London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Today, Omar Bakri rejects being labeled as the Islamic fundamentalist who once led the al Muhajiroun and al Ghurabaa movements and prefers the title ‘expert in Islamist movements.’ In this interview with Asharq Al Awsat, the notorious preacher, who left Britain after 20 years for Lebanon following the 7/7 attacks, calls for establishing peace and the sparing of Muslim blood in what seems to be far removed from the heated slogans of the fundamentalists that he once led and the calls for establishing “Londonistan”.
Q: Many observers believe that the tone of your speeches that are delivered in Lebanon has changed and is more composed in comparison to the speeches delivered in London. What is the reason for this change?
A: My Islamic speeches have not changed. My interviews are characterized by politeness and composure coupled with firmness. At demonstrations and rallies, my speeches are strong. Of course, for every occasion there is a suitable address. A sincere observer of my live speeches in London would have noticed that they were characterized by originality, clarity, and firm ideas, and that they were completely different from what some western media conveyed after subjecting them to censorship, editing, and distortion that changed the meaning and distorted the ideas. This has been and remains the case in the British newspapers, as I have been exposed to a widespread media smear campaign in Britain. However, I think that the real cause [behind the perceived change] lies in the fact that some Lebanese media organizations have dealt with me in a transparent way that was not the case with many western media organizations, or even with the famous Arab television satellite channels, except in the interviews that were broadcast by the BBC channels and Sky News. There is no doubt that my appearance in the Lebanese media, with such transparency, has been my golden opportunity to respond to the media charges that the western media and newspapers accuse me of. It has been a great opportunity for me to speak to the people live on the air – as an expert on Islamist movements – without being defamed, and to be able to focus on the ideas rather than spending time rejecting lies. This used to happen in Britain a lot during interviews and people would think that the accusations were true if I did not refute them to save time in the interview. Lebanese newspapers and magazines have conducted many interviews with me without distorting or changing what I say. I was surprised by the sincerity of the Lebanese press, at least with me personally; despite the political and sectarian inclinations of these newspapers and magazines.
Q: Are you still committed to your previous statements, such as, ‘The flag of Islam will fly over Buckingham Palace and the White House,’ and ‘the magnificent 19’ [a reference to the 9/11 hijackers]?
A: I still am committed to, and proud of all the statements that I have made that have been published without being distorted. These statements are issued purely for the sake of God, and I ask God to accept them, and to add them to our share of good deeds on the Day of Judgment. These statements include inviting Queen Elizabeth, all MPs, and the British people in general to convert to Islam, my comment that the Islamic preaching will continue until the flag of Islam will fly over British Parliament, the royal palace, the White House, and the entire world, and my statement that a Muslim who plays an active role in preaching and who lives among non-Muslims in Britain or any other country is not allowed attack other people.
As for the statements that have been attributed falsely to me or to my followers, such as the statement that Islam permits the destruction of children’s schools, the killing of women, children, and the innocent, that Britain is a toilet for the Muslims, and other trivia and falsehoods; such comments have been spread to harm us.
Q: How would you describe yourself today? Are you a Salafist? Do you still believe in the concept of the Caliphate?
A: There are bound to be disputes among people because God Almighty says in Surah Hud, Verse 118/119: ‘If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute. Except those on whom thy Lord hath bestowed His Mercy: and for this did He create them.’ We have been told about these disputes and divisions in the Hadith by Al Tabarani who said that the Prophet (PBUH) said, ‘My nation is divided into 73 groups, all of which will be in Hellfire except one.’ They asked him, ‘What is this group?’ He said, ‘They are those who are upon like what I am upon today and my Companions.’ Praise be to God who guided and honored me by joining the groups of the Prophet (PBUH).
I am a Salafist Muslim in my creed and in my ways because God Almighty has praised and recommended this as He addressed His Messenger (PBUH) and his companions, may God be satisfied with them, in Surah Al Baqarah, Verse 137: ‘So if they believe as ye believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but God will suffice thee as against them.’ Therefore, whoever agrees with the creed and way of our righteous predecessors, i.e. God’s Messenger, his companions, and his household, is guided by God, and whoever disagrees with them is one of the people of the schism. There is no doubt that collective work towards preaching God’s word and for the establishment of the Islamic caliphate is a Shariah duty to which I am committed in the same way that I am committed to prayers and to fasting. This has to be done in a clear way according to Shariah, which is calling for God through wisdom, good advice, and the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.
