The case of Abu Hamza al-Misri exposes the futile policy of resorting to indiscriminate violence that violates core Islamic principles and ends up serving imperialism.
The show trials — past and current — of the legendary Finsbury Park imam are a travesty of justice. At the same time, his physical injuries and ongoing persecution are stark reminders of how pursuing violent revolution backfires.
Some Muslims applaud any attacks against Western targets, even if there is “collateral damage” involving innocent civilians. The larger-than-life figures who represent this unfortunate trend are Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Their justification — anyone assisting or even in the proximity of kafirs is fair game — derives from Wahhabism, though whether Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab would have blessed the violence they commit is doubtful.
The untargeted violence perpetrated by the al-Qaeda types has nothing to do with Islam, “If anyone slays a human being — unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth — it shall be as though he had slain all mankind” (5:32). Their thinking is a direct result of Enlightenment thinking, imported from the imperialist powers along with the weapons to carry it out. Their understanding of reality — their “map” — came to include the “enlightened” Western mapmaker over time.
Their mass violence in the imperial centers and/or against the local pseudo-Muslim leaders representing imperial interests is intended to provoke revolutionary war both by inciting the oppressors and the oppressed into reacting aggressively. They need merely point to World War I & II as justification for the legitimate “enlightened” use of mass killing of innocents.
Even though these strategies are both immoral and counterproductive, it is important to understand why some Muslims still respect these self-styled leaders and Muslim youth commit themselves to them. In the first place, it is because such acts give lots of “bang for their buck.” They provide free advertising for one’s cause, and a tenet of modern “enlightened” advertising “Any publicity is good publicity.”
Another equally compelling reason is because, even as they adopted many of the imperialists’ arms and strategies, they nonetheless act from selfless motives, a willingness to sacrifice themselves in the belief that they are promoting the welfare of the Ummah.
The personal morality of such jihadists is very different from that of the imperialists. In fact, that is what the rich civilizational religion is reduced to for them — imitating what they perceive as the Prophet’s (pbuh) personal behavior, be it in manner of dress, day-to-day actions, or self-sacrifice in defending the Ummah with arms.
In reducing Islam to physical signs of devotion, ignoring the broader political thinking necessary to realize the goal of establishing Islam as the governing principle of society, these self-styled jihadists inadvertently serve imperialism with their rigid thinking, promoting chaos and death primarily in the Muslim world, and blackening Islam in the eyes of both Muslims and non-Muslims.
At the same time, they build their own following through personal moral uprightness and incorruptibility. They are today’s equivalent of the anarchist terrorists of 19th century and the Western militant radical leftists from the 1960s on (for example, Badder Meinhof in Germany), who spurned the trappings of modern consumerism, living simple lives, pursuing their quixotic strategy of undermining capitalism through high-profile acts of violence.
For instance, Bin Laden fasted (the full-day dry fast) two days a week throughout his adult life in the severe desert climate of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and lived with no luxuries, giving away his many millions of dollars of wealth to support individuals in need and the causes he believed in.
The trial in New York of Egyptian-born British citizen Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (b. 1958), also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, that opened last month highlights this dilemma. Abu Hamza lost his hands and one eye in jihad-related activity in Afghanistan (possibly training to build bombs), when it was the West’s policy to support jihadists of all colors in such activities. He — inconveniently — did not abandon his militancy when Soviet troops left Afghanistan, and preached fiery sermons as the imam at Finsbury Park Masjid in London from 1996 until he was ousted in 2003, after which he defiantly continued to hold services on the street outside the masjid.
The masjid had become a magnet for young radicals, including Algerians who had fled after Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front elected in December 1991 was prevented from assuming power with Western connivance. The end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989 was inspiring Muslims around the world to work together to throw off their neocolonial masters, and the Western-backed Algerian coup was part of the new policy of subduing Islam now that the “communist menace” was defeated.
Abu Hamza’s eloquence and popularity also attracted Algerians from the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA), who claimed to be fighting for an Islamic Algeria, but were infiltrated by the Algerian secret service intent on discrediting the opposition through the indiscriminate murder of civilians. Though Abu Hamza himself eventually realized the GIA was part of a campaign to blacken the Islamists, he nonetheless remained an enthusiastic supporter of Bin Laden’s efforts to resist imperialism by promoting violent jihad around the world. He did not hide his activities, and in the post-9/11 world, Abu Hamza became an easy target in the “war on terror.” He was arrested by British police in 2004 when the US was trying to extradite him, and in 2006 a British court sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment.
What were his crimes? They amounted to lauding Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks, encouraging “selfless” men of “good character” to go to training camps in Afghanistan, inspiring the men later convicted of the failed 21/7 London bombings in 2005 (though there is no proof he even personally spoke to them), and having a “terrorist handbook” in his home.
