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U.K.: Bakri Case Highlights London's Struggle With 'Preachers Of Hate'

Many British Muslims say they are relieved that radical cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri has left the country. Bakri has long caused controversy in Britain for his statements praising Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He has also said he supports Muslims who attack British troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bakri flew to Lebanon on 6 August. Some say his trip was designed to escape possible arrest under sweeping new antiterrorism measures introduced in Britain. Bakri, however, says he's just on holiday and plans to return.

London, 10 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On 7 July, more than 50 people were killed in London when four suicide bombers detonated explosives on London's transport network.

On 5 August, radical Muslim cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri, who has lived in Britain for 20 years, sparked outrage after he was asked whether he would inform police if he knew in advance that such attacks were being plotted. "No. I would never, ever inform the police about any Muslims who want to do something -- aggression. I will stop him," he said.

Bakri said his religion forbids him from reporting a Muslim to police. But he said he condemns the London bombings and would risk his own life to stop a terrorist.

On the same day as Bakri's remarks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced sweeping new antiterrorism measures. Blair said the new powers would target groups and individuals who advocate terrorism and foment hatred. Bakri is thought to be on the top of any such list.

Bakri is the founder of the now-defunct organization Al-Muhajiroun, some of whose followers expressed their approval of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. He is also involved with the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Blair wants banned from operating in the country.

Britain's Muslim organizations have expressed satisfaction and relief that Bakri is gone -- at least for now. "Well, I think the general feeling is, 'Good riddance.' But I think the question still remains of his intention to return back. So, we've got to make sure that he stays where he has opted to go. Whether he comes back will depend very much on the government, obviously," said Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain and a director of the Muslim Institute.

Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said Bakri's "offensive media antics" and "repulsive views" have contributed significantly to the demonization of Muslims in Britain. "He will not be missed. We hope he will not come back," he added. "And when we hear he is only gone for a holiday, we would very much wish that he stays in Lebanon and does not come back to poison this country with his very offensive rants."
"He will not be missed. We hope he will not come back." - Muslim Council of Britain spokesman

Bunglawala said democratic societies must be able to tolerate some offensive public speeches. But if the speakers advocate criminal activity, they should be prosecuted. In fact, investigations are continuing into whether there is enough evidence against Bakri and other "preachers of hate" to do just that.

But Anjem Choudary, a former head of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, defends Bakri and other such preachers and said they themselves are being demonized. "I think it's very sad that our scholars and our thinkers should be demonized in this fashion, and they should be forced to make a decision on whether to go abroad or to be threatened with incarceration in this country," Choudary said.

Doug Jewell, a spokesman for Liberty, also known as the National Council for Civil Liberties, believes existing laws in Britain already provide enough space for Bakri and other extremist preachers to be prosecuted. "There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about the 'preachers of hate,' as the press have had it," he said. "Where people have been guilty of inciting terrorist acts, or encouraging people to violence, or engaged in violent acts, or organizing them, then they should be properly prosecuted. And the laws exist for them to do so."

Bakri said he left Britain because he feared the government was using clerics like him to enact new laws and put pressure on the Muslim community.

The British government has hinted that other radical preachers might be wise to follow Bakri out of the country. While Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said Bakri has not committed any offenses under existing laws and could return, he said he's in no hurry to see him do so. "As I understand it, [Bakri] has not committed an offense under the present existing legislation to apprehend him," Prescott said. "I'd just say: 'Enjoy your holiday. Make it a long one.'"

Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament, said the Muslim community will be better off if other radical preachers emulate Bakri's decision and leave Britain voluntarily. "If that is the hint Bakri has taken, then I think it'll probably be wise for others to take that hint," he said. "Yes, indeed."

The Muslim Council's Bunglawala would not speculate about the government's intentions, but he, too, agreed that Bakri's absence should not be mourned. "Bakri will certainly not be missed if he decides not to come back to this country," he said. "It will be in the interest of the Muslim community and the wider society if he stays where he is, in Lebanon."

Reports say a special legal clause is being hurriedly amended to bar Bakri from returning to Britain. The clause would boost the government's powers to prevent anyone from entering the country whose behavior would not be "conducive to the public good." This rule is separate from the 12 proposals for toughening anti-terrorism laws announced by Blair last week.