How to Deal with Britain’s Muslim Extremists? An Interview with Kamal Helbawy

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 3 Issue: 7

Kamal Helbawy

Dr. Kamal Helbawy was born in Egypt in 1939 and joined the Muslim Brotherhood at the age of twelve, largely receiving his education in Islam from them. After working in Nigeria, he traveled to Saudi Arabia where he was among the founders of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and became their first executive director. After six years at the Institute of Policy Studies in Pakistan, Dr. Helbawy moved to London and helped create the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). He was the MAB’s first president and currently serves as an advisor to the organization. Dr. Helbawy is also a researcher in Islamic and strategic affairs. He has a history of working in the relief sector and is currently the owner and supervisor of a care home for the elderly in northwest London. This interview was conducted by Terrorism Monitor editor Mahan Abedin in London on July 27, 2005.

Mahan Abedin: Some people might say your association with WAMY disqualifies you from engaging in the fight against extremists?

Kamal Helbawy: My association with WAMY was limited to the 1970s and early 1980s. WAMY was created to help young people to work properly and peacefully for Islam. WAMY was at that time considered a progressive organization with links to influential personalities all over the world, including Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia who was representing Asian Youth within WAMY at the time. I don’t know much about the present day WAMY but it is unfair to brand it an extremist organization. WAMY is a very large organization and it is entirely possible that there are a few extremists within its ranks, but this should not be used to brand the entire organization as extremist. Besides, I don’t care if people consider me fit to fight extremism or not, I will continue to fight this scourge because Islam is a religion of peace. Moreover, I have long experience and strong credentials in this field as evidenced by the vast number of youths who are attached to our programs.

MA: But some people are adamant that WAMY is a Wahhabi organization with possible links to terrorism.

KH: WAMY is not a Wahhabi organization, it is a Muslim organization. And as for terrorism, this is a very broad-brushed accusation to make against a large organization like WAMY. It is entirely possible that some extremists could have infiltrated the organization but as I said earlier, this does not give people the right to tarnish the entire organization.

MA: Do you still consider yourself affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood?

KH: Yes, I still consider myself a member of the Muslim brotherhood. I resigned from the leadership in 1997 but I don’t know if the current leadership has cancelled my membership in this great movement. I hope they have not done this, so that I remain a member until the end of my life. Nevertheless, I do differ with the leadership over some of their approaches toward current challenges and crises.

MA: What are the core objectives of the Muslim Association of Britain?

KH: It is to work in da’awah (inviting people to Islam), to teach the proper fiqh (jurisprudence), teach Arabic and to train young people to become good citizens in British society.

MA: Is MAB a grass roots organization?

KH: Yes, we work mainly with young people but have members from all fields and walks of life.

MA: Apart from promoting good citizenship, do you work with young Muslims who have been radicalized by certain organizations?

KH: Yes, we do. We try to moderate them through dialogue and consultation. We also hold seminars where we try to explain that Islam rejects any form of extremism. Not long ago, twice I had a 3 hour video-taped discussion with some of the radicals and self-described jihadis in London, and that was an interesting encounter.

MA: From your experience, how deep-rooted is radicalism in the UK? Is it a big problem?

KH: Yes, it is. It has spread for a number of reasons. Many young Muslims feel alienated by events overseas and by injustices here in the UK.

MA: Please discuss the UK-specific factors.

KH: Young Muslims are not well represented here in society. There is also extremist teaching in some mosques and other places. And then there is the problem of the “Abus”; the Abu Hamzas and Abu Qatadas who have had an influence on some young Muslims. Radicalism is like a virus, and it will spread even more if we treat it harshly. Violence is a disease and it is likely to spread through wrong treatment.

MA: What has been the primary radicalizing agent here; is it the presence of the radical groups?

KH: I would say certain individuals have been primarily responsible for manipulating disaffected young men through false teachings and bogus fatwas.

MA: Is there a link between this radicalization process and the recent events in London?

KH: That is difficult to say, but there could be a link.

MA: How many potential suicide bombers do we have here in the UK?

KH: That is also difficult to say. But there are people who are willing to do this to correct what they see as injustices against Muslims both here at home and abroad.

MA: Who do you think was behind the bombers?

KH: It could have been a network that had roots in Pakistan or elsewhere. But I also think the government is responsible as well, as it would be for any security-related problem.

MA: What do you mean by that?

KH: As the London mayor Ken Livingstone said, the events in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine was a factor that should not be neglected.

MA: Are you saying that if the UK had not participated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the bombings would not have occurred?

KH: If the UK had not taken part in the invasion of Iraq and had a more balanced policy toward the issue of Palestine, it is entirely possible that the bombings would not have occurred.

MA: But given that UK foreign policy is unlikely to change, in the near-term at least, how best can the authorities deal with the terrorist challenge?

KH: The government should give stronger support to mainstream Muslims. The media should not promote Islamophobia and the government really ought to reconsider its support for tyrannies in the Muslim world.

MA: Do you think the high concentration of Islamic activists here in the UK played a part—no matter how remote and indirect–in the attacks?

KH: It is possible.

MA: How?

