finished!" and handed Omar two hundred leaflets.
The Hasidic Jew glanced at them with some curiosity. They read: "Crush the Pirate State of Israel." He glared at us. Omar smiled awkwardly.
"This," he whispered to me, "is a very sensitive moment."
We paid and left. As we walked towards the sliding doors, I looked over my shoulder and grinned apologetically at the Hasidic Jew, but he pointedly turned away, back to the man doing his photocopying.
"Come on!" said Omar. "Very busy. Very busy."
And so I brought the car around.
"It cannot be a coincidence," he said.
"So," I said, "let me get this clear. You dialed 192, and asked for the address of the Israeli Embassy — "
"Yes," said Omar.
"And they gave you a false address in Knightsbridge?"
"Yes," said Omar.
"But how did they know that you were an Islamic militant?"
"Oh, Jon," said Omar, sadly. "You are naive. Anyway. I have higher plans. Just you wait and see."
"Mmm?" I said.
"I will stage an event that will shake up the entire world," said Omar. "Just you watch. I will put London at the center of the Islamic map."
"Really?" I said.
"Oh, yes," said Omar. "This is just the beginning. I can promise you this. By autumn, I will have shaken up the entire world."
"Really?" I said.
"You don't believe me?" said Omar. "Just you wait and see."
"If you turn up late," he often said, "I'll give you sixty lashes. Ha ha!"
On many occasions Omar would telephone and call me over urgently. I would cancel nights out with my wife and drive over to discover that he'd forgotten all about me and had taken the train to Plymouth, or Nuneaton, or to his secret Jihad training camp near Crawley. I sometimes felt I was getting a unique insight into what it would be like living under Islamic rule, with Omar as Ayatollah.
Omar's plans for Britain's biggest ever Islamic rally, the rally that would shake up the world, began to gain momentum around late summer. He put a deposit down toward hiring the mammoth 14,000-capacity London Arena, in a scheduling gap between a Tom Jones concert and a show called "The Wonderful World of Horses." Omar had never heard of Tom Jones and he was shocked to discover that women throw their underwear at him onstage.
"My God," he said, as we stood in the London Arena foyer, waiting for the management to show us around, "that is the sign of the hour, when women take off their own panties and their own underwear. That is the sign of the hour."
"Do I look smart enough?" asked Anjem, Omar's second in command, adjusting his tie. Anjem was a bookish, resolute young man, the plodding administrator realizing the wild plans of the idealist.
"You look very smart," said Omar. "I hope they don't recognize me. Will they recognize me?"
"No," said Anjem. "They won't recognize you."
They didn't recognize him. Omar told the management that he was a teacher of Islamic affairs, and this would be an educational conference. Inside, we wandered around the huge, cavernous hall.
"Yes," said Omar, quietly to himself. "Yes. This will do."
Although I was unaware as to what Omar had in store for the rally, I was doubtful about whether this venture would be a success. His recent track record in these matters was shaky. Perhaps I was being naive about the Israeli Embassy debacle, as Omar had suggested, but I couldn't help speculating that Directory Assistance had given him the correct address and Omar had written it down wrong.
Also, there was an unfortunate incident that had occurred at the end of Omar's famous Trafalgar Square speech the previous summer. When the thousands of black balloons carrying the call to war on little attached postcards were unleashed from their netting, it became evident that the postcards were too heavy. The cardboard/helium weight ratio had not been accurately calculated, and the messages anchored the balloons to the Trafalgar Square pavement. The afternoon culminated in many of Omar Bakri's followers kneeling amid five thousand grounded balloons, waving their arms about in an ultimately fruitless attempt to generate enough of a breeze to get them airborne. One or two of the followers eventually untied the messages and allowed the balloons to float away. But without the messages, the balloons lost their raison d'être, and they soon stopped doing this. The last thing I saw was one young man, his face covered by a scarf, defeatedly kicking a listless black balloon and stomping off.
