By Michael Goldfarb
London -- Reporters are not a priestly class. Journalism is not
a religious calling. We do not separate ourselves from ordinary
humanity by celibacy, or any other form of monastic behavior.
We are just ordinary citizens with the same feelings and biases
as others. Our profession requires us to impartially gather facts
but it doesn't mean we don't have an emotional response to what
we see and hear.
Since September 11th all my documentaries have been about Islam in one way or another, reported from Muslim countries. During this time I have interviewed more angry Muslims than is good for your mental health. I had also become very close to an Iraqi, a wonderful man who spent most of his life opposing Saddam only to be murdered by Islamists several months after the U.S overthrew the Iraqi dictator. When the assignment came to do a piece on radical British Muslims I balked. I just didn't want to talk to one more hate-filled soul, who in the abstract would just as soon cut my head off, unless I had the right to argue back. But those aren't the rules of journalism ... and keeping your feelings to yourself during the course of an hour long interview is a lot easier than taking a life-long vow of chastity.
So I went off to meet with Britain's wannabe jihadis. And it was a good thing. No amount of writing about the radical preachers can compare with actually listening to them. It was important to find out what kind of person attends the meetings of al-Muhajiroun. At one point in the process of putting together British Jihad: Inside Out I thought of running the tape unedited so that everyone who listens could get the full weight of the lecture of Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of the group. I thought no script was needed to explain to listeners why some people who have attended his lectures have gone on suicide missions in Israel or have been scooped off the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. My brilliant studio producer George Hicks listened to the unedited talk and an unedited interview with three of the Sheikh's acolytes. He called me and said the tape frightened him to death.
In the end though, other rules of good journalism came into play and there is a full range of British Muslim opinion in the piece. The Muslim community in Britain is not as large as in France, but it is more politicized. There is a genuine struggle for the soul of the religion going on here. I think I managed to get all shades of opinion ... as well as the sense of despair that governs daily life among Muslims here.
There was also a side benefit to doing this piece. One of the people I interviewed has set up monthly discussion groups in London's East End. He always invites a non-Muslim to be on the panel to give a view of the community from the outside. He asked if I might be interested in taking part in a discussion. I said of course.
So one evening a month or so ago, I went down to Toynbee Hall in the East End. This section of London has always been home to immigrants: French Huguenots, Eastern European Jews and now people from Bangladesh. I expected around 50 people to turn out. In the event it was more like 250 and an extraordinary cross-section of people it was. There were young hot-heads fully committed to the al-Muhajiroun worldview; professional men, doctors and lawyers who are Islamic in their politics without being Islamist; and older immigrants who have moved on from their own youthful radicalism and understand that in the end all governments, democratic or theocratic, are run by human beings and carry the weaknesses of our species no matter how often the name of God is invoked.
It was eye opening and I enjoyed finally being able to have
proper two-way discussions with people. The audience was respectful
although I doubt I changed many radical minds were changed about
the dead end that Jihad represents for modern Islam or that re-establishing
the Caliphate: the single Muslim state stretching from Morocco
to the Philippines is a pipe dream. The utter certainty of their
inevitable victory makes these people impervious to reason. The
evening confirmed my view of Islamic radicals. After three years
of talking to them and being shown their hospitality it is this:
they are the Bolsheviks of our time. Right up to the moment they
seized power, Lenin and his colleagues were seen as a violent,
slightly lunatic fringe on the edge of socialist politics. Underestimating
them cost all of humanity a terrifying toll but it cost Russians
more than anyone. I fear that underestimating the Omar Bakri's
of the world will cost us a similar heavy price, with Muslims,
like Russians, paying more than anyone else.