Islamic fundamentalist Omar Bakri Muhammmad recently contacted Asharq al-Awsat expressing a desire to be interviewed. Due to what Bakri described as security reasons the interview was conducted by phone. Bakri also reveled that due to the accusation in the media, Syrian authorities are demanding to see him. In this regard, Bakri offered to submit to Syrian questioning provided this is done in Lebanon and in the presence of the Lebanese Public Security.
Bakri said that some of the Muslims in Britain betrayed some of their brothers and handed them over to be killed and their betrayal boomeranged. He held them responsible for the odd fatwas they issued because of their cooperation with British intelligence. He also held clergymen in Lebanon and Syria responsible for such fatwas but he declined to reveal names. He said that he wanted to talk to the press based on the advice of Lebanese Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani.
Bakri condemned the killing of innocent people but he refused to specify who is innocent. He called for opening "the gate of jihad in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq to liberate the land from the British and the Americans." He denied that he worked for British intelligence, saying that had he done so they would have been pleased with him. The following is the text of the telephone interview with Bakri:
Q) What are your reasons for refusing a face-to-face interview?
A) Because, frankly speaking, I am shy and my meeting with the press makes me blush. Can I not hold the interview by telephone?
(Q) But we are talking to you from Beirut and there is no reason to hold a telephone interview.
(A) In Britain, I always held face-to-face interviews but now I give interviews only on the telephone.
(Q) But you told me before we started recording that you refuse to give live face-to-face interviews for security reasons.
(A) Yes, I refuse for security reasons. I cannot move around. I have no problem with Lebanese security but it seems that in Lebanon, there are people who hold viewpoints that oppose mine and I cannot reveal my location to anyone.
(Q) Does this mean that you are afraid of certain elements?
(A) Of course, I fear all foreign intelligence, especially those who asked to interrogate me (the Syrians). I have no problem in Lebanon. I can go to any Lebanese security department. I know perfectly that when they interrogate me they will start from scratch because of media accusations that are 60 years old. The issue involved many things that are figments of their imagination. To explain this I decided to meet with the Arab press, including Asharq al-Awsat.
(Q) Why do you fear those who asked to question you?
(A) I do not fear those who asked to interrogate me. The Lebanese security forces questioned me and I have no objection to being questioned by Syrian security in Beirut. If they have, any evidence against me then let them bring it. However, to say that I escaped to evade accusations is completely incorrect.
(Q) Before leaving London, did you expect that you would be prevented from returning?
(A) Before leaving London, I held a news conference. It was recorded. I bid farewell to all our young men in London and kissed them goodbye. I left the news conference after saying that I would be leaving the day after tomorrow. I did not run away or disappear. I Left via Heathrow Airport where security measures are very strict and flew on the Lebanese Middle East Airlines. I decided to leave because the Muslim community in Britain is considered the voice, ears, and eyes of the British Government. This community allows itself to join the British intelligence, security, and army. Therefore, I consider them responsible before God because of their odd fatwas.
(Q) Do you blame the Muslim community in Britain?
(A) No, I accuse those recruited by the British Government and they have to account for their actions before God. Today after my Muslim brothers were killed, they turned against the others and the British Government accused them of being anti-Semitic. I expect they will receive blows on the head. They sold out their Muslim brothers and they themselves will be sold tomorrow.
I left and made a decision not to return. My wife and children will follow me once I rent an apartment to live in.
(Q) What are your plans in Lebanon? What will you do?
(A) First of all, I will rent an apartment to live in. Perhaps I will later buy a mule-driven cart and sell kerosene.
(Q) Seriously. Do you have any religious or educational plan for the future?
(A) I have a large belly. I will start by reducing my weight. Therefore, I will subject myself to some interrogations in order to lose the extra calories. Frankly speaking, I have no plans in Lebanon except to live with my family.
(Q) How will you live?
(A) I am not thinking of any particular profession and I do not have money. I will start my own business. In Britain, I lived on social security after my work permit was revoked in 1997. They started putting pressure on me and pursuing me because of the Islamic contributions. After they withdrew my work permit, they started giving me my social security money, like others. Today I find it difficulty renting an apartment because of the media campaign against me. Nobody wants to deal with me. Everyone welcomes me at the beginning but later they tell me: had you been different it would have been possible to deal with you but your name is linked to fundamentalists and terrorists. Therefore, my life has become impossible and I am no longer able to move about freely.
(Q) Are you facing problems managing your normal everyday affairs?
