By Jahangir Mohammed
In September of this year, Manchester based Munir Farooqi, was given four life sentences for preparing “terror” acts, soliciting murder, and disseminating “terrorist literature”. Israr Malik, and Mathew Newton were also convicted. Munir’s son Harris Farooqi, was charged with similar offences but acquitted.
The 12-month investigation, trial, conviction, and current attempts to seize the Farooqi family home appear to have set new and worrying precedents in the targeting of Britain’s Muslim community by the British State.
The judge declared Munir Farooqi to be a very dangerous individual. However, there was no plan to commit terror, or any physical evidence of materials found intending to harm any individual. The so-called “terrorist” material and evidence of intent of terrorism and murder were, some books and DVD’s and the words uttered by the men to undercover police officers (pretending to have converted to Islam) in thousands of hours of secret recordings.
The trial appears to have been a prosecution of individuals for their thoughts, beliefs, and views on the occupation of Muslim lands by British forces, rather than a planned or physical plot to commit terrorism. The case could not have been better summed up, than in the words of the Head of the North West Counter Terrorism Unit (NWCTU), Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Porter:
“This was an extremely challenging case, both to investigate and successfully prosecute at court, because we did not recover any blueprint, attack plan or endgame for these men. However, what we were able to prove was their ideology.”
For proof of ideology, Munir Farooqi along with Israr Malik were given indeterminate sentences. So even after serving the minimum nine years Munir Farooqi may not be eligible for Parole. The length of sentence given in this case (and allowable under Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006), is just one issue of many, that should concern those involved in civil liberties.
A major concern is that with fewer cases where there is evidence of a physical plot, the authorities are resorting to the use of Sections 2 and 5 of the Terrorism Acts 2006, (the thought crimes sections) to secure prosecutions. The wide scope of the law and lower level of proof required in such cases; coupled with the personal opinions of so-called “experts” on “extremism”; combined with the use of entrapment and secret recordings of undercover officers, means it is not too difficult to secure convictions. The way this section of the law is used, also exposes the real purpose of the Governments Preventing Extremism Strategy, which loosely defines radicalisation and extremism and provides the theoretical background and “expertise” for prosecutions under Sections 5. This leaves most Muslims potentially vulnerable to a prosecution for “terrorism”.
Munir Farooqi and his colleagues ran a dawah stall in a popular Manchester market, in full glare of thousands of shoppers, for at least 10 years. They reproduced and sold books and DVD’s. Reproduction of materials for sale by individuals and bookshops has been a common practice for well over two decades amongst the Muslim community, dating back to the days of videos and cassettes. The material on display at the stall, including that described by the prosecution as “terrorist” (e.g. Malcolm X, 21st Century Crusaders, Gujerat Genocide, Iraq, Past, Present Future and books like “Defence of Muslim Lands”) have been openly available in Islamic bookshops, stalls at Islamic conferences and no doubt can be found in many Muslim homes.
The classification by the Police and State of books, DVD’s and even certain verses of the Quran used in some contexts as evidence of radicalisation, or ideological and spiritual preparation for Jihad, and hence “terrorist”, should be of concern to every Muslim and supporter of freedom of speech.
A question arises as to who decides what constitutes “terrorist” or radicalising materials and the context or purpose for which these have been produced and used. If the Police consider some materials dangerous and “terrorist” why don’t they prevent their sale much earlier? Police and prosecution experts have little knowledge about the context in which these DVD’s or books were produced. Many were produced as a primitive form of journalism/information before the rise of Muslim satellite channels, to create awareness of atrocities being committed against Muslims and for humanitarian fundraising (the types of scenes portrayed in the DVD’s are now widely available on Muslim media channels and the internet). They represent an important part of Muslim recorded history in struggles for independence and liberation. Equally, many of the books now being classed as terrorist materials are of great historical significance to the Ummah. The “expertise” used to define the information and purpose of these materials is questionable and based on personal opinion.
A further issue, is that of time, and application of the law retrospectively. Much of this material was produced/distributed prior to the introduction of terrorism laws, when it was lawful to sell such material. The law is being applied retrospectively to effectively ban and criminalise possession of certain materials being defined as “terrorist” already in widespread circulation.
In light of this and other cases, it would perhaps be easier for all, if the British state simply provided Muslims with an approved reading or viewing list of those materials they consider “terrorist”. Muslims can then choose if they wish to retain or dispose of such material.
