As the Muslim Brotherhood's first ever President addresses (picture) the UN about Islamophobia CagePrisoners explores the parameters of freedom of expression in a case that saw the first books banned in the UK since Lady Chatterley, in this exclusive interview
In December 2011 bookseller and publisher Ahmad Faraz was found guilty for possessing and distributing books that purpotedly promoted terrorism and was sentenced to three years in prison.
The books in question included works by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, written at a time when Britain was openly supporting Afghan and foreign mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as well as the famous 1950s work of Syed Qutb, Milestones. This particular edition of Milestones was deemed to 'support terrorism' because it included appendices of thirteenth century exhortations to jihad which themselves were taken from the pre-Qutb syllabus of the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the time of Faraz's trial the Arab world had just been rocked by a series of revolutions that ousted western-backed dictators and brought supporters of the same Muslim Brotherhood into influence and power from Tunisia to Egypt, whose publictions had also once been regarded as 'terrorist' by their rulers.
CagePrisoners conducted this interview with Ahmad Faraz the night before he began his three-year prison term as a convicted bookseller. It is published just after Egypt's new leader Mohammed Morsi, addressed the assmebly of the United Nations about the "organised campaign" of Islamophobia in the world, as the Muslim Brotherhood's first ever President.
CagePrisoners: Could you please introduce yourself?
Ahmad Faraz: Ahmed Faraz. I have just been found guilty of eleven counts in the possession and dissemination of terrorism publications.
CP: Tell us a bit about your background.
AF: I’m 32 years old. I was the manager of the Maktabah bookshop in Birmingham.
CP: What were you doing before that?
AF: I studied Islamic theology at Birmingham University followed by a PGCE [Professional Graduate Certificate in Education].
CP: Tell us about your first arrest, prior to this conviction. Why did it happen?
AF: The honest truth is I still don’t know the exact reasons why the police chose to arrest me, and the other brother from the Maktabah bookshop. It was overall linked to another investigation that they had ongoing, an alleged ‘plot to kidnap a British soldier’. They arrested me and another brother from the bookshop and they seized thousands of books and DVDs. After 7 days (they) let us go. That was in 2007.
CP: Were you asked about a plot?
AF: They never asked about a plot. Ironically, they never asked about the books in detail either. After all of that, the police would like people to believe that arrest was to do with books. We know this because in this trial they had police officers give reasons for entering and searching our premises. At that time, none of the invoices were taken from the bookshop and stock wasn’t seized. Instead stock was taken from our storage but we did not know, definitively, what the reasons were for linking us to that investigation.
CP: What happened as a result of that?
AF: They kept the stock. Of course we were chasing them to get it back as no charges had been made.
In the meantime, I decided to pursue my career as a teacher. I applied for a CRB [Criminal Records Bureau] check, which is clearance that you need for a teaching job - which they actually ask the police for. After four months, they said I was clear but was being ‘investigated for terrorism’. So we realised then that these guys are still pursuing something, even though I had been released without charge. The shop was closed by then, and there was no real website.
CP: AT the time of your arrest quite a controversial and powerful statement that several politicians responded to in the press. Can you tell us about that?
AF: I was interviewed by a BBC journalist on the night after I was released without charge. I stated that Britain had become, or was en route to becoming a police state for Muslims. And my contention was that it wasn’t a police state for other communities. It was a police state for Muslims. Mainly due to the laws that have been legislated and the people being prosecuted. The target group was Muslims. So where people had been committing a crime, and they weren’t Muslims, a certain set of laws would be applied. And when it came to prosecuting Muslims, a different set of laws would come into place. It wasn’t even handed with regards to their approach.
CP: You are specifically referring to the ‘glorification of terrorism’ provision in the 2006 Terrorism Act?
AF: Correct. When that law came out in April 2006, it was seven or eight months before my first arrest in January 2007. There was a lot of ambiguity about this law and what it covered. We knew that at that time, there was a provision with regards to bookshops, and publications. So this was new. This wasn’t in the 2002 or 2000 [antiterror] legislation. We then thought the reason why we were arrested in 2007 was because of the 2006 legislation. But we weren’t actually arrested or investigated for that.
