The jailing of a Birmingham bookseller last week for distributing books that are freely available in university and private libraries, is as extraordinary a development in twenty-first century Britain, as was the 1960 case against Penguin Books for publishing D.H.Lawrence in an unexpurgated edition. But Ahmad Faraz’s case has made no such waves, attracted no defence from the hundreds of distinguished authors, celebrity intellectuals, and bishops, who swayed the jury for Penguin and saw in a verdict for freedom of speech.
In those days the prosecution was worried about the impact on “servants” of reading a novel about sex across the class divide. Today, the judge in Kingston Crown Court found Faraz “grossly reckless” in publishing and distributing books and videos, some of which were found among the possessions of men involved in major terrorism cases of the last decade. The Hon Justice Calvert-Smith stressed that “there is no indication that Mr Faraz ever intended to carry out a terrorist attack,” but nonetheless sentenced him to three years.
The main charges against Faraz were brought under the Terrorism Act 2006, and included the dissemination of terrorism publications, and also section 58, which makes possession of material related to terrorism an offence – in this case books and videos. The key book in the trial was Syed Qutb’s Milestones, outlawed and burned by President Nasser in 1960 as part of his crackdown on his erstwhile allies, the Muslim Brotherhood. (The MB are now well ahead in elections in Egypt and poised to challenge another military government.)
This was not the first time Faraz had been arrested. In 2007, he was detained in connection with Operation Gamble. He was released without charge, but the police took a wealth of evidence from his Maktabah bookshop. At the time, Detective Inspector Haddon of West Midlands Police stated that while the material they had seized was anti-western, it was not illegal.
In the two month case in Kingston the defence were so confident that there was no case to answer, that they opted not to present their case. So important evidence, that showed that Faraz had gone to great efforts to speak to his team, lawyers and even the police about the content of the material the Maktabah bookshop sold, was not considered by the jury. Emails and notes recovered by the police proved that Faraz was particularly concerned with any legal liability that might arise from the publications. Confusion surrounding the Terrorism Act of 2006 left a great deal vague in terms of what was beyond the law.
All the material under the section 58 offence of possession of terrorist material, should be understood within the context of its use by Faraz. The files were found on his hard drive in a folder entitled PhD. He had intended to do a PhD following his Masters. And the prosecution had seen detailed communication with his former Masters dissertation advisor about his ideas for a PhD. Faraz had explained to her that he had accumulated a large archive of primary source material for the specific purpose of researching the differences in position between Hamas and Al Qaeda.
One of the main facts reported in the section 58 offence, related to his possession of an Al Qaeda training manual. This was part of what was found in his PhD collection. This is the same manual that was brought up in the case of Rizwan Saabir, a Masters degree student at Nottingham University, who was arrested for having a colleague download the manual from a US government website – it was freely available. Saabir was released after a week, and later paid £20,000 in compensation for the way in which he was treated. He is now a PhD student at Strathclyde University.
When it came to summing up for the jury, Justice Calvert-Smith made various additions to the prosecution case, notably linking the publication of various materials with a time line of international terrorism events. These were points that the prosecution had never offered. In addition he conflated the ideas and thoughts in the books, with what he saw as Faraz’s world view and intention in disseminating them.
The judge relied heavily on the government’s Muslim expert, Matthew ‘Tariq’ Wilkinson, who is on the education committee of the Muslim Council of Britain. Wilkinson, who was educated at Eton and Cambridge, as was the judge, gave evidence for two days. It was Wilkinson’s testimony that the judge relied on in both his summing up and his judgment.
Calvert-Smith began his sentencing stating that Milestones, as in the words of Wilkinson, was Manichean, separatist and excessively violent. He further took the expert’s opinion that Qutb’s desire for the implementation of the Shariah in Egypt through force, if necessary, was an ideologically incorrect position as Qutb had used the Qur’an out of its correct context. The judge explicitly stated that Qutb had used “selected quotes” in order to justify a skewed position on Islam and justify his concept of jihad. It was this basis that set the tone for the rest of the sentencing, as Calvert-Smith chose to use that specific ideological view of Qutb.
A number of other books were considered in the trial, but the largest sections of discussion were specifically on Syed Qutb, Milestones, and also Abdullah Azzam’s historical books on the war in Afghanistan in the period when it was supported by the United States.
The most difficult aspect of this case to understand, is how could the jury reasonably have come to the conclusion that the material sold by Ahmed Faraz was the major factor in the decision making process of a suicide bomber. In fact, the defence successfully rebutted both the government’s key witnesses - Wilkinson and Bruce Hoffman of the US-based RAND Corporation - to show that all of the books specifically mentioned that civilians should not be attacked. Apparently, this key point was ignored by both judge and jury.
Curiously the one book that the jury acquitted Faraz of disseminating, was the Army of Madinah in Kashmir, by Dhiren Bharot – convicted in the UK for fantasising attacks against civilians. The book by Bharot, was the only one that spoke of hijacking and attacking civilians, while all those where the jury found Faraz guilty specifically made the point, that such activity was Islamically unlawful.
During the trial one juror was inadvertently given a police document that stated that they planned, in the event of a conviction for Faraz, to roll out other prosecutions against other people for disseminating similar materials. One such arrest took place the day after the trial ended.