After enduring seven years of prison on these specious charges, in 2012 he was extradited to the US as a “terrorist facilitator with a global reach,” accused of plotting to set up a terror camp in rural Oregon (though he had never been in the US), and providing a satellite phone to the eventual kidnapper of British and Australian tourists in Yemen in 1998 (was the British prosecutor napping in 2006?).
As the latest trial opened, his US lawyer, Joshua Dratel, noted that Western governments, including the US, and his client were once on the same side, fighting in defence of Muslims in Afghanistan and in Bosnia against the Serbs. Dratel, who is Jewish, would not be defending Abu Hamza if he was promoting anti-Jewish hatred, which he was accused of during his UK trial. While Abu Hamza’s views were extreme, Dratel said, it was not illegal to hold them. At one point, he likened Abu Hamza to Nelson Mandela, who was “once considered a terrorist. Now he’s an icon.”
But Dratel did not draw the logical conclusion that it was the West that suddenly decided its erstwhile allies were now “terrorists;” that the original alliance of empire with Islamists was an unholy pact; that Abu Hamza is right to resist the US and Israel; that they are the main promoters of terrorism around the world, training and arming armies and mercenaries to promote empire and undermine Islam; and that it is hypocrisy of the highest order to victimize a Muslim fighter who was once an ally of convenience, but who is now inconvenient. Referring to Abu Hamza, the Sunday Times at least admits to the “dimwitted and wildly ill-considered attempt over the past… to exploit radical Islam.”
How did such a brave and principled man, with charisma and talent, end up sacrificing his life on the altar of imperialism?
Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, in A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with al-Qaeda (2011), provides a surprisingly sympathetic picture of his “terrorist” kidnappers. UN Special Envoy to Niger, in December 2008 he was kidnapped in Niger (ironically, after visiting the Canadian-owned Samira Hill Gold Mine). The kidnappers showed the kidnappees Western atrocities, “our side’s methodically applied, officially sanctioned, and so casually administered barbarity… officially sanctioned abuse and torture. Fowler was shocked and concludes, “If we were capable of such outrages, then we had indeed strayed into truly dangerous ethical territory.” He criticizes the post-9/11 West for “perverting the law and sullying the reputation of our friends and neighbors — perversions that have done and continue to do the West incalculable harm throughout the world. [We are] guilty by such association. And Louis (Guay) and I were reaping the consequences.”
Fowler was impressed by the kidnappers’ “absolute commitment to what they perceived to be [Islam’s] fundamental principles, including jihad — to which a growing number of Muslims refer as the “Sixth Pillar of Islam.” [T]heir viciousness appeared to be neither arbitrary nor casual. Their every act was considered and needed to be justifiable in terms of their chosen path of jihad.” This was a “no-holds-barred jihad but [they] did not steal cookies” from relief packages sent from Burkina Faso and Mali presidents. It was “at that point that I really appreciated the depth and the single-mindedness of their commitment to jihad and the breadth of the cultural gap between us. “Democracy” my kidnappers insisted, in part because of their perception of our fickle attachment to it, is “your religion.” “You love democracy when it suits you.” Fowler agrees that the West misuses its democracy propaganda, supporting the overthrow of democracy in Algeria in 1992, and rejecting the election of Hamas in occupied Palestine in 2006.
Fowler admired and befriended several of his captors, and clearly admired the kidnappers’ leader Mukhtar Belmokhtar (who like Abu Hamza lost an eye in Afghanistan). He is convinced al-Qaeda will continue, that many young recruits will continue to commit themselves, not concerned with long life (their options in the Muslim world are bleak), but rather “authenticity and martyrdom.”
In the face of desperate poverty and injustice, violent resistance to imperialism is not going away, just as the sincere belief of Muslims in their faith will not go away. But violence leads to blowback for the perpetrator. There is no public honor allowed for him whatever his personal probity.
Abu Hamza’s charismatic sermons attracted the same selfless young men of “good character” who were a decade earlier feted by Reagan in the White House, funded, trained and armed by US and British “jihadists for capitalism.” Abu Hamza’s jihadism was kosher then. The same activities — false travel documents, weapons training — that were a few years previously promoted by MI5 and the CIA were suddenly verbotten, and the selfless young men were suddenly terrorists in the eyes of the law. How was Prince Charles to know he was inaugurating a “center for terrorism” when he opened Finsbury Park Masjid in 1994?
The “good guys” were no longer the mujahideen, but MI5’s paid informers, who were rewarded by their secret service handlers for testifying that at the masjid volunteers who fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Algeria were boasting of their exploits. Many younger worshippers were deeply impressed by the “war stories.” Well, yes, and these war stories a few short years prior to that were enthusiastically promoted in the mainstream media, the very Daily Mirror, New York Times, et al. that now ridicule and defame the hapless “Hook” imam.
Eric Walberg is author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization (http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergII.html)