Q: It is argued that Islamic preachers were the safety valve in Britain before the 7/7 attacks in London. The proof of this is that most of your students were arrested after you left Britain. What is your comment in this respect?
A: I believe that the British people were safer when the Islamic preachers in Britain were free because these preachers were able to control and rationalize the anger of the Muslim youths in Britain, caused by the government’s hostile policies towards issues related to Islam, and the double-standards in dealing with the Palestinian issue in favor of the Israeli enemy.
As for my students, most of them were arrested for denouncing and condemning [the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed] during the licensed demonstration in front of the Danish embassy in London. I think that the British security authorities deliberately arrested some of my students from the al Muhajiroun movement, which disbanded itself in 2004, for the old slogans, demonstrations, or lectures that were once just about legal. However, the authorities resorted to legislating new laws that had a reactionary effect so that they would be able to justify arresting youths in order to give the British public opinion the false impression that they are doing something to counter terrorism.
Q: What are you doing in Tripoli?
A: My duty as a Muslim is to preach God’s religion according to the way of the righteous predecessors. As for the reality of the Lebanese arena, I live among a complex secular society where many parties are classified on sectarian and ideological bases; there is harmony among the various spectra of the Lebanese fabric despite the push-and-pull, convulsions, and sectarian tensions. As for my work in the Lebanese arena, currently, I am the director general of the Iqra Library for general reading and academic research, and a member of the Shariah committee of Iqra Islamic Trust in Tripoli in the Abu-Samra district. I address the Lebanese society via a number of television channels as an (Islamic) expert in the affairs of Islamic groups; this is in addition to writing for some Lebanese newspapers, taking part in educational activity by teaching the foundations of jurisprudence to Iqra’s academic group, and other weekly activities such as Quran interpretation, Friday sermons, and other open dialogues aimed at enriching Islamic thinking in Lebanon.
Q: What is your opinion of the Nahr al-Bared crisis? Why have you not intervened to persuade the Islamist fighters to surrender in order to avoid the bloody massacres?
A: The Lebanese political scene is one of the most complicated. There are odd complications in Lebanon. On the one hand you will find Syrian-Iranian-backed Shia Lebanese resistance that opposes the government, and on the other hand you will find a US-European-backed Lebanese government. These contradictory interferences in Lebanon have been generated by the country’s sectarian structure, which is influenced by its regional and international environment. Any impartial monitoring of the events at Nahr al-Bared will show that it is a crisis where all the contradictions have gathered and conflicted with each other. The crisis started with security tightening on the Sunni Islamists in northern Lebanon, which was compatible with the so-called US anti-terrorism campaign on the one hand, and the sudden attack by Fatah al Islam on the Lebanese Army, which consists of all elements of the Lebanese social spectrum, on the other hand. From one angle, this is a Syrian conspiracy against the security and stability of Lebanon, against the Future Movement [Tiyar al Mustaqbel], the Siniora government, and the Palestinian camps and their armed factions that are affiliated to the Sunni sect and that counter the armed Shia sect; from another perspective, this is a US-Israeli conspiracy against the weapons of the Lebanese resistance in general, and against the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon in particular. As for the issue of mediation, I proposed the idea of forming an independent Shariah commission for the arbitration of Shariah in the Nahr al-Bared crisis to the authorities to work towards ending the bloodshed and preventing the destruction of the camp. However, the idea has not been approved because of the large number of initiatives and mediation from the Sunni factions (some of which are affiliated to the opposition and the so-called 8 March movement), Palestinian factions (some of which are affiliated to the loyalist trend) and the 14 March movement, and from some Sunni independent factions (some of which are affiliated to the Salafist trend in Lebanon).
Q: What are the activities of the Islamic Trust Library that you supervise in Tripoli?
A: The Iqra Islamic Trust Library is open every day to the public from 0900 to 1200, and from 1600 until 1900. There are weekly lessons in the foundations of jurisprudence and a weekly open academic dialogue.
Q: Do you plan to establish a similar group to Al Muhajiroun and Al Ghurabaa in Lebanon?
