Review: My Brother, the Islamist

Picture of al-Muhajiroun demo, with men holding signs saying 'Anglian Soldiers: Butchers of Basra'My Brother, the Islamist is a documentary in which a film-maker I had never heard of, named Robb Leach (his home page, incidentally, has no biography or reference to any other work by him), tries to find out why his brother Richard, now Salahuddeen, has converted to Islam and joined the radical group known as al-Muhajiroun (at that time, trading as Islam4UK). Along the way, he meets another recent convert named Ben, who changed his name to Ahsan, made a YouTube video announcing his conversion, got circumcised and joined other members of the Muhajiroun on various provocative demonstrations, including one at a soldiers’ parade in Barking and another outside the American embassy. It showed last night on BBC3 and you can watch it, if you’re in the UK, on iPlayer here until next Monday; the BBC has a clip here and articles by Leech here and here.

I’ve heard some criticisms of this documentary to the effect that, although it shifts the focus away from female converts, it concentrates too heavily on one very extreme group which has a tiny number of followers. There were also a number of inaccurate statements, such as the reference to the stoning of women for adultery, which appears twice in the first ten minutes. In fact, the punishment applies to both sexes (according to most scholars, a pregnant woman can easily escape the charge by claiming she was raped, which would the dominant opinion in this day and age given its prevalence). Leech films during Ramadan, and witnesses Richard sleeping for large parts of the day, opining, “solution to fasting: sleep as much as you can”, as if this is what Muslims in general do. In fact, Muslims in general work, and cannot sleep most of the day.

We did not find out exactly how Richard had been attracted to the Muhajiroun, but we do find him doing his “da’wah” on the streets of east London, accosting a new convert from Latvia and trying to encourage him to get involved with them, but also getting into a fight with a man they believe to be drunk, after he flings one of their leaflets back at them (I could not smell his breath on TV, obviously, so I could not tell whether his slurred speech was due to that or to a disability). It gave a fairly good picture of what the group are like among themselves, which is to say, somewhat jocular and matter-of-fact with what many would consider harsh views. They talk with exaggerated disgust at all the munkar (evil) going on around them as they drive around London looking for somewhere to pray (as has been pointed out elsewhere, that is an easy task in east London). Several of these men, of course, were once part of that scene, in Salahuddeen’s case only a couple of years earlier.

Salahuddeen and Ben/Ahsan both come from Weymouth, which Leech describes as an “ordinary seaside town”. There is no such thing as an ordinary seaside town; there are big and small seaside towns, some are prosperous and youthful, like Brighton; some are faded and run-down, like Hastings, while others are popular with retirees and commuters. I haven’t been to Weymouth since I was a child, but I do know someone who lives there now. One of the group’s stunts was to bring some men down from London, including Salahuddeen and Ahsan, on a “da’wah” trip, which leads to some locals having to be dragged away by the police while others call their message “bollocks” or something similar. All quite likely to make the situation for the few Muslims in Weymouth more difficult.

Towards the end, Robb confronts his brother on his way to Mecca, and asks him some questions about the derogatory way in which the latter spoke to him, such as by claiming that Muslims were supposed to shake hands with non-Muslims with their left hands, as it’s their “dirty” hand (something no Muslim I asked had ever heard of, and nobody else in the group seemed to have done either). Salahuddeen also seemed rather more reasonable and conciliatory when on “enemy territory” in Weymouth, telling people they were entitled to their opinion etc., but was full of bluster when surrounded by his friends in London. Leech is also heartened that Ben/Ahsan seems not to have swallowed everything he was being told in London to quite the extent that Salahuddeen had.

This isn’t a particularly comprehensive documentary on al-Muhajiroun (I’ve heard the book Radical Islam Rising by Quintan Wiktorowicz recommended for that), nor is it representative of the convert experience generally. It does, however, give a fair indication of what sort of people the Muhajiroun are and what they make of people who convert and join them. They did not have to use hidden cameras as were used in other recent documentaries, because this group will clearly do anything for publicity, much as we saw with the Tottenham Ayatollah documentary in the 1990s. Most converts live pretty ordinary lives, and will not want to live with cameras pointing at them (and these were all men, none of them apparently married). None of this is new, of course, for people who have known the Muslim scene in London for the last 20 years or so; the only concern is that converts in general, particularly in provincial areas like Weymouth, will be judged on these men’s example.

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