A major concern of the Muslim community in Manchester has been, the use of police and agents of the State as false converts to Islam to entrap Munir Farooqi and target a number of key mosques in the City. Entrapment has been in use in the United States for decades against both domestic campaigners and activists, especially Muslims. Here in the UK, the tactic has been in use against environmental protestors and campaigners. The use of agents to encourage certain types of discussion, elicit responses from their targets, and subsequently use selected comment as evidence, is controversial. It blurs the distinction between the alleged terrorist and the officer encouraging a particular response. In a crime of ideology, as in the Farooqi case, it could be argued that it was the officers who were “grooming” the very ideology that they were later to prosecute. When a pretend Muslim cries as if in pain about the suffering of the Muslim Ummah, what exactly is he trying to encourage? In this case the method was extended beyond the target, to around half a dozen mosques in Manchester, without any community impact assessment or consultation with the Muslim community. Apparently, the false converts mixed intimately with worshippers randomly targeting them, asking questions, eliciting and recording responses. (This approach is also used in the Governments Prevent Channel programme where children making certain statements, regardless of context, can be regarded as potentially at risk of extremism and referred to a panel). These methods led to a focus on and raid on the house of a respected Imam in Manchester, Sheikh Asif Hussain Farooqi who was arrested, although not charged, because of a comment he made. Where thousands of hours of secret recordings take place, it can be sufficient for one comment to lead to a conviction whilst other relevant comments can be disregarded. The prosecution has access to all the recordings and can be selective whereas the defence do not have access to all the recordings.
A further worry is the context of comments made, and the interpretation and understanding applied to religiously based comments and terms. No doubt prosecution teams will attempt to attach terrorist or “extremist meanings” to them, but this may not be the case. The viewing of graphic scenes of violence against Muslims, added to complex religious literature, terms and comments would make it extremely difficult for a Jury to understand and to find anything other than a guilty charge. Yet for the Muslim community such things have been, and are part of normal community and religious life.
And if that was not enough, a new precedent is being set. Once they had convicted Munir Farooqi, the authorities for the first time decided to seize and sell the family home to pay for the costs of the case under clause 23a of the Terrorism Act 2000. This collective punishment of the Farooqi family would leave three generations of the family homeless, including an 8 months baby. The police decision to proceed has taken place despite opposition from the local community (Muslims and non-Muslims alike). When the Police finally informed a local meeting of prominent Imams and councillors that they intended to press ahead with the action, the Imams issued their own statement and stormed out of the meeting making it clear they do not support the Police action.
The Farooqi case and others like it, appears to send a very clear message to Muslims in Britain. The British State will not tolerate literature, DVDs, or even discussion of a version of Islam that is not consistent with British foreign and domestic policy. Even mere mention of Jihad in places disapproved by the British state can lead you to prosecution. If you dare to read, watch, or sell books and DVD’s on such topics, not only will they get you, but they will make your families suffer too. On the other hand the authorities are fully aware that British Muslims have gone to fight in Libya yet no prosecutions under these laws have taken place. The message this sends is that if you go to train and fight where the state currently supports regime change, e.g. Libya, Syria or Iran, or in Israel, then that does not constitute unlawful violence or terrorism.
It’s no surprise that the whole debate regarding radicalisation and extremism comes down to British foreign policy. The Home Affairs Select Committee are currently looking at the issue and CagePrisoners have made a submission. However, we could just save weeks of discussion and debate and point out how as above, that whether or not an individual is an extremist and then subject to be criminalised, depends ultimately on whether the alleged struggle is in line with British foreign policy. The same Libyans who are hailed as freedom fighters were once imprisoned and pursued as terrorists by the full force of the British state, including the star chamber process of the courts. Today they are heroes and meeting the cream of the diplomatic service, some of whom were flown in with the help of the SAS and MI6. Unfortunately for the defendants in the Farooqi case, the issues that they were allegedly discussing or raising awareness about, were not in line with British foreign policy. So the convicted will languish in high security wings with the worst criminals that British society can produce. Such is the perilous nature of being Muslim in Britain today. Like the British state, it seems that justice has a price and if you are the wrong religion and colour, that price is high.
Jahangir Mohammed is the Director Centre for Muslim Affairs and adviser to Cageprisoners, and can be reached at [email protected]