KH: It gives refuge and protection to certain individuals. But we must be careful to distinguish between legitimate political activities and a handful of individuals who spread hatred and ignorance. This is not an invitation to curb freedom at all.

MA: Where were the successful and failed bombers radicalized? Were they radicalized here, or by networks that operate outside the UK?

KH: It could be both. But I think the radicalization process mainly occurs inside the UK.

MA: So, do you think the government ought to clamp down on certain organizations here?

KH: The government has a duty to protect society, while safeguarding freedoms at the same time. We need a balanced policy.

MA: Who should it suppress? Please be specific.

KH: Clamping down or suppressing is not necessarily the words I would use. I wrote to the mayor of London recently and proposed the establishment of “Treatment Centers” or “Houses for Extremists” for people who have been exposed to this sick ideology. I am referring to the kind of establishments we have for old or disabled people. I consider these boys to be sick and diseased, and it is not fair to send diseased people to other countries or suppress them harshly.

MA: What exactly are you proposing here, some kind of mental health institution?

KH: I am proposing the creation of establishments where people can be treated, and where their freedoms would be curtailed. But they should be treated with respect and engaged in dialogue. I remember once Abu Qatada appeared on al-Jazeera and said that he regards Western society or civilization as a toilet. When you use that kind of characterization for a civilization that has created very successful societies and managed to invade outer space, then you are a very sick and diseased individual.

MA: Do you think your proposal will be taken seriously by the mayor?

KH: I hope so! Anyway I have done my duty.

MA: How many people do you envisage being housed in such establishments?

KH: I would put all dangerous extremists in these establishments.

MA: And what would treatment consist of?

KH: Discussions and dialogue with the Ulama (scholars), philosophers and Westerners as well as teaching the seerah (biography) of the Prophet and fiqh of minorities and the role played by the West in advancing human civilization.

MA: Do you think the UK government has a high enough credibility with Muslims in this country to oversee a sensitive and controversial project like that?

KH: I think they have a good record.

MA: But many Muslims in this country consider Tony Blair as the invader of Iraq!

KH: But Britain is much bigger than Tony Blair. We have people like London mayor Ken Livingstone and many members of parliament who strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq.

MA: So you don’t think the British government ought to change its policy toward the presence of radical Islamic elements in the country?

KH: Curbing freedoms is not the solution. The terrorist regime in Egypt has been curbing freedoms for decades but it is no nearer to a solution than it was when it started. Muslims in this country strongly appreciate the freedoms the British state grants them and everybody else. Besides, the tabloid media in this country give too much publicity to certain individuals and hence create the impression that the UK is awash with Islamic extremists.

MA: Are you saying that the fault is not with government policy but media irresponsibility?

KH: Exactly! The media ought to stop spotlighting people who are not really representative and seem to have made it their mission to make life difficult for Muslims in this country.

MA: But why is the government seriously thinking of changing its policy toward Islamists?

KH: Because they are thinking alone. We urge the government at this critical time to consult widely and not make any hasty decisions.

MA: Has your organization (the Muslim Association of Britain) been approached for advice?

KH: Yes, we have been approached from different bodies but not by the government. But I am saying much more consultation is needed. This is a very complex and deep-rooted issue and it needs to be debated widely and intensely before any major decisions are made.

MA: But do you recognize that the UK has a very different policy toward Islamists than the continental Europeans, particularly the French?

KH: Yes, of course and this is strongly appreciated. It would be very sad if the UK started behaving like the French, the Americans and the Dutch.

MA: Do you also recognize that if there are further attacks, this is exactly what might happen?

KH: Attacks can happen if you are a dictatorship or not. The disease will spread regardless. Clamping down or adopting over-zealous counter-terrorism policies will not work.

MA: Let us discuss ideological counter-terrorism. How important do you think the deconstruction of Jihadist ideas is to the counter-terrorism struggle?

KH: It is important, but this deconstruction should come from within Islam and not be forced upon it by outsiders. Westerners do not really understand the disease and are likely to give the wrong injections. They are also wrongly informed by some third world tyrants.

MA: How should this ideological deconstruction take place here in the UK?

KH: Through the establishment of a central terrorism/extremist center and a research unit designed to propose and appraise methods for treating extremists.

MA: But are you not underestimating the strength and resilience of the jihadis?

KH: I don’t underestimate the strength of any ideology. I read a story about a boy in Afghanistan who professed to be a communist and was given a chance to repent otherwise he would be shot. He refused, insisting he was a communist and was subsequently shot. Ideology is very powerful and can completely consume individuals.

MA: Do you really think the ideological apparatus of the Salafi-Jihadis can be undermined through the methods you have outlined in this interview?

KH: I can cite you a good example from Egypt where some former jihadis wrote books in prison called “Muraja’at”, in which they deconstruct their own ideology and values.

MA: But there is a difference here insofar as these people were engaged in a localized conflict and considered themselves to be part of the Egyptian political landscape, irrespective of their militant Islamic ideology. What we are confronting today are essentially rootless individuals whose amorphous aims and grievances can not be accommodated.

KH: But Ayman al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian!