So now, as we stood in the midst of the vast, empty London Arena, I couldn't imagine how Omar intended to fill the 14,000 seats. And then he explained to me his master plan. The rally would include videotaped messages and personal appearances from an extraordinary cast of Islamic extremists. There was Omar's friend Osama bin Laden, who had not yet been named the mastermind behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, nor the American Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, but had already been linked to a number of truck bombs in Saudi Arabia, killing U.S. servicemen and Australian tourists, and had financed the Taliban in Afghanistan with some of his vast inherited personal fortune. Omar often called himself bin Laden's man in Great Britain. He said that bin Laden would frequently ask him to distribute statements to the European press on his behalf. He said the video message from bin Laden was already on its way to London. There was the Blind Sheikh, jailed for life for "inspiring" the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. There was Hizbullah's spiritual leader, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. There was Dr. Mohammed al-Masari, the Saudi dissident who had called for the annihilation of the Jews. And so on.
"So?" said Omar, when he'd finished reading me his list. "What do you think?"
There was a long silence.
"But what about your application for a British passport?" I asked him.
"Mmm?" said Omar.
"Don't you think that when the Home Office hears about your list of speakers they'll be reluctant to grant you British citizenship?"
"It is freedom of speech," chuckled Omar. "What can they do? We are breaking none of your laws." He chuckled. "If I lived in Saudi Arabia, I could never get away with what I do here!" He paused. "Anyway. It is ironic. You want to get rid of me? Give me a passport! I will be on the first plane out of here. I will go to India for a holiday. I will visit my mother in Syria."
The Egyptian government summoned the British chargé d'affaires in Cairo to demand an explanation. There was talk of Egyptian sanctions against Britain.
A communiqué from the Algerian Foreign Office read, "Algeria expresses its firm reprobation at this London rally. This permissive attitude clearly goes against the declarations of the G7 conference at Lyon where a new coordinated international effort was mounted to fight this menace to international peace and security."
Gay rights groups and the Board of Deputies of British Jews appealed to the Home Office for the rally to be banned.
The Foreign Secretary announced to Parliament that the rally couldn't be stopped unless laws were broken, and laws were so far not being broken.
But the Home Office issued an open letter to Omar: "The British Government condemns any statement made at the rally in support of terrorism. We will monitor the rally and gather evidence to prosecute anyone breaking the law."
This Man Is Dedicated to the Overthrow of Western Society. He Takes £200 a Week in Benefits and Is Applying for British Citizenship.
This report was illustrated with a large and somewhat sinister portrait of Omar scowling.
"They took many, many photographs of me," said Omar when he showed me this photograph, "and they were just looking for one to make me look angry. They said to me, 'Say Teese, Cheese.' They wanted me to show my teeth. I said, 'What? You want me to do this for you?'"
Omar held his hands out in front of his face and gnarled his fingers like a Nosferatu vampire.
"And they tried to take a picture of me when I was joking with them!"
Only an editorial in the Independent newspaper took Omar's side.
Britain has a glorious history of hospitality to political radicals. Banning the rally would diminish the principles that uphold our society and be a victory for those who seek its destruction.
In late August, Omar took a break from the rally preparations to attend a secret weekend social get-together with all of Britain's Islamic fundamentalist leaders at a large Edwardian manor house in the countryside near Birmingham. There had been some infighting within radical Islamic circles, and this weekend's fishing and table tennis was intended to help rebuild bridges.
The house was down a long lane, past some NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY signs. It was once the country pile of a mining baron, but now it was a college for Muslims. I arrived at 10 P.M. and parked the car. It was dark outside, and I could hear cheerful noises coming from the front parlor. I peered in through the window, and I saw a lot of men in robes shaking hands and hugging each other. Omar was there, laughing and joking.
It had been said that Omar was not popular within many of Britain's Muslim communities. Certainly many moderate Muslims — Chocolate Muslims, as Omar called them — considered him dangerous PR in a society that could be furiously Islamophobic. But even within his own militant world, there had been conflict. Many of Omar's rival leaders thought that he'd made a mistake in calling for the assassinations of John Major and Tony Blair, for example. The London Arena rally too had generated some hostile debate. I imagined that this weekend social get-together had much to do with the rifts caused by his recent actions.
I was caught peering through the window by a tall young man in a white robe.
"Can I help you?" he said.
"Ah," I said, "I am personal friends with Omar Bakri."
There was a long silence. He looked me up and down.
"Are you?" he said.
"I really am," I said.
Doubtfully, he went inside. He returned, a few moments later, with Omar.
We were then left alone in the parking lot.
"Oh my God," laughed Omar. "They told me not to communicate with the media. They expressly said no journalists." He laughed. "What can I do?"
Some more Islamic militants arrived, and they embraced Omar warmly. Then they stopped and looked at me.
