Some observations on the stabber of Stephen Timms

Roshonara Choudhry, Islam, Iraq and terrorism.

Vikram Dodd, the Guardian's crime correspondent, has published extracts from the police interview with Roshonara Choudhry, the British Muslim student convicted this week of attempting to stab to death the former Labour minister Stephen Timms MP.

Conducted on 14 May 2010, about four hours after her arrest for stabbing Timms, in Forest Gate police station, the interview makes for a fascinating, if disturbing and depressing, read – and I've reprinted it below in full.

Some brief observations:

1) Choudhry is not the sharpest tool in the box. She comes across as a bit simple, a bit slow, unquestioning and someone who was easily brainwashable (is that even a word?). She is, for example, ignorant of the specific Quranic verses that she claims inspired her horrific and cowardly attack on Timms – "the main chapters about it are chapter . . . chapter eight and chapter nine, I think," she says, pathetically. In fact, there are no verses in the Quran which justify such brutal, vigilante attacks on innocent civilians. Suicide bombings for example, are un-Islamic.

2) Those who claim that our mosques are breeding grounds for terrorists and extremists should note the two names Choudhry cites as her influencers: Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam. She discovered both on the internet (on YouTube!), not at her local Islamic centre. Both, I hasten to add, lack the credentials and qualifications of mainstream Islamic scholarship; al-Awlaki has a PhD in human resource development (!) from George Washington University. Why on earth did she think such a person had the "Islamic" or moral authority to instruct her to carry out a murder, one of the greatest sins in Islam? Interestingly, most Islamist ideologues have tended to be non-scholars – Sayyid Qutb was a teacher; Abul-A'la Maududi was a journalist. Osama Bin Laden himself, of course, is an engineer and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri is a medical doctor.

3) She was clearly brainwashed by radicals on the internet BUT I'm intrigued by those who continue to claim that Iraq, and other foreign-policy issues, are NOT drivers of radicalisation. Really? Read the transcript below. She is obsessed with Iraq, for example: "When I realised that I have an obligation to defend the people of Iraq and to fight on their side, that's when it changed my mind and also just like the death tolls and the civilian, like casualties and the pictures from the prisons." So, should we ignore this? Pretend it had nothing to do with her crime? And let me be clear, before the online trolls try to misrepresent me: I believe her actions did NOTHING to help the people of Iraq and were disgusting and reprehensible. They cannot be morally justified. But it is absurd to pretend that Islamist radicals would be able to brainwash young, impressionable Muslims – even simpletons like Choudhry! – without the help of real-world and undeniable grievances like Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, etc, which cause so much anger, resentment and disillusionment.

4) One of the police officers interviewing her is called "Syed Hussain", a Muslim name. See, we're not all crazy, anti-western terrorists. Some of us are coppers . . . !

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From the Guardian:

This interview was conducted four hours after Choudhry's arrest for stabbing Stephen Timms. Choudhry was interviewed by Simon Dobinson, a detective sergeant from Newham Police, with Detective Constable Syed Hussain. Choudhry says she was studying English and communications at King's College London, but dropped out on 27 April 2010, in her third year.

Simon Dobinson So what made you drop out of that?

Choudhry 'Cos . . . because King's College is involved in things where they work against Muslims.

Q OK. What sort of things?

A Last year, or the year before, they gave an award to Shimon Peres [Israeli politician] and they also have a department for tackling radicalisation . . . So I just didn't wanna go there any more . . . 'cos it would be against my religion.

Q OK, and when did you sort of make that decision?

A About a month ago.

Q OK. It seems quite a long time to be there and almost to the end of that course, you know, the end and just to let it go. Is there any . . . did you have any problems understanding the course?

A I was the top student.

Q Was you? OK and what did they say when you pulled out?

A They didn't want me to pull out.

Choudhry says after leaving her course, she worked at a tuition centre called KnowledgeBox teaching maths, English and science. She says she won't be working there any more.

Q Why's that then?

A Because of what I just did today.

Q Well, tell me about that then. Tell me what happened today.

A I stabbed Stephen Timms.

Q You stabbed Stephen Timms.

A Yep.

Choudhry gives details of the attack, as heard in her trial. She says she made an appointment to see him at his constituency surgery.

Q Why did you make that appointment?

A So I can do what I did.

Q So tell me what thought process you went through before you made that phone call?

A I thought that it's not right that he voted for the declaration of war in Iraq.

Q When did you start thinking about that?

A Over the last few months.

Q What's led you to start thinking about that?

A I've been learning more about Islam.

Q Where have you been learning that?

A Internet.

Q What websites you been looking at?

A I've been listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki.

Q Anwar?

A Al-Awlaki.

Q Who's he?

A He's an Islamic scholar. He lives in Yemen.

Q And where have you been listening to these lectures?

A I downloaded it off of the internet . . . Explaining stories from the Quran and explaining about jihad.

Q And has that contributed to your decision to leave King's?

A Yes.

Q And where was the link there then?

A I thought that I should have loyalty to my Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine and so I should leave King's and that would show my loyalty to them.

