A search for unity
Omar Bakri Mohammed
Interview by Mahan Abedin
Omar Bakri Mohammed was born in Beirut in 1958. Throughout his adult life the cleric has been associated with various Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in the Al-Sham (Levant) region and the Pan-Islamic organization Hizbut Tahrir.
After being deported from Saudi Arabia in 1985 Bakri, arrived in the United Kingdom and helped establish the first Hizbut Tahrir (HT) cells in Britain. Bakri was a key leader of HT (UK branch) until 1996 when he left the organization. Afterwards, he established Al-Muhajiroun (the Emigrants) which was based on hardcore Salafi ideas and a strongly confrontational approach. Sheikh Omar Bakri also acted as the supreme judge of the sharia
court of the United Kingdom and the principal of the London School of Sharia.
Following the July 7, 2005, attacks on the London transportation system, Omar Bakri left the UK for Lebanon. He currently resides in Tripoli. From there he manages the Iqra Islamic Trust for Research and Islamic Studies and the Al-Muhajiroun branch in Beirut.
This interview was conducted on May 1, 2008, in Tripoli.
Mahan Abedin: Explain the circumstances behind your departure from the UK in August 2005?
Omar Bakri Mohammed: I left in August 2005 because I felt the British government had lost the ability to deal rationally with Muslim-related issues. I felt the government had violated the “Covenant of Security” (Aqd Al-Amaan) that had hitherto guaranteed peace between Muslims and the British state. The Covenant of Security made it duty-bound on the Muslims living in Britain and non-Muslim Britons to respect the life and property of each other. I felt this implicit treaty had been violated by the British government. The government was introducing legislation after legislation under new acts of terrorism that were designed to limit the freedom of Islamic thought and activities. For instance, the law against religious hatred made it impossible to condemn even devil worshippers, thus limiting the scope of Islamic activity. Moreover, the law against glorifying terrorism I felt was directed specifically towards my organization Al-Muhajiroun. Consequently I dissolved Al-Muhajiroun in October 2004 and because of the pressures many Muslim youths went underground. This was a classic case of the British government being unable to identify the real terrorists.
MA: At that time, in October 2004, did you anticipate an imminent attack on the UK?
OBM: Yes, al-Qaeda would always threaten countries before attacking them. In the past they have named and threatened Spain, Italy, the UK, Australia and other countries. Even those countries that have not been attacked I do think they will be targeted in due course. Al-Qaeda never makes an idle threat. Anyway, I was actively involved in community affairs at the time and increasingly I was coming across young men who no longer believed that the Covenant of Security was in force. In other words, they felt they were at war with the British state. Personally, I have never stopped believing in the Covenant of Security. I don’t think it is right for Muslims living in the UK to carry out attacks in Britain. But in Iraq and Afghanistan Muslims have the right to defend their life and property against the invaders, whoever they may be. Furthermore, the British government failed to understand the Islamic rulings governing attacks on Western soil. While the Covenant of Security prohibits Muslims living in the UK to carry out attacks it does not prevent Muslims from the outside to target the United Kingdom or any other country that is actively at war with Muslim peoples and countries. That is the correct Islamic approach.
MA: Did young men approach you for advice regarding the state of the Covenant of Security?
OBM: No, they would approach me to tell me that I was wrong. They would bring counter-arguments to advance the idea that it was permissible for Muslims living in the UK to attack Britain.
MA: These boys were aspiring terrorists themselves?
OBM: They wanted us to join them in calling for the nullification of the Covenant of Security. They had correctly identified the Covenant of Security as the greatest obstacle to staging a terrorist attack in the UK.
MA: But the Covenant of Security is problematic insofar as it permits non-residents to attack the UK.
OBM: But that is not my problem. My job is not to defend the British establishment. If they engage in a foolish foreign policy they should be willing to pay the price and face the consequences. My stance was that if I ever discovered a terrorist plot I would not condone the impending attack and I would try everything in my power to stop through advice and consultation but I would never ever report it to the British police. It is Haram (Prohibited) to betray the Ahlul Qiblah [people who face towards Mecca for prayers – ie Muslims] to a non-Muslim authority. But I also believe the 7/7 attacks revealed a failure on the part of the Muslim community. As a community we never sat together, I mean the different groups never sat together to discuss the core issues. Instead, some groups were quite happy for the tabloid media to attack groups such as Al-Muhajiroun or Abu Hamza.
They never listened to our side of the story; they never considered that the media was distorting our views and image as part of a plan to find scapegoats for an eventual attack on the UK. The sum effect of all this was that I did not feel that I could remain in the UK to carry out my Islamic duties. The environment had changed radically and I felt that I could no longer fulfill my Islamic obligation and that I could be more useful outside the country. So I decided to make hijra [emigrate] and continue my work from somewhere else.
MA: Did the police raid your house following the July 7 attacks?