"This is my friend," said Omar. "He is writing about my life. Nothing to do with the meeting. He is following me around for maybe ten or fifteen years."
And then I heard a voice behind me. A small group of Omar's fellow militants had formed, and one of them said, softly, "I have brought a spare suitcase. Dr. al-Masari has brought a spare pair of shoes. You, Omar Bakri, have brought a spare journalist."
"Maybe I can come inside?" I said, quietly, to Omar.
"Wait here in the parking lot," said Omar. "I'll do my best."
Omar vanished inside the country house. I waited. Some time later, he returned.
"I'm sorry," he said. "They said no way. There's nothing I can do. You have to go away now. Goodbye."
"What's going on inside?" I asked.
Omar grinned. "Everyone's here!" he said. "Really! Everyone!"
"And what are you all talking about?"
"Oh, it's very informal," he said. "We are splitting into groups. Tomorrow we will go fishing."
"There seemed to be some tension before," I said. "I was wondering if some of the other leaders consider you to be too extreme."
"What is this word 'extreme'?" said Omar. "Words like fundamentalist or terrorist or extremist mean nothing here. Those are your words. For you, a terrorist is somebody who blows up a bus here and there. But for the people here, I am on the frontline. I am a great warrior, a great fighter."
At this point, I think that Omar registered my disappointment. He brightened.
"Would you like an ice cream?" he said. "I can get you an ice cream."
"Yes, please," I said.
"OK," said Omar. "I will get you an ice cream."
Omar wandered inside again. He came out a few minutes later with a chocolate sundae.
"OK," said Omar. "So I am cooling down the temperature and also the tension with an ice cream for you."
"Thank you very much," I said.
"You must go now," said Omar. "So, goodbye."
I drove into Birmingham and checked into a Holiday Inn. I decided to return the next morning. I was keen to see Omar at play, which was something he rarely does.
"I get dizzy when I am not furthering the cause of Islam," he had once said to me. "I cannot take a day off, an hour off, even a minute off. I will take time off when I am with Allah, when I die in the battlefield and become a martyr."
But he was due to make a rare exception this weekend, fishing in the pond in the grounds of this country house.
At six the next morning, I drove once again into the long lane. I spotted Omar immediately. He was taking an early-morning stroll with a small group of robed men. I beeped and waved merrily.
To my surprise, however, Omar seemed furious to see me.
I pulled up, and jumped out of the car.
"Hi!" I said, cheerfully. "Omar!"
Omar pointedly ignored me.
"Omar?" I said, quizzically. "What's wrong?"
"How did you know I was going to be here this weekend?" barked Omar. "Who told you? Why have you tracked me down here?"
"Omar?" I said, confused. "What's going on?"
"What do you want from me?" said Omar, sharply.
"I just wanted to see you fish," I said, hopelessly.
"Who told you I was going to be here?" snapped Omar. "Tell me their name!"
There was a long silence.
"I have no idea," I said, finally.
There was another awkward pause.
"Well, now you're here," said Omar, "you may as well stay."
"Thank you," I said.
We carried on walking. When Omar was looking away, one of his fellow walkers smiled softly at me.
"That was quite a show Omar put on just then," he said.
"Yes it was," I replied.
"So," said Omar, merrily, turning around to us, "where is everybody and where is the fishing?"
And then, ahead of us, was a small, shady pond. It was a lovely rustic sight. A cluster of Islamic militants were gathered around fishing rods. For bait, they were using sweet corn. We wandered over. The first thing Omar said was, "How many fish did Hizb-ut-Tahrir catch?"
The other leaders glanced at each other and raised their eyebrows. Omar's split from Hizb-ut-Tahrir — the group he had previously led before branching off to form Al Muhajiroun — had been painful and acrimonious, and now there seemed to be some competition between them.
"He didn't catch any fish," came the reply.
"Ha ha!" says Omar. "No fish! Really? Ha ha! Somebody give me a fishing rod."
Soon after casting off, Omar's rod began to twitch. He had caught a fish.
"Praise be!" he exclaimed. "I've got a fish! I've got one! Ha ha!"
He lifted his rod out of the water, and the bedraggled fish struggled in midair on the line, while all the Islamic fundamentalists gazed at it.
"Ha ha!" said Omar. "It looks like one of the Jewish Board of Deputies."
There was a smattering of polite laughter.
