Omar Bakri Muhammad
is the preacher and activist who founded the Salafi network al-Muhajiroun. He spoke to Anthony McRoy at its offices in north London on 2 February 2003.
Two-and-a-half years later, he was permanently banned from Britain, on the grounds that his presence was ‘not conducive to the public good’.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Can you tell me a little about your upbringing? Have you always been a religious person?
There is almost a tradition that every Syrian family chooses a child to go and study Islam exclusively in order to be a scholar. So, my father chose me from among my 27 brothers and sisters – he had three wives and a lot of family – and devoted me to God.
He was very rich, which helped my studies a lot. I followed the old system for studying Islam, where you live with a scholar and not only study with him three or four hours a day but observe how he sells, how he buys, how he deals, how he talks, so that in your small group Islam becomes a way of life.
I do not believe in religion. Islam is a din, an ideology, which is what you believe in and live by and die for, from which emanates a whole way of life. Everybody has got a din. You believe in the Trinity and live by the Christian way of life and you would die to defend that belief.
Does it trouble you that you now find yourself living in a country that has no Islamic ethos?
To be honest, I never, ever thought I would live in Britain. I was always against the idea that people should leave the place where they need to establish change and reform and go to somewhere else. Sort out your own home first, that was my philosophy. But when I found myself here [having fled arrest in Syria and Lebanon and been deported from Saudi Arabia], I studied the history of the messengers and the prophets and found that all of them, when they were rejected by their own people, went to foreign lands to fulfil the same mission.
So, I did not say, ‘I am on holiday. Now I do nothing.’ No, I started to preach – and if I preached at 60 miles an hour under a dictatorial system, here I am going to speed at 120 miles an hour because of your freedom of speech. That has helped me a lot.
I do not believe in using force. I do not believe that violence is the way to spread Islam – though if you ask me about the occupation of Muslim land by non-Muslim forces, obviously that is different
What is the agenda for al-Muhajiroun in Britain?
The call of Islam is to command good, forbid evil and expose man-made law. We believe the problem is man-made laws, whether in the shape of capitalism or communism or so-called Islamic republics. Sovereignty belongs either to God or to Man. We believe that sovereignty and supremacy belong to God, and wherever we are we have one aim: to invite people to Islam and to establish an Islamic state – the Khilafah, where people choose a leader and he executes the command of God in the Qur’an. This is what all Islamic movement is for, to establish the Caliphate where Muslims and non-Muslims can live together under Islamic law.
So yes, I am working to see Islam implemented in Britain instead of the capitalist ideology which is dominant. Christianity is not in power here. We know some Christians say, ‘Leave what is for God to God and what is for Caesar to Caesar,’1See Matthew 22:21. but what if Caesar does not implement God’s commands?
And how will you achieve your goal?
By doing what the messengers did: inviting people to Islam, to reflect on the commands of God and not to obey man-made law, not to participate in elections or in any action which angers God, such as unlawful sexual or economic transactions.
I do not believe in using force. I do not believe that violence is the way to spread Islam (though if you ask me about the occupation of Muslim land by non-Muslim forces, obviously that is a different story). I believe in changing the dominant ideas in society to enable you to change the whole society.
Some people, including fellow Muslims, have said that your preaching helps to create Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is part and parcel of Islamic culture. I don’t know why you or I need to ‘create’ Islamophobia. When you say there is no God but Allah – no creator, no provider, no legislator but Allah – this is cause for all people to be concerned. Their phobia is a phobia of the truth.
I’m not surprised if the Muslim Council of Britain disagree with my stand, because their sect cedes sovereignty to the Queen. Those you call ‘moderate’ Muslims I call ‘deviant’, because they tell you one thing and believe something different. The one who says something he doesn’t believe in is a hypocrite – like he believes that Christians are misguided or that Jews are cursed and he says that in every prayer, and yet he says to you, ‘You are the best.’
I don’t say that. I have always said that originally Judaism and Christianity were messages from God but they have been distorted and are now false.
Do you then have a dim view of Christians?
My son is married to a Greek Orthodox Christian and we ourselves respect the Orthodox because we find them very spiritually motivated – not politically motivated like the Catholics. They know exactly what they are looking for: the kingdom of God.
I believe I am living in the kingdom of God and wherever I am I will adhere to his commands, I will elevate his name and I will declare sovereignty and supremacy for him
I have myself met [the evangelical Christian apologist] Jay Smith a couple of times,2See wikipedia.org. and I respect him because he stands firm on what he believes and does not compromise. You feel comfortable talking with people like this because they don’t have double standards. His inner self is like his outer self.