A: Collective work towards preaching God’s religion is a duty. I perform this duty through Iqra academic, which is a sports, youth, and students group concerned with public affairs. I restricted myself to this because of the large number of Islamic trusts, charities, parties, movements, and groups in Lebanon.
Q: How do you survive away from your family, loved ones, and friends in Britain? How do you communicate with your children?
A: The critical security situation in Lebanon, the sectarian tension, the repeated Israeli aggressions, the political tension represented by the sit-ins by the opposition forces in the center of Beirut, the resulting consequences such as the events of Al-Jadida Road and the accompanying closure of streets and burning of cars, the closure of the airport, and the Nahr al-Bared crisis and the accompanying bloody confrontations in Tripoli where I moved to after the painful events of Beirut; all these unstable conditions have forced me to live away from my wife, my children, and my grandchildren. I live away from my family that still lives in the same house in Britain where I had lived for more than 20 years before I left Britain out of my own free will. The declaration by the British government to withdraw my residence on its territories did not surprise me, because during my entire legal residence in Britain I did not accept British citizenship for reasons related to Shariah. However, I was surprised by the decision to deprive me of the right to visit my wife, my six children, and my five grandchildren, as they all have British citizenship. The fact is that I live alone in an apartment in Tripoli; in addition to the pains of longing to see the family and loved ones, I bear the burden of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and so on. However, praise be to God, I communicate with my wife, my children, and my friends in Britain through the Internet and the telephone.
Q: Is there a certain mosque in which you preach in Tripoli?
A: I am not an employee of the official Lebanese Dar al-Fatwa. I am not an official of any mosque in Lebanon. I am an independent Islamic preacher, and I deliver most of my lessons in the halls of the academic library. I deliver my Wednesday weekly lecture in Al-Qasimiya mosque in old Tripoli. Some Imams invite me to deliver the Friday sermon as a guest in a number of mosques in Tripoli and other Lebanese cities, and I preach in the English language in some Lebanese universities and colleges.
Q: Do you feel that there is a difference today between the Muslims amongst whom you live in northern Lebanon, and the Muslims to whom you used to preach in Europe?
A: The truth is that the Islamic commitment and Islamic preaching that I saw in Britain was stronger among the Muslims in Britain than in Lebanon. They were more cohesive, better established, and more sincere. This is because in Britain there are no nationalistic or ethnic inclinations between the Arab Muslims and non-Arabs. Moreover, the Muslims in Britain are economically independent and financially successful, a fact that allows them to be free from slavery and those who try to exploit their conditions. The call to non-Muslims to convert to Islam in Britain is stronger, better known, and more successful than it is in Lebanon, because of the absence of political sectarianism. Therefore, the rate of conversions to Islam in Britain is over 18 people a day. The Christian sect in Lebanon is politicized; also the Muslims practice political activity on religious sectarian basis. These sectarian obstacles make inviting non-Muslims to convert to Islam difficult and infrequent.
Q: What is your opinion on the statement that has been attributed to you that the recent foiled attacks were the result of young people influenced by “Sheikh Google,” and “Sheikh Yahoo”?
A: I still believe that Muslim youths in Britain today lack Islamic authority and that Britain is short of Islamic preachers who the youth can trust, and who are capable of guiding the youth so that they do not fall prey to those who believe that there are no pledges or security between the Muslims living in Britain and the non-Muslims. Because of the failure of the so-called “moderate Islamic organizations” that are loyal to the British government to attract Muslim youths, some of these youngsters resort to “Sheikh Google” or “Sheikh Yahoo,” i.e. the Internet in search for fatwas, which were the reasons behind the failed attacks in London. They might find a religious ruling on the internet that is suitable for the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but unsuitable for the situation in Britain.
Q: Are you thinking of returning to Britain after the change in government and following Britain’s call for handing over the Guantanamo detainees who were living in Britain?
A: If the British authorities grant me a visa for a visit, I will visit my family and my loved ones in Britain, but the issue of returning to live in Britain would mean that I would sue the Home Office in the British courts. This is not allowed by Shariah and is not going to happen, because I am not going to resort to the man-made British courts to restore my permanent residence, which was withdrawn by the British Home Office. Bear in mind that I have not been charged with any crime in Britain or in any other country. Some British human rights and judicial organizations might call for allowing me to return in order to bring the family together again and because so far I have not been charged with any crime in Britain.