"What do I do now?" said Omar.
"Pass me the green knife," said a man to Omar's right. "Quick! The green knife!"
In a panic, Omar reached for a can opener.
"Not the can opener! The knife! Hold the fish, Omar Bakri. Just hold the fish."
"No," said Omar, quietly, "I cannot hold the fish."
There was a silence.
"Hold the fish!"
"No. I cannot hold the fish. What do I do with a fish?"
"Oh, give it to me!"
"OK," said Omar. "You hold the fish."
The other leaders glanced despairingly at Omar. And then one of them sighed, reached for the fish, and said, "How do you expect to fight the Jihad, Omar Bakri, if you cannot hold a fish?"
Omar didn't return my calls for a few days after the fishing trip.
"Who the hell is that?" said Anjem, referring to a statue of Field Marshal John Fox Burgoyne in a street behind Buckingham Palace.
"Who gives a tinker's toss who that is?" replied a young man called Naz, pasting glue over the statue's base.
They stuck a JIHAD! sticker on a gold knob at the end of an iron railing outside Buckingham Palace. But there were too many air bubbles. Gold knobs are not suitable for rectangular stickers. They spent five minutes or so attempting to iron out the bubbles. They stood around the gold knob in silence. Finally, one of them said, "It's not working, is it?"
That afternoon, they called Omar and told him that, on top of the cost of removing the posters and the £18,000 extra security charge, they wanted to renegotiate the car-parking facilities. This was a strange new twist. Omar sent Anjem to the Arena to explain that, firstly, the posting could only have been the work of an unknown band of supporters. Omar was just a simple man. He couldn't control the enthusiasm of all the Muslim people.
"But, Omar," I said, "your phone number was printed on the bottom of the leaflets."
"Do you know my phone number?" said Omar.
"Yes," I said.
"And how did you first find it," he asked, "all those months ago?"
"The phone book," I said.
"Exactly," said Omar.
"Ah," I said. "Clever."
And in response to the Arena's second demand: What possible need could there be for security guards at an educational conference on Islamic affairs? All this talk of bombs and terrorism and extremists was just lies generated by media infidels.
And finally, everyone, Islamic fundamentalists included, had an inalienable right — by law — to park their cars.
Omar was confident that these arguments were watertight.
There are more Muslims in southeast London than anywhere else in Europe. The vast majority of them are horrified by Al Muhajiroun. They believe the group only generates prejudice against all Muslims in the West.
Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed is the leader of Al Muhajiroun. He's a Syrian living in Britain on state benefits. What he wants is a Holy War that is unashamedly violent.
Omar hadn't eaten properly in days — just potato chips and chocolates and fig rolls. His health was suffering. And he was getting woken up in the middle of the night by anonymous phone calls. "Enough is enough. You fundamentalists are going to pay the price. You are dead meat."
"Very silly messages," said Omar. "But the one that came last night had an Arabic accent. 'If the rally goes ahead, we will blow it up, you traitors.'"
But in spite of this, I'd never seen Omar quite so happy.
He was asked to appear on a local London television discussion program called Thursday Night Live. The producers told Omar that it would be an intellectual and evenhanded debate about the issues surrounding the rally. Omar was excited.
The host, whose name is Nicky Campbell, was wandering through the audience holding a microphone. He pointed it at random shouting men, and their amplified cries drifted briefly above the general noise. Omar sat, very quiet and still, on a stage.
"The gentleman in the striped shirt," said Nicky Campbell, passing the microphone across.
"I don't wanna get into depth about Islamic or Islam and all that," he said, "but I believe if anyone comes into this country, like this geezer 'ee's on benefit — I think if you're gonna be in this country, you should be British." There was thunderous applause. "Not Islamic or Islam or nothing, but British."
Nicky Campbell said, "How much money in benefit are you getting every week?"
"One hundred and fifty pounds," replied Omar softly. You could barely hear him over the shouting.
"If you wanna change something," interrupted the man in the striped shirt, "you wanna get a job!" There were howls of support from the audience. "Not ponce down the bleedin' DHSS."
"I used to have a job," replied Omar, "and many people like you worked for me."
"Well, go down the corner shop and get one then," said the man in the striped shirt.
Nicky Campbell intervened. "OK," he said. "The man in the front row with the glasses."