(A) Of course, I have a problem but I am proud to be in my country as a Muslim and I am not sad about leaving British soil and I do not regret leaving its system and foreign policy. I was openly fighting it day and night.
(Q) Does your fight differ from that of other fundamentalists?
(A) I am a daring man. I used to say that British foreign policy is a hostile policy and Muslims must defend their countries against any British or US invasion, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, or southern Lebanon. That is my position. I oppose British attempts to win the support of Muslims by saying that their forces in Iraq are friendly and allied forces. The British security authorities have officially asked the Islamic groups to make such statements. I will not give this concession because I consider it to be conceding my religion. My stance is clear. My brothers and the young Muslim men there will not accept such claims.
(Q) But you said that you are against killing innocent people and have nothing to do with the Al-Qaeda Organization. Now you are calling for jihad. How do you explain your position?
(A) I have often repeated that I am against the killing of innocent people anywhere in the world but who are the innocent? I keep the answer to myself.
(Q) Who do you define as innocent?
(A) The innocent people are specified by Islam. I denounce killing innocent people regardless of who kills them. However, who are the innocent? I do not have to explain this issue.
(Q) Does this mean that you support killing those whom you consider guilty and those whom Islam as you understand it describes as not innocent?
(A) I support what the Sunni Muslim youths in Lebanon believe in.
(Q) What about killing in general?
(A) Sister, I do not say that I support killing in general. You said that.
(Q) But you alluded to a classification of innocent people. Does this mean that you support jihad in certain areas because of things that are being done against Islam?
(A) Do you think that the Palestinian resistance is not right?
(Q) I am not giving an opinion, I am asking about your point of view.
(A) I am against killing innocent people and I repeat this everywhere. This is my personal position.
(Q) Let us move to another topic. Why does the Syrian regime want to question you?
(A) I have never been in Syria but I never knew that the Syrian regime was looking for me except until it was reported in the press. If this regime wants to interrogate me, this regime can interrogate me through a Lebanese Government. They are welcome. I have no problem with Syria but I love my country and I do not see any reason to go to a neighboring country.
(Q) Why do you suppose that the Syrian authorities want to question you and considered you a threat to them?
(A) Because the press is looking for "scoops" and therefore, they are just issuing unjust accusations. I am perfectly certain that those who will read this interview tomorrow will say, Sheikh Omar, you are right.
(Q) But the issue is not confined to the press. Your problem created a controversial issue at a Lebanese cabinet session. Do you not think that the issue has a political or judicial aspect and not just merely a scoop?
(A) The political issue is based on 20-year old press accusations. All the Western press and the Arab press repeat the same accusations with certain extra touches. The independent minded Lebanese youth who left his home 27 years ago looking for work and safety has become an issue. They said that I went to Tripoli, northern Lebanon. They said that my mother is from Tripoli. I frankly tell you that I did not go to that city. They gave my mother another name. Frankly speaking, there are those in the press who concoct stories.
As for Syria, there is no official Syrian charge. I said that I was ready for questioning in the presence of Lebanese Public Security.
(Q) During your questioning by Lebanese Public Security, what were the main points on which they concentrated? Did they prevent you from making any certain movements?
(A) Not at all. They just asked for information to know who I was because of what was published in the press. I gave them what I had. I owned the Fustuq Company in London to sell computers from 1986 to 1997. My father was trading in livestock in Beirut. I come from a rich family.
(Q) Do you coordinate with any groups? Why did you go to the Fatwa Department before you were detained? What did they offer you there?
(A) I did not propose anything at the Fatwa Department and they did not offer anything to me. I went to meet with His Eminence Mufti Muhammad Rashid Qabbani and I told him that I was hiding from the police. I wanted to meet and consult with him about my problem because of the storm in a teacup that the media invented and eventually developed into a volcano. He advised me to talk with the press and that is what happened.
(Q) The media said that you have connections with British intelligence. How do you feel about this?
(A) If that were true, they would have been pleased with me because the British authorities and the House of Lords there openly call on people to cooperate with their intelligence. I consider those who work with any international apparatus apostates. Where did you get this information?
(Q) One cannot be considered an infidel if one conveys what the infidels say. I am just asking.
(A) Nevertheless, who conveys what the infidels say, must be certain about his question. I can direct at you a shameful charge and you will deny it and then the next day I will publish it with your response. How do you approve of this charge against your Muslim brother? Had what you said been true, they would have left me to stay in Britain. However, there are sheikhs in Lebanon — and I mention no names — who issued a fatwa that one can join the British intelligence and the British Army. This contradicts religion. I deny such charges.