I met Abu Hamza once in a former existence. The exact year is lost to me, but it was in the infancy of the millennium circa 2003 or so before we both saw exile from the Islamic scene. His took the form of a long stretch in prison for the imaginary crime of racial hatred, and incitement to kill. Mine took the far less punitive fate of voluntary retirement from the spiritual game.
The chance encounter was remote from the troubled scenes of the ill reputed Finsbury Park Mosque outside of whose gates he bellowed Friday sermons to his band of followers after facing eviction from its premises. The wary board of trustees there had seen one too many politically-charged speeches by the moral exhibitionist, and asked him to exhibit his combustible wares somewhere else where they might find keener enjoyment.
For Abu Hamza’s makeshift homilies of the week, a platoon of camera lugging journalists converged on the street to snap a closeup of that most highly sought of all journalistic shots, the gesticulating Muslim ranter with a beard long enough to strangle the godless and a flowing robe wide enough to hide the body.
My brush with the country’s best known emissary of Allah was at the more genteel establishment of the Al Muntada Mosque in Parsons Green, south west London. I had just wrapped up my evening maghrib prayers for the day and was on my way out to fetch my sneakers from the shoe rack by the exit when I spotted a familiar face. Gee, was that not the Abu Hamza guy from TV? It’s hard to miss the fellow.
He cut the figure of a classic vaudeville baddy complete with prosthetic hooks for hands and a missing eye. The only thing missing from his sinister getup was a black cape and a twirly moustache. If there was ever a man born to play a villainous part, it was the scowling sheikh, and if there was ever a country that loved to be spooked, it is the United Kingdom of Hysteria.
Beyond the impish delight of spotting a man of bad renown, the impromptu encounter was of little consequence to me and even less to him. “As-salamu alaykum” I said with a grin. “Wa alaykum salaam” came the reply. And that was the end of that. It would have been interesting to have spoken more fulsomely because I knew from his stray television appearance that he was a colourful character, and it was the only time I ever saw him swing by that mosque, but extended conversation with him, like with other imams I have known, was inhibited by the habit common to devout Muslims to hold up clerics with something approaching the veneration of God. It’s hard to enjoy light banter with a Light Bearer.
I lost all recollection of the man till the BBC revealed, on the eve of his extradition, that it was rendering a formal apology to the Queen of England for reporting that she had pressed a cabinet minister for the arrest of the “hate preacher” in the heyday of his rabble rousing. The news story, as it went, was not unsound. The problem was simply that this revelation was politically gauche for Her Majesty, who convention dictates should remain aloof from the workings of power. I have heard before of journalists making retractions for misreporting facts. I have never sampled the novel pleasure of witnessing a reporter mea culping for getting his facts right.
At the criminal trial in which English courts sent Abu Hamza down, in 2006, it is instructive that many of the offences of which he was convicted had as much to do with having been “insulting” and “abusive” about unbelievers and possessing violent sermons and literature as actually inciting terrorism, comic and prehistoric laws that are in the process of being partly struck down to modernise the primitive state of free speech in Britain that could warm the heart of any theocratic despot, and that had he performed them in the United States – to which he’s been rendered on a separate offence – they would have been protected under the First Amendment. The US Supreme Court in Brandenburg v Ohio upheld the right to incendiary speech short of what it describes as urging “imminent lawless action”: mere advocacy of violence in the abstract is constitutional.
UK citizens who plot acts of violence inside Britain should be tried by a jury of their peers where they committed their crime. The despotic regime of indefinite detention and selective extradition is an affront to civilised democratic norms.