"We have our laws, and all that," he said, "so shouldn't it be a simple thing? As in Rome, do as the Romans do. You're a bloody terrorist and you should swim home to — "
His final words were drowned out by howls of approval.
"Did you see me on TV last night?" he said, shaking his head. "My God!"
"Were you upset?" I asked.
"Oh, no," said Omar. "It was very silly. Did you see them?"
The offices were packed as always with supporters and news crews from around the world waiting to interview him.
"You know, Jon," he said, "there have always been plans. And the first two plans have already been put into operation. Plan A was to announce the rally, and we announced the rally. Plan B was to shake up the entire world, and we have shaken up the entire world."
"How many plans are there in total?" I asked.
"Four plans," said Omar.
"So you're now on to Plan C?" I asked.
"That's right," said Omar.
"What's Plan C?" I asked.
"I will tell you now," said Omar, "because we are ready to implement it. OK. Do you know how many journalists have asked to interview me and have requested a press pass for the event of the rally?"
"Six hundred and thirty-four," I said.
"Exactly," said Omar. "I don't think that any member of Parliament, or even Lady Diana herself, had this many journalists requesting a press pass."
"What has this got to do with Plan C?" I asked him.
"OK," said Omar. "Today, I will announce that all journalists are banned from entering the London Arena."
Omar grinned. He looked at me to gauge my response to Plan C. I was confused.
"Why?" I said. "What's wrong with letting them in?"
"It will be a Muslim-only conference," says Omar. "Ha ha! What do you think of that?"
"I think it's a little bit of a shame," I said, "and I don't quite understand the rationale behind it."
"It is a Muslim-only conference," said Omar, a little sharply.
At lunchtime, Omar and Anjem disappeared again into a room together. Then they reappeared, looking grave. Omar cleared his throat. He had something he wanted to say. The room fell silent. Omar didn't announce it as such, but this was Plan D.
"The rally," said Omar, "has been cancelled. It is over. There will be no rally. They have blackmailed us. The London Arena have blackmailed the Muslims. They wanted to charge the maximum cost of security. Eighteen thousand pounds. They know we can't afford this sort of money. So do not blame us for the cancellation. We were blackmailed. Any questions?"
"Are you disappointed?" I asked Omar.
"Oh, no," said Omar. "It is a great victory for Muslims worldwide. It is a victory because we said we would shake up the world, and we shook up the world. We promised it would become historical rally and it has become historical rally. It blew up the whole world."
"And financially?" I asked. "Has it been an expensive endeavor?"
"Oh, no," said Omar. "I am entitled to a full refund from the London Arena."
As word of the cancellation spread, rumors began to circulate that Omar would have his rally after all, but at a different location.
"Is there going to be a march in the streets?" asked the journalists. "Somebody mentioned Hyde Park."
"We will have our rally," said Omar. "Speaker's Corner. Hyde Park. Ten-thirty on Sunday morning. Come along. The world's press will be there."
"And what about your supporters?" I asked. "What about the audience?"
There was a moment's pause.
"They are very welcome to come along too," said Omar, "of course."
I spotted Omar. He was surrounded by film crews. Although he had often said he would relish the opportunity to die on the battlefield, security was tight today. Omar's people were holding walkie-talkies and eyeing passersby as if they were potential assassins. I waved a hello, but Omar didn't respond. Now he was at the center of world events, our relationship had cooled a little. He didn't need me anymore.
I noticed Mohammed, one of Omar's teenage sons, in the crowd. He was standing alone. He looked a little anxious and he seemed not to be sharing in the excitement of the day. He told me that he had seen the movie Malcolm X on video a few nights before, and he recognized some worrying parallels between this story and his father's.
"You see what happened to Malcolm X?" said Mohammed. "Too much publicity, and you see what happened? Bang."
"Is that what your dad's becoming?" I asked.
"I didn't exactly like that video," he said. "Even Mum says she's worried. But it's all in the hands of God. I guess." Mohammed paused, sadly. "I guess," he said, "it's all in the hands of Allah."
Then there was a shrill noise to our left, screeching and catcalls. Everyone looked over. We saw a mass of pink flags surrounded by a police escort. It was Outrage, the gay rights group, who'd arrived for a counterdemonstration, a Queer Fatwa. They held placards sentencing Omar to 1,000 YEARS OF RELENTLESS SODOMITICAL TORMENT.
