On a particularly gloomy Friday evening, inside the Eton Road community centre in Ilford, Essex, 50 young British men help to lay out school chairs. Their ranks – they include white, Pakistani, African and several Chinese men – reveal little about their specific political or religious affiliation. They work quietly and diligently, amiably hailing each other as “brother”, and wait for their teacher.
At a little past 8pm, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the bespectacled spiritual leader of the UK-based militant group al-Muhajiroun, strolls into the room. He is visibly pleased, chuffed even, at the turnout on this miserable evening. He beams broadly at the digital camera, mounted on a tripod, that will broadcast his speech live on the internet. “The winning of young hearts and minds never stops,” he tells me, taking a seat behind a large school desk in front of the crowd. “See? Even this terrible British weather cannot stop Islam from prevailing over capitalism.”
Since 11 September, al-Muhajiroun has been the noisiest and most mutinous section of the Muslim community in Britain, recruiting young, disenfranchised British nationals into its ranks. To the frusttration of Islamic moderates in this country, the organisation has had several propaganda coups. Earlier this year, Hassan Bhatt, an al-Muhajiroun activist in Lahore, Pakistan, spoke of a cell of 200 terrorists waiting to strike on British soil. His extravagant boast was almost certainly a downright lie, say security experts.
Nevertheless, Richard Reid, the British shoe-bomb suspect, a mixed-race convert to Islam, was seen at several of the movement’s meetings in and around London in the months leading up to his alleged attempt to blow American Airlines Flight 63 out of the sky. And the organisation has managed to cajole several dozen young men into declaring jihad against coalition forces in Afghanistan. The names of captured British members of al-Muhajiroun have, over the past few weeks, been confirmed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Sheikh Bakri’s followers first appeared in the early Nineties. These young and serious-minded men, schooled in the theological politics of Ayatollah Khomeini, gathered in insubstantial numbers, and almost always dressed in black, at campuses in Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford, Manchester and London.
Sheikh Bakri’s disciples shunned multiculturalism and imported the hardline extremism then creeping across the religious schools, or madrasas, in Pakistan and Egypt. As far back as 1994, two years before the Taliban took hold of Kabul, al-Muhajiroun activists in the UK were advocating the ideology of a sharia-influenced Islam across Britain.
The al-Muhajiroun religious movement propagates a unique idea of rebellion far removed from familiar western twentysomething role models such as James Dean, J D Salinger’s Holden Caulfield or Kurt Cobain. Against the backdrop of a media lacking in strong Islamic role models, the organisation has fallen for its own iconic poster boys – Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers.
Al-Muhajiroun, now banned across most British university campuses, seized on the idea of attracting recruits by first converting them to Islam. “We realised in the late Nineties that we had substantially to increase membership,” Anjam Choudry, the organisation’s chair- person in the UK, told me at the Eton Road community centre. “The ultimate goal of our followers is the implementation of the sharia in the UK. We might not call it the Islamic Republic of Great Britain, but you get the idea. To do that, you have to convert people in large numbers. Luckily, we’ve found that this whole generation of British youth is bored with a lack of spirituality in society.”
Third-generation British Asians, like large sections of British youth in general, are uninterested in politics. By ignoring conventional political agendas, however, and concentrating on individuals who feel abandoned by society, Sheikh Bakri’s organisation has forged a generation of identikit religious fundamentalists who are bored and unemployed and who suffer from low self-esteem.
The followers of al-Muhajiroun compare it to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, the US group that advocated armed defence against what they saw as a racist state in the late Sixties. The movement’s leaders boast that membership currently stands at around 10,000, although a more realistic estimate would seem to be somewhat lower.
Last Friday night in Ilford, al-Muhajiroun proved its success when it invited non-Muslims to take up the shihada, the Koranic verse that inaugurates the conversion to Islam. Before the meeting, I spoke to Suleyman, a recent convert. More than six-foot tall, and with a disarming mop of orange hair, he stood solemnly near the entrance to the hall, waiting for Sheikh Bakri to arrive for the weekly sermon. Nearby lay neatly arranged rows of As-Sahwa magazine, the organisation’s free sheet. That week’s lead headline read: “Oh Muslim armies [sic], fulfil your role”. An editorial on page eight of the paper said: “A Muslim views jihad as an opportunity to obtain paradise with the sacrifice of that that is most sacred.”