Q Who have you been watching these lectures with?

A I listen to them on my own.

Q So when did you decide: "From what I've learnt, I'm now gonna go and stab Stephen Timms?"

A A couple of weeks ago. It's three weeks ago, four weeks ago.

Q So it's quite recent?

A Yep.

Q Before you finished college? After?

A Before.

Q And that was 27 April, if I remember rightly, was it?

A Yep.

Dobinson How do you feel now about what you've done today?

Choudhry I feel like I did what I'd planned to do.

Q OK, do you want to tell me more? Tell me what you're thinking now? Tell me what your thoughts about what you've done today are.

A I feel like I've ruined the rest of my life. I feel like it's worth it because millions of Iraqis are suffering and I should do what I can to help them and not just be inactive and do nothing while they suffer.

DC Hussain Sorry, just before we finish, I've just a couple of questions that I've got to ask you. When did this interest of yours for Islam develop?

A I've always been quite religious and I started to listen to Anwar al-Awlaki lectures last year and then I started to get really into it and I listened to everything that . . . like all of his recorded lectures that he made and that would have been like since November. I've been listening to him since November.

Hussain How did you get introduced to Anwar al-Awlaki?

A He's quite famous and I've started to listen to his stuff.

Hussain How did you come across him?

A On the internet.

Hussain Was that from your own research or did someone recommend him?

A From my own research, but everybody listens to him and likes him anyway.

Q Do you go to a regular mosque?

A No . . . I just pray at home.

Q Who do you discuss your Islam with?

A In general I just talk about it to my brothers and sisters but I don't mention everything to them.

Q If you've got a question that you want to ask or you want answered, who do you ask?

A I don't ask anyone, I just listen to his lectures. There's no one to ask.

Hussain I just want to go over a little bit how your thought has gone from getting to religion to all of a sudden wanting some form of vengeance.

A Because as Muslims we're all brothers and sisters and we should all look out for each other and we shouldn't sit back and do nothing while others suffer. We shouldn't allow the people who oppress us to get away with it and to think that they can do whatever they want to us and we're just gonna lie down and take it.

Q Where did you learn that from?

A From listening to his lectures.

Q And that's caused you to do what you've done today?

A Yeah.

Q OK. Just a couple of other things. You bought the knives, you say, two to three weeks ago . . . Where did you keep 'em?

A Underneath the bed in a shoebox.

Q How did you feel about what you was about to do?

A I was a bit nervous about what I was gonna do but I felt like it had to be done and it's the right thing to do.

Q Having done it, how do you feel now?

A I feel like I did my best to fulfil my duty to the other Muslims.

Dobinson . . . What did you think was gonna happen once you'd carried out your intentions?

Choudhry I thought that I would either get arrested or maybe I would like get killed or something.

Q How would you get killed?

A Like, if the police came and they had guns.

Q [Inaudible] take me through your thought process about that then?

A Oh no, I was just thinking about the possibilities and I thought it's either getting arrested or being killed. But either way I knew I wasn't coming back home again.

Q What, what did you think about getting killed then?

A I wanted to die.

Q Why?

A I wanted to be a martyr.

Q Why's that then?

A 'Cos, erm, that's the best way to die.

Q Who told you that?

A It's an Islamic teaching.

Q Where did you learn that?

A It's . . . it's in the Quran and I learnt it from listening to lectures as well.

Q OK, what lectures are that?

A By Anwar al-Awlaki.

Q Al-Awlaki?

A Yeah.

Q OK, well, how did you find out about him?

A On the internet . . . if you go on YouTube there's a lot of his videos there and if you do a search they just come up . . . I wasn't searching for him, I just came across him . . . I used to watch videos that people used to put up about like how they became Muslim.

Q OK, why did you watch those videos?

A 'Cos I thought . . . their life stories were interesting . . . And as you watch videos that like a whole other list of related videos comes up and I was just looking through those and I came across it.

Q Anwar al-Awlaki?

A Yeah.

Q OK. So who put you, who guided down this path to, to look for, you know, the videos of people and how they become Muslim?

A No one, I just found them really interesting . . . I became interested in Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures because he explains things really comprehensively and in an interesting way so I thought I could learn a lot from him and I was also surprised at how little I knew about my religion so that motivated me to learn more . . .

Q What happened in November then?

A I downloaded the full set of Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures.

Q Yeah, what do you reckon the full set of his lectures are?

A More than a hundred hours.

Q And have you watched all those lectures?

A Yeah.

Q When did you finish watching them?

A The first week of May.

Q How often were you going on to the internet . . .

A First I was listening to like two a day, but then for a while I stopped because I had coursework to do and then I started back up again because I thought I need to finish listening to these.

Q Yeah. Apart from the lectures, what else were you looking at online?

A I was looking at YouTube videos about the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Q What other sites, remember any particular internet sites you looked at?

A When I was doing research about MPs, I looked at one called theyworkforyou.co.uk [theyworkforyou.com] and I think another one was called publicwhips [the publicwhip.org.uk].

