HASSAN BUTT is a member of a group you are going to be hearing a lot more from: Muslims who come out of jihadism and find an almost patriotic belief in the best values of Britain. They cajole and they warn. They help steer British Muslims away from violence while teaching wider society that radical Islam is not a rational reaction to Western provocation, but a totalitarian ideology with a life of its own.
‘How we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy,’ Butt recalled in an outburst that stuck in my mind. ‘By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the “Blair’s bombs” line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamist theology.’
Too many people are still in denial about the motives of a cult of death and the British state ought to have been pleased that Butt was trying to shake them out of it. For he did not simply leave the al-Qaeda training camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders and write a few articles when he came home, but transformed himself into a tireless opponent of extremism. He has encouraged about a dozen others to quit al-Qaeda, a higher success rate than the intelligence services can claim, and gone into prisons to convince hardcore jihadis to change sides. He urged Tony McNulty, the Counterterrorism Minister, to think about establishing units to fight the effects of brainwashing and took the argument against radicalism into mosques and meeting halls.
Butt succeeds where politicians and police officers fail. He can talk young men out of going down the conveyer belt that ends with them slaughtering themselves and those unlucky enough to be close to them because he has felt what they are feeling and knows from hard-won experience the weak points in the arguments that may seduce them.
Needless to add, he has been stabbed by his (and our) sworn enemies and lives with the knowledge that there are people out there who want him dead.
Butt works with Shiv Malik, the most interesting writer on terrorism around. The head of MI5 described Malik’s essay for Prospect on the making of the 7/7 bombers as ‘essential reading’ and copies were dispatched to the Pentagon. Malik was hoping to follow it up with Leaving al-Qaeda, the story of how Butt joined the terror networks after experiencing deprivation and racism in his youth and then repented and discovered a moral purpose to his life. In the pre-publicity, Butt explained: ‘Taking the life of an innocent civilian can be done in an instant, but building your worldview around the justification of murder takes years.’
Malik had high hopes that he would enable the public and officialdom to understand the jihadi worldview. Leaving al-Qaeda looked like being one of the most important books of 2008.
Until early on Wednesday morning, that is, when officers from the Greater Manchester Police arrived at Malik’s north London flat and demanded he give them the uncompleted manuscript, along with his research notes and contacts book.
Malik must go to Manchester Crown Court on Tuesday and ask the judge to order the police to back off. If the judge refuses, he must decide whether to go to prison. It may come to that. No serious journalist who has promised sources he will protect their anonymity can betray their trust and Malik tells me he has no intention of turning his contacts over to the police.
Perhaps the detectives have come after him because they suspect Butt was involved in a serious crime. If he was, his renunciation of jihadism would count for nothing and he would have to be prosecuted. But the order requiring Malik to betray his sources doesn’t mention specific bombings or assassinations. It is drafted in vague terms and looks like the itinerary for a fishing expedition.
If the police are merely trying to up their arrest rate, the case will reveal a disastrous ineptness operating on many levels.
The first, and the most telling for journalists, is that the raid on Malik’s flat continues the trend of respectable society jumping on researchers who investigate ultra-reactionaries. It began last year after Channel 4 secretly recorded extremist preachers. Without a shred of evidence, the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service accused it of faking the documentary, leaving the programme makers with no option but to sue for libel.
There are enough dangers in covering radical Islam without the police and the CPS adding to them. Much more in this vein and most journalists will give up.
You may not care about the troubles of hacks, but you ought to care about the disarray in the criminal justice system the treatment of Butt and Malik reveals. On the one hand, the Home Office and MI5 applaud their efforts. On the other, the Greater Manchester Police threatens to send them to jail. Does either know what the other is doing?
The worst of it is the message the police are sending to radical Muslims. Cults work by cutting off their recruits from the outside world. Friends and relatives who might talk them round are shut out. Breaking free requires a psychological wrench. The jihadi must renounce everything he once believed and earn the hatred of comrades who formed his surrogate family. Friendless and probably broke, he must face a new life as a ‘traitor’.
If Butt and Malik are prosecuted, how the jihadis will laugh at the stupidity of a country that can’t tell its allies from its enemies. ‘Look,’ they will say to their recruits, ‘look at what happens to Muslims who go over to their side. Are they thanked? Are they honoured? No, they’re prosecuted. All Muslims are the same to the British and there’s no point in trying to please them.’
There’s a severe danger that they will be right.