A dingy community hall in the back streets of Bethnal Green on a cold and miserable winter’s evening. We’re all here waiting for the weird, hook-handed fundamentalist cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza al Misri, the most loathed man in Britain, who is about to hold a public meeting.
When I say ‘we’re all here’, I mean the infidel scum from the Daily Mail, a bunch of whores from the BBC, a cockroach from the Standard and a lower-than-cattle news agency chap. We’re all present and correct.
What we’re really short of at the moment is fanatics, fundamentalists or, indeed, Muslims of any gradation of fervour. When I last looked in the hall, there were three people, two of whom work for the sheikh, including his cheerful and likable press officer, Abu Aziz. (Yes, everybody these days has a press officer.) It’s a thin turnout.
Abu Aziz isn’t planning to let the whores, infidels, etc. into the hall; except me, because I asked nicely in advance and we’re making a film for BBC4 about Hamza which I’ve assured them will be ‘intelligent’. Ha! They fell for that old ruse! I am, then, for this evening at least, a richly favoured whore and take my seat a little smugly.
But Abu Aziz has got a tricky problem. ‘I kept telling myself not to question people when they come in just because they’re white. It’s racist. I mean, they might not be press, they might just be interested people off the street, mightn’t they?’
Nope, Abu, they’re all press. Including the one you let in a few moments ago, the smart young man with the nice short hair, suit, tie and large notebook. That’s what you get for being politically correct, Abu; you get done over.
By the time Hamza arrives – big billowing cloak, big nasty-looking hook – there are about 12 people inside the hall, including me and the cameraman and the young man with the notebook. Later the numbers swell to 16, when some shrouded women come in and sit at the back eating noxious fried chicken.
Time, during the meeting, loses its shape and drags its heels. Worse, the bar is closed.
Hamza is softly spoken and given to parables and metaphors. There isn’t much of the rabble-rouser about him. Most of the questions this evening concern the Koran and the way in which Muslims should behave in such a godless country – a ‘toilet’, as the good sheikh describes it – as Britain. Things like, do we have to wear beards, and how long should they be? as someone asks.
Hamza spends two interminable hours urging everybody to be peaceable and tolerant of one another, even of us infidel whore cockroach scum, which is hugely disappointing for the Associated Press boys. He even condemns al-Qa’eda. We get his political and social analysis, too, which is basically conservative. By which I mean pre-Plantagenet conservative. And then we get even more wacko stuff, like the Twin Towers were blown up by Jews (using misled or duped Muslim brothers). Banks are horrid. The Taleban were the only good government to have walked the earth. And so on.
Halfway through all this, a young man who has been hitherto silent puts his hand up for a question.
‘Yes?’ says Abu Hamza al Misri.
The man looks down at his feet and says, ‘Excuse me, I don’t want to be offensive or anything, but…’ he pauses, ‘…are you completely mad?’
There’s a bit of a murmuring in the hall. Abu Hamza sighs and asks ‘What, exactly, do you mean, mad?’
And the man shrugs and replies, ‘Well, I told all my friends I was coming to hear you speak tonight and they said, uh-oh, he’s mad. And I’ve sat and listened to you for an hour and, well, I think they’re right. You are completely mad.’
Hamza replies at some length, without much rancour or, it has to be said, conviction. I bet poor Abu Aziz, the nice press man, got an earful later.
A week later I met up with Hamza again, this time in the scarcely more cheerful environs of the Kensington Hilton Hotel, where he’d agreed to a proper interview. Some of his young minions were with him. They looked quite scary, these boys, when they surrounded him at prayers outside the Finsbury Park mosque the previous Friday – all cool and threatening in their ghetto-chic-faux-intifada headscarves. They looked less of a threat when they were raiding the minibar for chocolate in room 1017, and sniggering whenever their boss mentioned the word ‘homosexuals’.