MA: Yes, but you know very well that he abandoned Egyptian politics many years ago. My point is that we are dealing with elements which have no roots.

KH: No, that is wrong. These people believe the whole world constitutes their roots. Their roots are in themselves, in their history and their understanding of Islam. They also have their imams and religious instructors.

MA: But the bombers in London, they had no roots and they had no clear objectives. For instance they were not trying to overthrow the British state.

KH: This was clearly not one of their aims. But maybe they wanted to pressurize the British government to withdraw the UK military from Iraq, to adopt a fairer attitude toward the Palestinians and give minorities their due rights.

MA: Given the amorphous nature of Islamic ecclesiastical structures and the fluidity of its jurisprudence (fiqh), is it possible to engage in an “ideological war” with the extremists?

KH: But Islam has well known Ulama and scholars whom the people trust.

MA: But the core texts of Islam are open to all sorts of interpretations. For instance jihadi ideologues can sit here and quote from Islamic texts and their arguments would be as compelling as yours.

KH: They can convince those who are not well educated in Islamic texts and traditions. They can influence the ignorant, but in reality what they peddle can be easily broken.

MA: If it is easy to undermine the jihadists’ ideology, why is it not being done?

KH: I did not necessarily say it was easy. Anyway it is being done otherwise you’d see a lot more extremists.

MA: Some British and western commentators complain that Muslim scholars, thinkers and ideologues are ambiguous on the question of terrorism, particularly suicide bombings. They say some scholars are quick to condemn the London bombings, but they approve of suicide bombings in Palestine/Israel and Iraq.

KH: Let me ask you a question, if I am a British citizen and the French are threatening to occupy my country, what should I do? Do I not have the right to resist in a manner that compensates for my technological inferiority? Surely, I should defend my country by using all reasonable means. We don’t condone the indiscriminate killings in Iraq, but we approve of those who fight against an oppressive regime that has been occupying Palestine for more than 50 years and demolishes people’s homes on top of them. We should make a distinction between people like Bin Laden and Zawahiri who are simply fighting a wrong battle and those people who fight for their freedom and dignity, whether in Palestine, Iraq or Chechnya.

MA: But Tony Blair has come out and said that suicide bombings are wrong everywhere, including Palestine/Israel.

KH: Well he is wrong. It is as simple as that! He is not a Mufti. He is a British Statesman.

MA: It is not a question of whether he is right or wrong, the point I am trying to make is that there are fundamental differences between people like yourself and the British establishment. Therefore how could you cooperate together in this “ideological” war?

KH: But many people in the establishment disagree with Tony Blair. Does London mayor Ken Livingstone agree with Blair on this issue? Of course he doesn’t! We can differ, but we should work together to find a solution.

MA: Let us discuss the representation deficit in British Muslim communities and how it may contribute to the radicalization process.

KH: I don’t agree that the representation deficit is a serious factor in these issues. In democratic countries, the majority tends to eliminate the minority. For instance in this country, the Liberal Democrats have no real power.

MA: But they are represented at all levels of society. But anyways Muslims in this country are not a political party, they are diverse communities. And it is a real challenge to develop proper representation when people come from different continents and yet insist they constitute a distinct and coherent community because of their Islamic faith.

KH: But they have representation.

MA: But it is not effective, is it?

KH: It is not effective and the current situation is not ideal.

MA: Let us discuss the different layers of Muslim representation. How would you critically evaluate the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which is supposed to be the highest form of representation for British Muslims?

KH: I played a role in the establishment of the MCB. Our objective was that the MCB should remain independent and its primary function should be to represent and protect the interests of Muslims. Later on there was some government pressure and the organization was forced to make some compromises that would not appeal to all Muslims.

MA: Give me some examples.

KH: For instance some MCB members were embarrassed to use the word “jihad” because they thought British society would interpret that as holy war. And this is completely wrong, because jihad is primarily about addressing injustice and correcting wrongs.

MA: Many Muslims say the MCB does not criticize UK foreign policy enough.

KH: They are very soft on this. The problem is that they became over-influenced by the British government and this prevents them from protecting Muslim interests to the full.

MA: Correct me if I am wrong, but the original purpose of the MCB was to act as a forum for connecting Muslim representatives to the British establishment at the very highest levels.

KH: That is right, but there is now some concern that the MCB is acting more as a tool for the government. Muslims should cooperate with the government and the police, but we should also be free to have our beliefs and practices in accordance with the law.

MA: What about community representation. How do you evaluate that?

KH: The mosques and Imams are very influential inside the communities all over the country. The grass roots organizations like the “UK Islamic mission”, “Muslim Association of Britain”, “Islamic Society of Britain”, “Islamic Forum of Europe” and “Daawatul Islam” are all very influential.

MA: What function do these organizations perform?

KH: They invite people to the mosques, particularly young men with problems. They try to make them into good citizens through educating them in weekly or monthly meetings, camps, seminars, conferences, and in full or part time schools.

MA: Can these organizations be mobilized to counter the radical groups?

KH: Yes they can. When you speak of “radical” organizations, there are basically two groups that are organized enough to cause concern; Hizb ut-Tahrir and the [defunct] al-Muhajiroun.