Do you believe it is possible to be a British Muslim?
You see, the earth is the kingdom of God, it is not the kingdom of Man. God created this earth for Man to live in and Man, wherever he is, whatever his background and whatever his colour, must adhere to the command of God. So, I do not see that living in Britain… I believe I am living in the kingdom of God and wherever I am I will adhere to his commands, I will elevate his name and I will declare sovereignty and supremacy for him. Either you establish God’s rule or you live under the rule of one who disobeys God and you become sinful.
If Britain is such a sinful place, why do you stay?
I never planned to stay here, God witness! It was my plan to get a visa to my dream land, Pakistan, or to Indonesia or Malaysia. These are the places for me because the Muslim feeling there – we just need ‘the hour’ and we can change all this capitalism that is baggaged as so-called Islam. That was my plan.
But I have no problem with the British public. I love Britain. It is part of the kingdom of God. How could I dare to complain about any part of his creation? I am talking about man-made law.
Are you a threat to this country?
No. I have a covenant with the British Government not to violate its sanctity, its wealth, its life or its honour. My visa has certain conditions, and any Muslim who violates these conditions violates the sanctity of almighty God. Muslims must always respect a covenant, even with those who kill our own brothers and sisters abroad
I do not believe in violence, I believe in debate and discussion. But if I condemn Arab regimes, you call me an extremist. If I expose intellectually man-made law, you call me a fundamentalist. If I support Muslim freedom-fighters in Palestine or Chechnya, you call me a terrorist. Come on, for God’s sake! Give us a break! You just call us names all the time.
Are you concerned when young Muslims from Britain go to take part in jihad overseas?
What do you expect them to do? They go to defend their own homelands, their mothers and fathers. It is no secret. Do we recruit them to do that? There is no need. Do I encourage them to go? Of course. If somebody says to me, ‘I want to go to defend my homeland,’ I say, ‘May God bless you!’ God asks him to defend his homeland.
According to George W Bush, the reason al-Qa’ida attacked America was that it stands for freedom and opportunity. Is that how you see it?
America now represents worldwide capitalism. Our grievance is really against capitalists in all regimes.
I find that the British public are so ignorant about the issues of the Muslim world. It was Britain that destroyed the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and divided and colonised Muslim land and established interests in the region and gave Palestine to the European refugee Jews. It was Britain that installed so many corrupt Arab regimes who themselves adhere to the capitalist ideology. The leaders we have now are not Islamic, they are corrupt, dictatorial apostates – but they protect the interests of the West.
I am against the evil foreign policy of capitalism. They bomb Afghanistan, they bomb Iraq, they bomb Somalia and Sudan. The people of the West, like it or not, vote for that system. That’s why I find it so annoying that Christians accept all this that is done in their names. You don’t say, ‘Wait! Christianity is all about love. Where is the love?’ You say, ‘Leave what is for God to God,’ but you vote in the end for Caesar.
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Omar Bakri Muhammad was born in 1958 in Damascus to a Syrian father and a Turkish mother. He received no secular education but up to the age of 18 ‘accompanied’ three scholars eminent in Islamic jurisprudence and in all aspects of the Shari’ah, the Islamic way of life.
Having become involved in the Muslim Brotherhood, he was obliged to leave Syria in 1977 when the government began arresting Islamists. He continued his studies in Beirut, where he joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic political ‘party of liberation’. There he married a Lebanese woman and acquired a Lebanese passport.
When Syria invaded Lebanon in 1978, he moved to Cairo for further studies which qualified him as a mufti, a judge who can give rulings (or fatwas) on religious law.
After six months, he progressed to Saudi Arabia, to study for seven years in religious schools in Mecca, Medina and Jeddah. In 1983, when the branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir he had formed there was rejected by the party, he launched al-Muhajiroun.
He was deported in 1986 after publishing a leaflet against the Saudi monarchy and, having a current visa from an earlier visit, came to Britain. When the Syrian embassy confiscated one passport and the Lebanese rejected the other, he applied for political asylum and in 1990 was granted exceptional leave to remain.
In 1991, he founded the London School of Shari’ah and the Shari’ah Court of the UK, in which he is one of 11 judges.
In 1994, he organised a Rally for Khilafah in Wembley Arena which attracted at least 7,000 people, and in the following year a Rally for Islam in Trafalgar Square, where he invited the Queen, the Prime Minister and the British people to embrace Islam.
In 1996, after he finally fell out with Hizb ut-Tahrir, he relaunched al-Muhajiroun as an independent organisation which is now active in Britain, France and the United States, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Africa, Mauritius, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
He has six children and two grandchildren.
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2003