"Al Muhajiroun!" they chanted. "Anti-gay! Anti-women! Anti-you!"
The TV crews abandoned Omar en masse to film the Queer Fatwa.
"That's the decline of this nation," Omar announced to the few journalists still listening to him.
One of Omar's young followers, a teenager with a wispy beard and a Jihad baseball cap, spotted me watching the Queer Fatwa.
"You cannot put the homosexuals in Omar's life story," he said, furiously. "No way. If you do that, you will get so many death threats. You will get more death threats than the entire State of Israel gets. Which is two or three billion, actually."
"Just if I put Outrage in Omar's life story?" I said.
"No way," he said, "can you do that."
This worried me. Whenever I told people I was spending a year with Omar Bakri, they invariably looked concerned and said, "But what about the Fatwas?" I had shrugged these concerns off. But now a Muslim extremist had actually said the words death threat to me. Admittedly, it wasn't a tangible death threat, per se, more a death threat precursor. But that was still one step closer to a death threat than I'd ever hoped to come. I felt the need for some comforting words from Omar, but I couldn't get anywhere near him for all his bodyguards.
"I would love nothing more than to get a job," Omar told me over the phone. "But how can I, with all the terrible publicity your media gives me?"
"So you've lost your offices and you've lost your unemployment benefit," I said. "You've lost everything."
"I have lost every material thing in this life," said Omar, "but I have not lost my belief or my struggle or the cause I believe in. I may not have money but I have dignity."
"Omar," I said, "there's something I'm worried about which I wanted to talk through with you."
"One of your followers said that if I put Outrage in your story, I would get two or three billion death threats."
"Ah," said Omar. "They are terrible people. They are always putting death threats on people, those homosexuals."
"No, no," I explained. "It wasn't the homosexuals who put a death threat on me. It was one of your people. I was wondering if you could put in a word for me. Smooth things over."
"I don't talk to homosexuals," Omar replied.
"It wasn't the homosexuals," I said, exasperated. "It was a young man, with a wispy beard. And he was wearing a Jihad baseball cap."
There was a long silence.
"There are a lot of people with beards," said Omar, finally. "And a lot of people wearing Jihad baseball caps."
There was another silence.
"Omar," I said, "I can point him out to you. I don't know his name, but I've often seen him standing next to you."
"Jon," said Omar, quietly, "this cannot have happened. No Muslim would ever put a death threat onto anybody. Anyway. I've got to go now. Goodbye, Jon."
"Goodbye, Omar," I muttered.
"When you put all those people together," said Omar, "you have an army. Oh, yes, there is a time when a military struggle must take place in the U.K. Jihad. It's called 'Conquering.' One day, without question, the U.K. is going to be governed by Islam. The Muslims in Britain must not be naive. They must be ready to defend themselves militarily. The struggle, as I always say, is a struggle between two civilizations, the civilization of man against the civilization of God."
We were driven to the Jihad training camp, a well-stocked gym in a scout hut at a forestry center. Snow lay on the ground. Inside, a young man wearing boxing gloves was beating a punching bag, and Omar immediately instructed him to focus his assault.
"On the head," he said. "That's it. The head! Easy. Easy. OK, stop now. Rest, rest! You kill him! You kill him!"
The group laughed, and I laughed too.
I was standing in one corner, with my back against the wall. I found this situation slightly uncomfortable. And then, apropos of nothing, Omar made an announcement to the group.
"Look at me!" he said. "Here I am with an infidel. Jon" — Omar paused for effect — "is a Jew."
There was an audible gasp, followed by a long silence.
Of all the locations in which Omar could have chosen to disclose this sensational revelation, a packed Jihad training camp in the middle of a forest was not the place I would have hoped for. I found myself searching for the fastest path to the door.
"Are you really a Jew?" said someone, eventually.
"Well," I said, "surely it is better to be a Jew than an atheist?"
There was a silence.
"No, it isn't," said a voice from the crowd.
"When did you know that I was Jewish?" I asked Omar.
"From the beginning," he said. "I could see it in your eyes. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Well," I said. "You know — "
"You are ashamed to be a Jew?" said Omar. "You deny it?"
"No," I said.
"I am not offended that you are a Jew," said Omar. "We are all Semites. If you were Israeli, if you were Zionist, that is a different matter. But what offends me is that you hide it. You assimilate. That you have no pride."
"I am proud," I said, unconvincingly
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