I’d brought up the subject. A pamphlet from Hamza’s organisation, ‘Supporters of Sharia’, recently criticised the government for reducing the age of consent for homosexuals ‘to the same as it is for human beings’. It continued – you want to know, don’t you? – with these words: ‘They call it gay. We call it digging filth out of young boys’ backsides.’ And so on. It’s just one example of the epic, almost heroic, levels of intolerance with which Hamza and his people are suffused. But it’s not his fault: it’s God’s fault.
‘We cannot stop saying these things simply because some people don’t like it,’ he said. ‘I know what you are saying about the language, it can seem extreme….’
Oh, a teensy bit, you might argue….
‘Well yes; but it is not me. It is not us. It is what God says. It is what it says in your own Bible.’
And that, just about, is Abu Hamza’s answer to every criticism that he is stirring up hatred, against the West, against homosexuals and, most potently, against Jews.
‘I am absolutely not anti-Jewish.’
Yes you are!
‘No, not at all. It is the Zionist Jews, that is where the problem lies. Historically, Jews have found a refuge in Islamic countries when they were being persecuted by the Christians. They fled from Christian Spain to the Muslim Ottoman empire. It is the Zionist Entity that we oppose.’
That notwithstanding, Hamza believes there will be a final battle which will sort out the pesky Jews once and for all. (The bad Jews, not the tolerable Jews.) ‘It says this will happen in the Koran. In your Bible. And in the Talmud.’
So there you are.
What, then, about his unspeakably foul observation that the destruction of the Columbia space shuttle was to be welcomed because it was a sign from God? What sort of a God would send such a sign, anyway?
‘I did not say the deaths of the astronauts were to be welcomed. But it was a sign from God. The shuttle had an Israeli on board! It exploded over the town of Palestine in Texas! How is that not a sign from God?’
Um, right. So the sign from God was to be welcomed? ‘Of course. All signs from God are to be welcomed.’
He makes no attempt, Abu, to soften these strange and to us (but not to – let us say – an unknown quantity of Muslims) offensive beliefs.
We part as always on good terms, with him shaking his head sadly about the fact that I’m going to burn in Hell for eternity unless I sign up for Allah sharpish.
‘Just listen, Rod, and you will hear God calling you,’ he says.
Well, I tell him, I hear voices calling me all the time, but they’re usually calling me down the pub. He says, in that case, it’s probably not God. He might be right about that.
These, then, are a couple of vignettes of life with Abu Hamza, a man we are desperate to strip of his citizenship and chuck out of the country. He doesn’t, on the face of it, seem much of a threat to me. You can argue that he says horrible things, but we don’t kick people out of the country for that. We have tried to append to our loathing of the man a bunch of allegations about his involvement in terrorism, but none of them has stuck, otherwise he’d be long gone. He has been relentlessly persecuted through the full office of the state. The charity commissioners tried to stop him preaching at the Finsbury Park mosque, and then his assets got seized. His mosque was raided and boarded up, and now the Home Secretary is pursuing a way of kicking him out of the country for good, revoking a citizenship he’s held for more than 20 years.
And why? Because of what he says and nothing el
se, I suspect. And I wonder also if we aren’t a little ambivalent about some of his criticisms of our cherished, Western way of life: the pornography, the materialism, the vacuity.
He is, you have to say, profoundly anti-democratic, democracies being callow, man-made things, and, as a final irony, he doesn’t even agree with the concept of absolute freedom of speech. Ask him about it and his one good eye gets cloudy and he starts mumbling dark things about Salman Rushdie. Abu Hamza thinks Abu Hamza should have the freedom to speak his mind because, of course, it’s not really Abu Hamza speaking, but, in essence, God.
Should we deny freedom of speech to someone who doesn’t really believe in freedom of speech? Of course not. We let them have it. We let them have it and allow the injustice and contradiction inherent in such a stance do for them, in the end.
That’s the way a civilised nation would behave: allow itself to be described as a toilet without recourse, at times of provocation, to flushing everything we don’t like round the U-bend. In other words, engaging on our terms. Because we’re right, aren’t we?
Rod Liddle is associate editor of The Spectator. His film is on BBC4 on 17 March at 10.20 p.m.