OBM: Yes, they have raided my house on three occasions since I left the UK in August 2005. They raided my house in November 2005, February 2006 and again in 2007. In any case, my residence had been under 24-hour surveillance since 2001. The police had made my life very difficult for a number of years. From 2003 to 2005, I never slept at my home since it was under surveillance. Islam forbids me to sleep at a place which is being surveilled. So every day just before sunset I would leave my home for a place that I thought was safe and secure.
MA: Give an example of what happened during one of the occasions when police raided your home prior to your departure from the UK in August 2005.
OBM: For example, my home was raided in March 2004 by 22 police officers who occupied it from 4:30 in the morning to 22:00 in the evening. During this time they went through everything at my home and took away many of my possessions. These were not returned to me until a year later in March 2005.
MA: Describe the events immediately prior to your departure.
OBM: I made a press conference at the Holiday Inn Express at Chingford roundabout, which was well attended by the media, and announced that I have decided to leave the UK because I am no longer able to fulfill my Islamic obligation in this country. I left on the Sunday on a Middle East Airlines flight 201 from London Heathrow to Beirut directly.
MA: Did you not fear arrest at the airport?
OBM: I did not fear arrest because I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong in any country. I had always remained within the margin of the law because I observe the provisions of the Covenant of Security.
MA: Did anybody accompany you to the airport?
OBM: There were two brothers, one of whom was a Muslim solicitor. They were there to make sure that in the event of my arrest we were in a position to publicize the event as quickly and effectively as possible.
MA: Were you questioned at Beirut airport?
OBM: They asked me why I was coming back after such a long time. You see I had not been to Lebanon for 30 years. I said I was born in this country and the reason I had not returned during the 30-year period was because I had problems with the Syrian forces which had occupied Lebanon for 30 years. I told them that now that Syria has left Lebanon I feel safe to return. The Lebanese security at the Beirut Airport told me “welcome to your country” and assured me that there were no longer Syrians forces there to harass me.
MA: Do you believe you would have been arrested had you stayed in the UK?
OBM: Had I stayed I believe the British authorities would have arrested and deported me, but in order not to make a hero or martyr out of me, they would have deported 11 other innocent people as well. The British authorities wanted to show the public that they were taking tough action in the wake of the 7/7 bombings and deporting me and these men would have been a sufficient gesture from their point of view.
I believe they would have deported [cleric] Abu Qatada which would have been a silly move since he had nothing to do with our activities. During all the events and conferences we staged we would look at the causes and effects of terrorism objectively. We explained to people the causes of 9/11 and its ramifications. Maybe some people objected to our style and that is their prerogative. But we always operated within the framework of the law in our own unique and idiosyncratic manner.
MA: Apart from Abu Qatada who else would have been deported?
OBM: I believe the British security officials wanted to deport a number of Algerians and Libyans.
MA: To your knowledge, have any of these men been arrested and deported since your departure?
OBM: None of them have been deported to my knowledge. By leaving the UK I made it very difficult for the British authorities to carry out their plans. You see, they wanted to use me as a cover for deporting these brothers. By voluntarily leaving I deprived them of this cover. By leaving I wanted to prove to everyone that people like me, [cleric] Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada were part of the solution and not the problem. Through our activities, our meetings and our demonstrations we were able to contain and peacefully channel the energies and grievances of disgruntled and alienated Muslim youths to build awareness about Islam. Since the mid 1980s I had been working towards this objective in the UK. Had it not been for people like me there would have been many more attacks in the UK.
MA: Why did you establish Al-Muhajiroun in the UK and what do you think has been the group’s legacy?
OBM: The Divine Objectives of Al-Muhajiroun are:
To invite individuals, groups and the whole society to Islam to embrace it or to accept it as the political norm or a way of life.
To establish public awareness about Islam.
To institute the sharia.
To influence public opinion in favor of Islam and Muslims.
To unite Muslims in facing threats to the ummah on a global scale.
To create a “fifth column” community pressure group to work for the recreation of the caliphate globally.
I would like to add that in 2004 I did not disband the duties or the objectives of Al-Muhajiroun because these are Islamic duties and obligations which is not up to me or anyone else to disband. I just disbanded the administration and handed the infrastructure to a new team.
MA: But did you achieve that objective?
OBM: We did our best. I do believe that Allah, swt [Subhanahu wa-ta’ala – “glorious and exalted is He”] helped us to achieve many of the above divine objectives. Remember, when I came to the UK in 1985 people were talking about female circumcision and Halal meat, but when I left two decades later people were talking about Islam as a way of life and as the fastest-growing divine ideology. They were talking about the caliphate, the supremacy of Islam, the core issues afflicting the Muslim ummah and the meaning of jihad, This is a huge achievement that we secured in just two decades. No one can take these achievements away from us.
MA: But many other groups were involved in this consciousness-raising process.
OBM: Yes, everybody was playing their role. We were playing our role. But we were the most active group in the universities and had the greatest amount of contact with young Muslims. During
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