Provocative preachers: Imams gone wild

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In 2004, an undercover BBC reporter spent six months infiltrating the far right British National Party, uncovering a slew of invective against British Muslims by the party leader, Nick Griffin, and others. Muslims were pleasantly surprised that the BNP was caught in the act, and the resulting furore resulted in closed bank accounts and a lengthy trial for inciting hatred (though that ended with acquittals late last year). It was only a matter of time before Muslims found themselves undergoing the same type of scrutiny.

A British documentary that aired in early January (Dispatches: Undercover Mosque) featured an undercover reporter recording the statements of a number of imams at a few British mosques (predominantly the Green Lane Masjid in Birmingham), as well as the DVDs recorded by them and sold in mosque bookshops. The programme’s intention was to highlight the extent of Saudi influence in British Muslim religious life. However, what was recorded was more an incrimination of the imams themselves and the mosques that hosted them. And Muslims were once again left caught between the eagerness of the media to portray Muslims in a negative light and the misguided imams who provoke it.

Among the imams featured was Abu Usamah, an American-born imam who is one of several rotating imams at the Green Lane Masjid, who was quoted as saying about non-Muslims, “We love the people of Islam and we hate the people of kufr, we hate the kuffaar” (His response? “Kuffaar is a generic term, it is not a derogatory term.”) As for women, he added, “Allah has created the woman � even if she gets a PhD � deficient. Her intellect is incomplete, deficient.” Dr. Ijaz Mian of the Ahl-e-Hadith mosque in Derby felt that Muslims should “live live like a state-within-a-state – until you take over,” at which time, “if you don’t [pray], then we have to bring the punishment on you – you will be killed and nobody will pray for you.” Another speaker says that girls should be forced to wear the hijab (“If she doesn’t wear hijab, we hit her”). Some of the remarks were found on offending DVDs being sold at a number of high profile institutions, including London’s Central Mosque in Regent’s Park (the mosque counters that the DVDs were sold by a subcontracted retailer without their knowledge). However, none of the recordings or DVDs showed these views challenged or debated.

One of the imams also featured in Dispatches was the Australian-born imam Feiz Mohamed caught on a DVD (the “Death Series“, no less – who names these things?) describing Jews as pigs (accompanied by a snorting sound) and calling on Muslim children to be trained as martyrs. “Teach them this: There is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a mujahid (holy warrior),” he said. “Put in their soft, tender hearts the zeal of jihad and a love of martyrdom.” (“The jihad I speak of is not one of violence,” he responded. “It is one of personal struggle against things like mischievousness, temptation and personal harm.” No explanation, however, was given on how exactly one “die[s] as a mujahid” or sacrifices blood through this kind of jihad.)

In Australia, this expos� followed another widely publicized case of self-incrimination from Australian chief mufti, Sheikh Hilali, who had earlier likened non-Muslim women to “uncovered meat” and called non-Muslim Australians “a convict nation of liars“. Hilali’s defense, as with Feiz and Abu Usamah, was to claim that remarks had been taken out of context. (Abu Usamah even went as far as to release a 30-minute rebuttal on YouTube to address them.) Leaving aside the strained rationale for context (Abu Usamah, for example, stated that military jihad should not happen now, but later when Muslims are stronger), most organisations caught affiliating with them offered fervent defenses of their own work – but little condemnation of the remarks that put them in such a precarious position.

While in free speech terms, there’s nothing wrong with people espouse embarrassing or even insulting views, there is a responsibility for the larger community to counter them. “We are a nationwide organisation and hold different programmes in our mosques,” said the UK Islamic Mission. “Anyone can air their views.” Fair enough. But how ridiculous do Muslims look when such views are accepted by Muslim audiences without debate? How vulnerable do Muslims become when these views appear threatening to the non-Muslim majorities in the UK and Australia (and rightly so)? The willingness of the media to exploit these sentiments is a given. The failure of Muslims to challenge them is not.

For now, only tepid challenges have been made to the imams caught in the act. “Documentary makers have an important responsibility though to do their research properly and carefully identify those who actually incite hatred,” notes Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. “They must take great care to avoid unfairly stigmatising whole institutions and groups of people. The Dispatches team may have partly succeeded with the first bit, but I believe they failed quite badly with the second.” Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain is one of a few that goes further. “British Muslims have a problem and it needs to be recognised. If it is, then we can isolate the few extremist individuals, and the entire community will stop being stigmatised.”

Like the earlier Freedom House report in the United States, where the finding of offensive literature in some US mosques was used to allege a larger conspiracy, the existence of a few truly inappropriate remarks are being used to unfairly create alarm towards an entire community. It is sensationalist, exploitative, and patently unfair to the vast majority of Muslims. But such efforts to “expose” Muslims as closet extremists should come as no surprise to any Muslim in the public sphere, especially after 9/11 and 7/7. And our religious and political leaders should know better than to allow themselves to be framed in such a manner.

There is a larger issue, however, that lies entirely within the domain of the Muslim community, which is the relevance of this kind of ideology to Muslims in the West. What is the point in insisting women are deficient intellectually (to a male audience, mind you) if not to subjugate them? What possible positive purpose can invoking violent imagery or rhetoric have when weighted against the possibility – more likely probability – that those words will come back to haunt their speakers and taint their listeners? What is the use of whipping up Muslims with exhortations to “military jihad” – only to deny followers, as Abu Usamah claims on his videotaped rebuttal, any avenues to express those sentiments?

Are we really to believe that the term “kuffar” (often preceded by modifiers such as “dirty” and “filthy”) is being used in a neutral way, as Abu Usamah also claims? And how can children raised they way Imam Mohamed exhorts – wanting to “die as a mujahid” – become well-adjusted members of the Western societies in which they live? What possible context could this language have that would eliminate the impression that this speech is intended to militarize Muslims in the West? And if the intention really is to militarize, how could doing so possibly help Western Muslims?

Imam Mohamed at least expressed “regret” for snorting like a pig in reference to Jews, saying that he was caught up in the emotion of the moment. But that begs the question of why imams so often let their emotions get the better of them while they are taping comments for all the world to see. Surely it doesn’t take much restraint to avoid “becoming emotional” or otherwise incriminating oneself on camera. Isn’t control of our base instincts something we are supposed to master during Ramadan?

Our leaders and imams – whether selected by the community or not – are there to serve Muslims, not the other way around. Once again, Muslims are wasting resources defending the indefensible. Once again, we are being told to not question militant teachings that are harmful to the Muslim psyche, not to mention the relations between Muslims and society at large. In the absence of Muslims holding (or being allowed to hold) our leaders accountable for their actions, non-Muslims are doing the job for us. Regretfully, our collective inaction leaves us little room to complain.

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of  He is based in London, England.

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