CP: Would you say you tried to stay within the law when it came to the bookshop?
AF: Definitely. Documents came to the surface during the trial, emails and other correspondence with our solicitors. (They) clearly show that we were trying to stay within the law. We were trying to find what the law says.
CP: Can you give examples of that?
AF: We had meetings with our solicitors, with barristers. They found, for example, personal notes I had to myself saying that ideas for the website would be submitted to the CPS to check if there was anything illegal. We want to know where we stand and we will remove it (anything illegal). We had the Maktabah project plan, which had various teams, including a legal team that would have monthly reviews of content. We knew that if there was a problem, we wanted to resolve it with in the law. Our lawyers even asked us what material might be controversial, what can we do to make sure we don’t fall foul of the law. But of course, at this time, no body knew what the law was. Ours was the first – a test case.
CP: You have a background in education as you said. You were studying for your PhD. That PhD thesis and the discussion material deriving from it, you were prosecuted for. Can you explain what that was about?
CP: My undergrad dissertation was ‘Christian responses to the early expansion of Islam’. My university department and the tutor, who was tutoring my dissertation, were happy with my work and they asked me to continue in the same vein, and to do a PhD. I liked that idea. I’d also just done my PGCE. In 2006, before even before the first arrest, I emailed my tutor, saying, ‘I’ve got access to primary source material’. When I met her, before the first arrest, I told her about the amount of primary source material I had accumulated and that I wanted to do my PhD on contrasting world views comparing Hamas and Al-Qaida. She liked the idea, and this remained the case even after the first arrest. I told her that a lot of the literature that exists now about Hamas and Al-Qaida is academic, where so-called scholars have been writing about terrorism, without primary source material. They’ve cut and paste and modified from other peoples work and it’s not really of a high scholarly level. However I have access to primary source material - I have many important interviews with people that haven’t even been publicised. So I’m in a position to write something which will add real academic value.
CP: When you say ‘primary source’ material, what do you mean?
AF: We have had an old archive of media material that has continuously been updated, to do with conflict zones and jihad the Islamic world. Much of this we inherited, and a lot of the material we gathered was sent to us continuously over a period of time. There was so much material that I couldn’t look at it all and just put them in folders on our computers for future reference. Now, a lot of the stuff which they have now charged me with, the Section 58s [Terrorism Act 2000], are materials that came in January 2007, just days before the arrest. So we didn’t have time to go through it.
CP: What was the impact on you personally, and your family, did it change your perception about the UK and about what was going on?
AF: I was a qualified teacher but, as a result, wasn’t allowed to pursue that career. But al-Hamdulillah, Allah is al-Razzaaq [the Provider]. They closed the door, and He opened another door. We are a people of principles, and that’s what we at Maktabah have always been. And we are neither an extremist bookshop, nor do we keep lop-sided material. What we wanted to do was present Islam as a whole. We didn’t have ten bookshelves on Jihad; we had many shelves on different matters from jurisprudence to spirituality. After the first arrest the shop was closed, and we decided that we will resurrect the website, and tried to create the world’s largest free online Islamic library. That went live in ’08. In 2010, it was seized and closed.
CP: What was the name of the first police operation?
AF: Operation Gamble
CP: And the name of the second operation?
CP: Do you feel there’s any significance in the names of these cases?
AF: In my first interview, I actually said, ‘look at the name of the actual operation, ‘Gamble’’. At that time, they had arrested nine individuals or so, and we thought the ‘Gamble’ was to bring in Maktabah. In my statement after the first arrest, I said ‘this is to discredit the bookshop’.
CP: Can you tell us a little bit about the second arrest?