Suleyman tells me he grew weary of his non-religious upbringing: “I felt like I had no sense of purpose. I felt as if I wasn’t being allowed to contribute to anything.” He was tempted by alcohol and drugs, but then: “Some people from al-Muhajiroun just spoke to me,” he continues. “The brothers made a lot of sense. Once I realised that Islam was for me, everything else made a lot of sense. How else do you explain the demonisation of Islam by the US, the British and other western governments? The very fact that they slam this religion made it my mission to change people’s minds. Whether that calls for a jihad – which can mean both war and debate – it is up to me to spread the word of Islam.”
Minutes later, Sheikh Bakri is in full swing. Like the icons of black youth before him – Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X – Bakri relishes his role as a demigod. His manner is at times chillingly right-wing, at others boyishly playful.
“He’s Mullah Blair ‘cos he says he reads the Koran every day,” jokes Bakri. He pauses, waiting for the ripple of giggles to subside. “Mullah Blair says he loves you. But he has some problems: he had to bomb Iraq, bomb Somalia, bomb Afghanistan. But that’s because Mullah Blair doesn’t like beards.” To demonstrate, Bakri pulls down his beard and runs both hands through it. “He sees the beard as an elaborate network to Bin Laden’s terrorists. If you have facial hair, you are connected to that network.”
Throughout, the young men nod appreciatively at Sheikh Bakri’s examples of western ills. Four women sit separated from the rest of the crowd, banished to the back of the room. At the start of the meeting, my eye had inadvertently caught the gaze of one girl. I smiled at her in a friendly, unassuming manner. She immediately dropped her gaze, blushed, adjusted her headscarf and turned her back on me. Various members of al-Muhajiroun ensure that I never interview the silent, expressionless quartet of female followers.
I sit down near two brothers – we’ll call them Afzal and Umad – near the back of the hall. Both are in their early twenties, built like small bungalows and are dressed in black trousers, black leather jackets and black T-shirts. Their beards, wild and unkempt, descend to chest level.
I’m carrying a cheap, pale-blue backpack – a logo over one pocket reads “The East India Trading Company”. “You are a Muslim, brother, aren’t you?” asks Afzal. Yes, I reply. But I’m not practising, I add. “Even so,” he says disapprovingly, “that’s India you have on your bag. They’re kufir [non-believers]. They’re the enemies of Islam. They’re our enemies. You should get rid of it. It’s wrong to have it.”
The menfolk of the movement, undoubtedly British by birth, speak earnestly of Zionist and Christian conspiracies. And of jihad. Why, in an increasingly homogeneous society, have they so alienated themselves from their contemporaries in this country?
After the meeting, I pull Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed away from his disciples. He is dressed in a blue shalwar-kameez, and his denunciation of western values grows near hysterical at times, with lots of wide arm movements. His rat-tat-tat soundbites lend him the air of a fundamentalist stereotype. But despite the Carry On Cleric gesticulations, he makes several engaging points.
“In the Sixties,” he explains, “when Muslims first arrived in the country, they came here for financial reasons. They were economic migrants. Their children, in the Seventies and Eighties and Nineties, did their best to integrate. They went to university. In the home, they were known as Akbar. At university, they called themselves Bob. They found white friends. And danced with them. And drank with them. And slept with them. And took drugs with them. But at the end of the day, someone would call them a Paki.”
He continues: “Now those very people want something else. And people from other religions are also looking for spiritual fulfilment. So they come looking to us. It’s the biggest threat to the western world – non-Muslims converting to Islam to find a path through life. They don’t want an Islamic democracy. They want Islam.”
With that, Sheikh Bakri walks off, surrounded by a gaggle of admirers. Several young men stay behind to replace the chairs dutifully in stacks against a wall. “He dares to say things that no one else does,” says Suleyman, the white convert. “Other religious leaders don’t do that; they don’t have the guts.”
Suleyman walks off to join a group of his friends. They all take delight in arguing about politics; and they score points by reciting long verses from the Koran.
Islam has come under tremendous scrutiny since 11 September. The automatons of al-Muhajiroun meet every allegation with a shrug and cling to one hopeful prospect – the Talibanising of Britain.