Q Yeah, anything else?

A There's a website called revolutionmuslim.

Q OK. Forgive me, I find it, I just find it a little bit strange that you're doing all this on your own and not speaking to anyone else about or . . .

A Because nobody would understand. And anyway I didn't wanna tell anyone because I know that if anybody else knew, they'd get in trouble 'cos then they would be like implicated in whatever I do, so I kept it a secret.

Q OK. When did the Iraq war start?

A 2003.

Q So how old would you have been then, 14? . . . Did you have any strong view feelings at that time when the war started?

A No, I was just against in general like everyone else, but not strong feelings.

Q And what changed . . . what made you get those strong feelings that you've obviously got now?

A When I realised that I have an obligation to defend the people of Iraq and to fight on their side, that's when it changed my mind. And also just like the death tolls and the civilian, like casualties and the pictures from the prisons.

Q OK, can you pinpoint the time when that changed or was it a gradual . . . was there one particular incident?

A Like, erm, after like listening to the lectures, I realised by obligation but I didn't wanna like fight myself and just thought other people should fight, like men, but then I found out that even women are supposed to fight as well so I thought I should join in.

Q Where did you find that out from?

A A YouTube video by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.

Q And what was he saying?

A He was saying that when a Muslim land is attacked it becomes obligatory on every man, woman and child and even slave to go out and fight and defend the land and the Muslims and if they can't handle like the forces they are facing, then it becomes obligatory on the people who live in . . . closest to that country and if those people refuse to fulfil their duty then it, then it becomes to the next closest people and the next closest until it goes all the way round the whole world and it's obligatory on everyone to defend that land.

Q OK, and when did you watch that YouTube video?

A That probably would have been a couple of weeks ago, like some point in April.

Q Was that before you bought the knives or after you bought the knives?

A That would have been before, I think . . .

Q . . . how soon after watching that video did you decide to put things into action? Or to make plans?

A It would probably would have been like a few days or something.

Choudhry says she was planning to leave the UK and live in Bangladesh. But she changed her mind.

Q Why didn't you go?

A 'Cos I thought if this is more important then I shouldn't just be running away.

Q You say "this is more important". What is more important?

A Fighting.

Q You at some stage since then decided that "I'm gonna kill Stephen Timms, the local MP"?

A Yeah.

Q OK, so explain to me again why, why him? Lots of people voted for the war in Iraq, lots of MPs.

A Yeah, erm, it's because . . . well, even the doctor asked me that: so like are you . . . were you gonna kill everyone? And I told him that I'm just one person and I did what I could.

Q I was asking you why Stephen Timms was picked on . . . Why did you pick an MP to carry out this attack?

A Because he was directly involved with the declaration of war, so he'd directly committed a crime.

Q How did you know that?

A Because years ago back, maybe 2007 or 2006, I went on a school trip to Westminster and to meet him and we sat . . . there was a group of us, like maybe about ten, and we sat with him for . . . like an hour maybe and spoke to him and one of my friends there she . . . we, we were all just asking general questions about what's it like to be an MP and what kind of work do you do and what are you doing at the moment, just general things like that. But there was this one girl there and almost the whole time we were there, she was having a go at him for . . . because he voted for the war in Iraq. She was questioning him about that.

Q OK, and what did you think about that at the time?

A At the time I was thinking that she should be quiet and that she's embarrassing herself and I didn't say anything to support her, I just sat there feeling embarrassed.

Q Embarrassed, what, for her or yourself or what, anyone else?

A I guess I respected her for having the guts to just say all these things to his face but like I wasn't brave enough to say anything, I just sat quietly.

Q Did you want to say something to him then?

A Not really.

Q So, have you carried out any research to . . . about Stephen Timms.

A Yeah, on . . . I looked up, I found, I googled him, I found out he had a website, I found a page about him on theyworkforyou.com . . . if you follow that link it shows information about how he voted on different things related to the Iraq war and the build-up towards it. I found out that . . . he very strongly agreed with the invasion of Iraq and they said very strongly because they worked out all his votes for everything related to that and it came up to something like 99.9 per cent support or something like that.

Q How does that make you feel?

A That made me feel angry because the whole Iraq war is just based on lies and he just voted strongly for everything as though he had no mercy. As though he felt no doubts that what he was doing was right, even though it was such an arrogant thing to do and I just felt like if he could treat the Iraqi people so mercilessly, then why should I show him any mercy?

Q What, what makes you think that it's your place to go and stab him?

A Because I'm a Muslim and all Muslims are brothers and sisters. So if he attacked them, then he's likely to attack me too.

Q So where in the Quran does it say that you should go and kill someone?

A Erm, the main chapters about it are chapter . . . chapter eight and chapter nine, I think.

Q What does that say, can you remember?

A Erm, it says to . . . it says to fight until there is no more oppression in the land. Because it's better to fight than to be persecuted.

Q What do you think about what you've done to Stephen Timms and all that?

A I think I've fulfilled my obligation, my Islamic duty to stand up for the people of lraq and to punish someone who wanted to make war with them.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.