AF: The first arrest occurred with breaking the door down, charging in, 5 o’clock in the morning or so. After that arrest I told that officer I was liaising with in regards to return of property, ‘if you ever want to talk to me again, don’t come and raid my house and knock my door down. You know where I am, tell me, and I’ll come to the police station’. He just laughed it off. The second arrest was for the ‘offence’ of distributing books. They raided my house again at 5 o’clock in the morning, three years later, breaking the door downagain, knowing that I had not caused any problems in the past.
CP: How long did you have to remain in remand, in custody?
AF: I was in the police station for seven days after which I went to prison. Belmarsh, for seven weeks. After that I was granted bail.
CP: How was your time in Belmarsh?
AF: Belmarsh is a remand prison so it’s not like other prisons that are more settled. It’s high security and lots of Muslims in each of the blocks. I was the longest standing to be arrested and charged, in the West Midlands. I was arrested in 2007 and charged in 2010.
CP: Why do you think it took them that long?
AF: This is a very important point actually, if I give you the chronology. According to the police testimony, in September 2008, they looked at the books and the DVDs. They sought advice from the one of the DI’s [detective inspector] in the ‘Gamble’ case. He said the material may be anti-Western but it does notpromote terrorism. The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] had not made a decision at that time, they needed advice themselves. In September they decided to pursue the Maktabah. At that time they said their computers were down, the data they had of the copies they’d made, failed. It wasn’t until January the prosecution decided to go ahead with the case. Actually the prosecution said they didn’t their terrorism ‘expert’ Bruce Hoffman (from RAND) June 2009 and he didn’t come back with his report until December 09. In January 2010 they arrested me.
CP: What you were charged with?
AF: I was charged on thirty counts, split into three ‘chapters’. The first ten were Milestones, the Sheikh Abdullah Azzam books: Defence of the Muslims Lands, Lofty Mountain, Join the Caravan, Army of Madinah; The Absent Obligation; and videos: 21st Century Crusaders, Malcolm X and the Genocide in Gujarat. This was the stuff that they said had terrorist implications. The second ‘chapter’ as the prosecution called it, were those items that we had in our possession with a view to distribute. And they included mainly videos. And the last ten were [computer] files that they said could be of use to terrorists.
CP: Tell us about some of those counts. What is the significance of the first 10, the ones related to the books?
AF: It’s my personal opinion that they targeted these books, not because of their prominence within the Muslim world as such, but because they want to outlaw discussion on jihad as a concept.
CP: Would it be right to say it’s more about the authors, or the content or both?
AF: The authors will now become more of an issue. You can say Sayyid Qutb and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam were at centre stage.
CP: During the prosecution, do you think the jury and the judge were significantly aware of the connotations of banning a book, the appendices of which were part of the syllabus of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has now taken power all over North Africa?
AF: No. Can a jury of 12 random people from the public have the right understanding and framework to digest this material? The answer would obviously be no. Even the prosecution kept saying ‘Milestones itself is not a problem, but this edition of Milestones is the problem’ and ‘Abdullah Azzam himself is not a problem, but this book published here is a problem’. The law didn’t come out and say this book is banned, or they fall foul of the law as such. Nobody knew what the law was – this was a test case. The solicitors didn’t know, the judge himself wanted clarification as to what the laws says. Judge Calvert-Smith earlier this year said that this law applies ‘if a significant amount of people are encouraged to commit a specific terrorist offence within specific period of time’. But if you have published in 2000 and distributed in 2010 [as we did], what’s the timescale? They had to have gone into a person’s mind and find his intentions. And this case is about books – which are not something this society associates with crime.
CP: What about the second ten counts?
AF: These were the ‘wills’ they found, which I had stopped selling. They referred to them as the ‘Al-Qaida material’. I actually took them off the shelves when I come into management. I was found not guilty on all counts.
CP: And the last 10?
AF: They were Section 58s, where the crime is mere possession. If someone has a file or a book that could be of some use to a terrorist, then merely having that in your possession is a crime. Now, the prosecution has to show two things: One, you had knowledge that you had it in your possession, and two, that you didn’t have a reasonable excuse having it. The jury decided that I knew I had it in my possession and that I did not have a reasonable excuse for possessing it.
