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September 07, 2006

Desperately Seeking Celebrity: a visit to Al Muhajiroun's headquarters persuaded Roger Howard that participants on Big Brother and British-born Suicide Bombers have similar motivations - both are desperately seeking celebrity

Posted by Roger Howard

In June 2001, a visit to the London headquarters of the radical Islamist organisation Al Muhajiroun proved to be very revealing. Roger Howard found little evidence of interest in the Koran - but a great hunger for celebrity.

If you went to meet some Islamic militants at their headquarters, what would you expect their most highly prized possession to be? A copy of the Koran? Some pictures of innocent Muslim men, women and children the world over suffering at the hands of brutal oppressors? A personal memento of jihad?

That, at least, is what I was expecting when some years ago I made my way to Tottenham to meet members of the British radical outfit, Al Muhajiroun, then led by the well-known "Sheikh" Omar Bakhri Mohammed. It was the summer of 2001, and I was researching a story for a defence journal about the rapidly growing links between British Muslims and the insurgency in Kashmir, where young, radicalised Britons were then heading in increasing numbers to fight the Indian army. Bakri claimed to have a number of activists in Pakistan, and I thought it was worth chasing the lead.

The movement's bland "headquarters" - a large, ground floor office funded, in all likelihood, by the British taxpayer - were much as I expected. So too were the handful of its members who met me there, most but not all of whom were young Asian men in their early twenties, while Bakri himself quickly lived up to his reputation as a fanatical talker, and within minutes of my arrival had launched himself into a tirade on the West's injustice towards Muslims the world over.

One thing that greatly surprised me, however, was that a copy of the Koran was nowhere to be seen in the office. Nor, for that matter, did Bakri and his young followers even quote its text to support their claims, a complete contrast with their Pakistani counterparts who in my own experience generally make frequent Koranic allusion and in whose rooms the Koran takes pride of place. In fact anyone who today listens to the tape recording I made of Bakri's diatribe could be forgiven for thinking that the man who described himself as "the Judge of the Sharia Court of Britain" really had almost no knowledge or even interest in the sayings and practices of the Prophet Mohammed. He did, of course, make constant references to the suffering of Muslims the world over - mainly in the Middle East, Bosnia and Kashmir - and there were photos and images of their plight, in the form of large posters, on the walls. But of the Koran he said nothing.

As Bakri finished his long monologue, I expected him and his supporters to take me aside and perhaps tell me the story of what had happened to innocent Muslim civilians caught in the crossfire of various conflicts, or how their organisation had alleviated their suffering. I was, however, proven completely wrong.

Far from telling me stories of suffering or of the Prophet Mohammed, the young adherents of Al Muhajiroun instead reached for what looked like an enormous book. Now they were suddenly smiling, their faces glowing with pride as they pointed to it and gestured me to take a look.

This was not a large copy of the Koran but a scrapbook that contained numerous press cuttings about their organisation. These supposedly devout Muslims slowly turned each page for me to see, wanting to share their glory and watching my reaction closely to make sure that I was properly impressed by what I now saw. The larger the article and the more damning the headline, the more proudly it was shown to me by these young men whose whole presence, demeanour and bearing had changed so visibly during these few minutes. Bakri was also watching and visibly crowed with delight, laughing out loud as the articles were displayed. "They hate me, the press!" he cried out, as his followers laughed with him.

After the newspaper cuttings came the DVDs. On a laptop, I was shown footage of Al Muhajiroun's public demonstrations in Luton and other places where "thousands" of their followers had taken to the streets to air their grievances and demand changes in the law. Most of this footage they had filmed themselves, but there were also sequences taken from local television broadcasts and these were shown to me with particular pride.

Everything about these fanatics suggested that more than anything they craved self-importance. They did not talk about the Koran but instead made constant references to terms such as "global jihad", "fighting America" and their "contacts in Afghanistan" and elsewhere that made them sound very important indeed. Bakri boasted openly about the numerous occasions he had been arrested, notably in 1991 when he appeared to incite fellow Muslims to assassinate John Major, and the special attention he and his organisation had always been given by the security services. All this, of course, was a huge achievement.

To an important degree, militant Islam in this country is not really about Islam at all but about ego. Bakri's organisation seemed to be part and parcel of the culture of fame and publicity that mass media has created in the Western world. Arguably the same impulse that prompts thousands of hopefuls to queue up to get a place on Big Brother is also driving others to join militant organisation whose very extremity gets them the attention they crave. For if we imagine that some of these young followers of Al Muhajiroun were given a stark choice between their membership of the organisation on the one hand and, on the other, being a participant on some television show or the subject of a newspaper article, a great number would barely hesitate in choosing the latter.

The same is true of other British-born radicals. Two of the 7/7 suicide bombers left behind "martyrdom" videotapes purporting to explain why they wanted to carry out their ghastly deeds. But if we just suppose that they had been unable to make these videos, or known that they would never be broadcast, would they still have been tempted to go ahead?

It is difficult not to be reminded of the mid-1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's administration temporarily sought to starve the IRA of "the oxygen of publicity" and forbade broadcasters to make even the barest mention of it. Thatcher and her advisers knew that the IRA's stature grew immeasurably every time it seized the headlines by committing some atrocity.

Could similar such steps be taken today? Could broadcasters and editors be forbidden from giving radical outfits the very publicity they crave? Of course such steps would be made much less effective by the internet, which Al Muhajiroun and other such groups have used very effectively, and because international networks, which would be unaffected by such a ban, are so easily viewed in this country. In any case, the stranglehold of human rights legislation and the culture that surrounds it would have to be broken first, before any such measures could even be considered.

This means that for the moment at least such a ban on publicity is probably better left to the discretion of editors, readers and viewers. Editors who insist on publicising the antics of clowns like Bakri Mohammed should be named and shamed, while members of the public should be encouraged to place their own embargo on the newspapers that do give them undue attention and thereby prompt impressionable young men to start looking with hopeful eyes at dangerous clowns like Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza.

Roger Howard is the author of What's Wrong with Liberal Interventionism: The Dangers and Delusions of the Interventionist Doctrine (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and Iran Oil: Petrodiplomacy and the Challenge to America (I B Tauris, 2006).

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