by Fahad Ansari (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 1, Safar, 1429)
Last month, five young Muslims in Britain were cleared of terrorism charges on appeal, in the latest of a series of trials of Muslims in Britain. FAHAD ANSARI discusses the implications of the case and the growing criminilizations of Islam in Britain.
On February 13, the Court of Appeal in Britain quashed the terrorism convictions of five young Muslim men who had been jailed for possession of what was considered to be “extremist” literature. Aitzaz Zafar, Usman Malik, Mohammed Raja, Awaab Iqbal and Akbar Butt had been convicted last year of “possessing articles for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism”, in contravention of section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The men were accused of visiting extremist websites and chatrooms, and of downloading a significant amount of “extremist material” as to reasonably suggest that it was connected with terrorism.
Pic: Clockwise from left: Mohammed Raja, Usman Malik, Aitzaz Zafar, Akbar Butt and Awaab Iqbal
The ruling has been celebrated by defence solicitors, human-rights activists and civil libertarians alike as a victory for justice and common sense. They argue that when drafting section 57, it was the intention of parliament that it would be used to prosecute those found in possession of materials needed for specific terrorism plots, such as blueprints of buildings and explosives. What has actually been happening in recent years, however, has been the use of section 57 to arrest, detain and prosecute Muslims found in possession of literature and audio-video material discussing jihad and conflicts around the world. Some of those arrested under this provision, such as Zafar and co., have been arrested for visiting extremist websites and chatrooms or for downloading such material from the internet. Through the use of section 57, certain books by renowned Islamic scholars, such as Sheykh Abdullah Azzam, have become criminalised although the same publications could be purchased from Amazon.co.uk until recently. More often than not, those arrested have no links with terrorism or with jihad and possessed the items solely out of intellectual curiosity.
While the judgment is to be welcomed, we must not become over-excited about its implications. Although the five men won their case, in reality their victory is on a technicality. For the men to be found guilty under section 57, the prosecution would have had to prove that the material possessed was directly connected to a “specific act of terrorism” which was to occur in the future. In this case, it was alleged that the possession of al-Qa‘ida propaganda material was for the purposes of inciting the men to travel to Pakistan, train there and, if necessary, fight against government forces in Afghanistan. Lord Chief Justice Phillips held that here the link was too tenuous and that it could not be said with any certainty that this material was to be used for this or any other specific act of terrorism. The judge went further, though, in holding that the very phrase in the section (“an article for the purposes of terrorism”) is “so imprecise as to give rise to uncertainty”, and called for the law to be curtailed.
But what is particularly interesting is that, despite such criticisms, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has decided not to appeal the decision. When the CPS, which has appealed court judgments on everything from control orders to internment, decides not to appeal a ruling, it is essential to reflect upon its possible reasoning.
The answer is very simple. British Muslims now live in a country where downloading material about jihad from the internet and visiting jihadi websites is possible without facing prosecution under section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000. However, they also now live in a Britain where these activities can lead to prosecution under the far broader section 58 of the same Act. Section 58 makes it an offence to possess information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. Unlike section 57, the material does not have to be possessed for the purpose of carrying out a “specific act of terrorism” but need only be useful to anyone planning an act of terrorism; i.e. there does not need to be a direct link. It was under section 58, not section 57, that Samina Malik, the “Lyrical Terrorist”, was prosecuted; if a case like hers arose again, the result is likely to be the same. If Zafar, Malik, Raja and co. had been prosecuted under section 58, it is almost certain that they would still be in prison today. Consequently, the effect of the judgment will not be that there are fewer prosecutions for such “crimes”; rather, they are likely to increase, albeit under section 58 rather than section 57.
Further, the ruling will have no effect whatsoever on any allegation made after April 2006, when Parliament made it a crime to encourage or glorify terrorism and to disseminate terrorist publications. The law has been drafted in such a way as to remove any element of intention from the crime. Therefore it is likely that Muslims merely found in possession of items like Join the Caravan and The Absent Obligation will be prosecuted for “encouraging terrorism”, irrespective of whether or not these books were read, used to incite, or used to prop up one’s computer monitor.
Muslims must not be under any illusions that Islamic texts, scriptures and doctrines, particularly those concerning issues of jihad and shari‘ah, will be any the less scrutinised as a result of this judgement. This is but a single battle that the CPS has lost, and that on a technicality. The Muslim community has already lost far greater battles in the courts, which have placed the Qur'an itself on trial.
Take, for example, the trial of Abu Hamza al-Misri. Throughout his trial, Abu Hamza was prosecuted with words he used from the Qur'an and the ahadith of the Prophet (saw). Muslims, distracted by their own in-fighting and bickering, were too short-sighted to realise it and distanced themselves from the trial, with some even welcoming his ultimate conviction. What they failed to comprehend was that his conviction set a precedent whereby certain ayaat and ahadith had become criminalised.
Ayaat such as 2:216 (“Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not”) and 9:111 (“Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs [in return] is the garden [of Paradise]: they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain...”) were used repeatedly against him in court. Evidence of his inciting hatred against Jews came in the form of his quoting ahadith of the Prophet (saw) regarding the end of times, such as where he stated, “The Hour will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews.” Irrespective of our opinions on Abu Hamza and his ideas, what we must never allow to happen is for our texts to be put on trial.
For those who accuse this writer of scaremongering, it may be useful to consider the fact that Boris Johnson, currently a candidate for the mayoralty of London, is on record as having said regarding the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that “If this bill makes any sense at all, it must mean banning the reading, in public or private, of a great many passages of the Koran itself.” Patrick Sookhdeo of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, an advisor to British and NATO military officers, also called in 2006 for prohibiting one Qur’an-translation, The Noble Koran: a New Rendering of its Meaning in English, because “it sets out a strategy for killing the infidels and for warfare against them.”
In September 2007 the front page of the Times, followed by several pages of follow-up stories inside, discussed the “homegrown cleric who loathes the British” – a Deobandi scholar, Sheykh Riyadh ul Haq. Going so far as to transcribe five of Sheykh Riyadh's lectures on their website, the Times journalists were ruthless in their attempts to discredit the Sheykh and his school of thought. Sheykh Riyadh has delivered hundreds of lectures throughout Britain on a variety of topics, ranging from the sins of the tongue and upholding the rights of one's parents to the Day of Judgment. Yet the Times chose to select his lectures on issues of jihad, the Ummah and the suffering of Muslims around the world. In cherry-picking his quotes for its front page, the Times included the following oft-repeated ayah of the Qur'an as an unacceptable statement: “It is He who has sent His Messenger [Muhammad] with the religion of truth so that it may prevail over all other religions, even though the disbelievers may dislike it, even though the mushrikin [the idolaters] may dislike it.” Also considered an extremist statement were the final ayaat of surah Baqarah, in which Muslims ask Allah for victory over the disbelievers.
There is no doubt but that an attempt is being made to push Muslims away from certain aspects of Islam that are considered unacceptable in the West. Whereas this was previously being done subtly by the creation of government-friendly Muslim organisations and community leaders, it is clear now that the gloves have come off and it is the Qur'an and ahadith that are under attack. Section 58 is only one tool in this project, to frighten Muslims off exploring certain elements of the deen. Our role as Muslims in the West is to stand up against this and to protect the integrity of the deen of the fitrah. To disbelieve in one ayah of the Qur'an is to commit an act of kufr. What, then, of those of us who stand by and allow it to be misrepresented, boycotted and distorted bit by bit, ayah by ayah?
No doubt Allah will protect the Qur'an, as He has stated in Surah al-Hijr (15:9), but what will the Muslims' answer be on the Day of Judgment, when we are asked why we remained silent?