CP: Can you tell us a little bit about the material, why did you have it?
AF: The honest truth, many of the counts in this last chapter I saw for the first time in the police station. I accept responsibility, if it’s on the computers that we generally run, then that’s fine. We are not going to shy away from that. The fact is looking at the volume - we had 3 million files that they found. It took seven officers nine months to sieve through and flag up 70,000 files. So if it took them that long, they haven’t proved one bit that I had knowledge. For example, the ‘Al-Qaida training manual’ came in a folder, which was part of another folder which had files on Palestine. So when I actually received it, I put it in my PhD dissertation, under my video research on Palestine and Hamas.
CP: Most of this material that you have been convicted on was in that PhD’ folder ‘?
AF: Pretty much all of it, yes.
CP: Despite you having contacted your supervisor earlier to discuss your PhD?
AF: I told her originally in 2003 and then in 2006. It came up in the case because the emails between me and her were brought up.
CP: Surely that satisfies the legitimate excuse?
AF: The jury didn’t accept it, they didn’t accept the fact it was a reasonable ground.
It was Qadr Allah [Allah’s will], they found other files within those millions of files. The defence barrister said the prosecution speech was 80 per cent talking about other cases and other related things. So the prosecution would say here we have a file which depicts killings, for example. Mere possession of these files was enough for them to claim that was part of my psyche.
CP: About the Al-Qaida manual. You are aware that it was identified in the case of Rizwaan Sabir, who downloaded it to study ‘The difference between the operational methods of Al-Qaida and Hamas’. Was the prosecution aware of what had happened in this case?
AF: It wasn’t mentioned directly. The computer expert said that this document exists in various forms all over the internet. It’s even on the US Justice Department website. Firstly however, I would ask who determined it’s the ‘Al-Qaida manual’? Secondly, I didn’t know I was in possession of it. And thirdly, if I did know and if it was the Al-Qaida manual, then if you are doing a PhD on Al-Qaida clearly you can collect material for it. I didn’t know I had it but if I did know I had it, it would have been for a legitimate purpose. One video they tried to prosecute me for under Section 58 was called ‘Manhattan Raids’. When they saw it was of some young brothers flying around doing kicks and what not it was thrown out. The point I want to make is that the prosecution threw all this stuff in, and hoped some of it would stick. Much of it didn’t, but enough of it did.
CP: Effectively the government was trying to teach 12 mostly non-Muslim jurors very complex issues about Islam that most Muslims find very difficult to understand. How did they show that?
AF: They had two so-called experts. One was a person called Matthew Tariq Wilkinson, who I hadn’t heard of before.
CP: Is he a scholar of Islam?
AF: I wouldn’t say that. He memorised two juzz [two thirtieths] of the Qur’an, and his PhD I think was on ‘Muslim boys in education’.
He very clearly had no Islamic credentials in terms of terrorism or jihad. His basic argument was that where ever you find literature talking about jihad that equals terrorism. And where ever you find martyrdom this equals suicide bombing. So his simple conclusion regarding the books was that extolling the virtues of jihad means glorifying terrorism.
CP: How did he go about explaining US support for the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets?
AF: Neither he nor Hoffman [the other expert] explored this in this in their reports [submitted to the court before trial]. He was cornered in his cross examination and scored own goals for the prosecution. This is why up until the verdict today, we thought, both their experts’ testimonies backfired on the main thesis. But the jury didn’t accept the end arguments made by the defence.
CP: Just interpret the scholarship of someone like Wilkinson. He said that the word ‘shuhada’ martyrs, isn’t found in the Quran. Isn’t that enough to say the nature of his report couldn’t be called ‘expert’?
AF: In terms of his Islamic conclusions: very dubious. But what he and people of his ilk usually do is bring credibility for the prosecution through the judge. This is an inside person who explains things in such a way, that an outsider can’t really see. Wilkinson and the judge were both old Etonians, they both told each other so. He’s telling the judge about the pretext, subtext, context and his take on why, of all places, the books were being published in Birmingham. In summing up, the judge actually quoted Wilkinson’s analysis. He said, in that in 2001 attacks in New York go off, and Maktabah published this book. And then this bomb goes off, and you have this book published, and so on. This was his chronology.
CP: Was this argument brought by the opposition itself?
CP: So effectively the judge made an argument against you that the prosecution didn’t bring?
AF: There were certain points the judge made that the prosecution were not actually making.
CP: Do you think it was clear to the jury based on the fact that the three books by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam were all written at the time of the height of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan when Britain and America were training mujahidin units, in the Welsh and Scottish mountains, supplying them with cash, logistical support and Blowpipe and Stinger anti-air craft missile systems? Do you think the prosecution was fully aware of the fact Britain was supporting jihad even now in Libya. And those same fighters, who may have fought against Britain and America in the past, are now respected leaders in their country?
AF: Wilkinson rejected it, but Hoffman accepted it. He said contradictory things, sometimes three times in different ways. He accepted Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was not a terrorist. In the closing summary of the defence, Libya was discussed. This was not a unique moment in history where Britain had supported a jihad. It had done so when it suited interests. In the end though, the jury followed the direction of the judge.
To look at it in one way the defence didn’t call witnesses because the prosecution witnesses messed up so much
CP: So, you didn’t even bring a case?
AF: Didn’t call any case, no witnesses, and I didn’t stand myself
CP: So you effectively felt the case went very well, that you didn’t have to stand yourself?
AF: It’s supposed to be a strong statement, to present that there is so much evidence [in our favour], and really if you look at the direction by the judge, its Qadr Allah that this verdict was given.
CP: Why do you think they came to this conclusion?
AF: I personally think, the judge allowed unrelated cases to come in. The prosecution were allowed to say this attack was linked to this book and that attack to another. Apparently one of the 7th July bombers had one of these books, somewhere.
CP: What’s the next step? Do you have an appeal planned?
AF: Nothing’s been finalised, none of us actually expected it to be like this, we thought if it goes pear shaped it will do so in different ways.
CP: Some of the authors of the books that you have been successfully prosecuted for were themselves imprisoned by the same regimes and their inheritors who were recently ousted in revolutions in Egypt. What do you think that says for Britain today?
AF: I think Britain is not unique in the anti-Muslim stance its taking. Look at it Europe-wide. Each of the countries is putting in practice different measures that are discriminatory to Muslims. Whether it’s banning a mosque in Switzerland somewhere, or banning niqaab in France. Or other such measures in Holland. In this country they do not want Muslims growing up with concept of ummah, and struggling for justice and rights. They don’t want people growing up on this. Or they will be seen as enemies of the state.
CP: Britain, until recently, saw itself as a refuge for people who didn’t have freedom of expression as a result of those oppressions they were facing. Britain is the land of Shakespeare, of Wordsworth, of literature. It produces more than 100, 000 original titles every year and yet is prosecuting, successfully, someone for publishing books. What do you think that says about the future of Britain and how it likes to see itself?
AF: What I said earlier, when it comes to Islam and Muslims, rules change, even in the height of the Irish ‘Troubles’. One could ask, how much Irish poetry or Irish books were banned, even when bombs were going off regularly on the British mainland. Western civilisation, Britain included, likes to portray itself as the defender of justice, where fair trials exist. This is where freedom of speech is not played with, compromised at all. I made a statement in 2007, at a time when Salman Rushdie was being knighted for expressing his views, even though he was blasphemous towards the Queen amongst other things.
CP: How do you feel about this case personally?
AF: Allah be praised, everyone likes to quote Ibn Taymiyyah at this time. Having a connection to Allah, nothing they can do to you can harm you. They can’t attack you; they can’t take your emaan [faith] from you. And that’s the most precious thing. They might take other things that you might find precious. But the most precious thing is connection to Allah and emaan. As long as you have that, and the Qur’an, al-Hamdulillah, it’s all a blessing.
CP: Is there anything more you’d like to share with our readers?