A couple of years before the World Trade Center attacks, Jon Ronson, a mild-mannered young journalist in Britain, decided to do a profile of a Muslim fundamentalist named Omar Bakri Mohammed, who called himself “Osama bin Laden’s man in London.” Hoping to counter the “lies” in the “Jewish-controlled media,” Omar Bakri invited Ronson to follow him around in his daily life, telling him “I am actually very nice.”
Ronson asked, “Are you?”
“Oh, yes,” Bakri replied. “I am delightful.”
In fact, it’s Ronson who turns out to be so. I’ve never read such a delightful book on such a serious and important topic. Somehow he’s written a warm and humane account of some of the most objectionable people on the planet. And he’s got a lot of insight into their picture of us–and our picture of “them.”
The British tabloids were happy to exploit Omar Bakri’s claims to fame. The Daily Mail ran a photo of him on page two a few years ago with the headline, “Is This the Most Dangerous Man in Britain?” The paper was reporting on a 1997 rally that Bakri held in Trafalgar Square, attended by 5,000 people–including Ronson, who summarized Bakri’s speech describing Britain should the Muslims take control: “He who practiced homosexuality, adultery, fornication, or bestiality would be stoned to death, or thrown from the highest mountain. Christmas decorations and store-window dummies would be outlawed…. Pictures of ladies’ legs on pantyhose packaging would be banned. We would still be able to purchase pantyhose, but they would be advertised simply with the word ‘pantyhose.'”
And of course the Spice Girls would be illegal.
Soon afterward, Omar Bakri welcomed Ronson to his home and played with his baby daughter for the benefit of the reporter. He told Ronson his daughter’s name translates as “the Black Flag of Islam.” He also told Ronson his goal was to rally Britain’s Muslims to overthrow its democracy and establish a fundamentalist Muslim state.
After following Bakri around for months, Ronson finally got the payoff a hard-working journalist dreams of: an invitation to a secret jihad training camp. It was not in Afghanistan but rather in a place outside London called Crawley, near Gatwick airport. It turned out to be a disappointment: merely a gym where young men lifted weights and hit punching bags. Here Omar introduces Ronson to the fighters in training–and announces that “he is a Jew.” Ronson had told Omar Bakri he was not Jewish. It’s a tense moment:
“Are you really a Jew?” someone asked.
“Surely it is better to be a Jew than an atheist?” Ronson replies.
The answer is chilling: “No, it isn’t.”
Then Omar Bakri lectures Ronson in front of his followers. “I am not offended that you are a Jew…. What offends me is that you hide it. You assimilate…that is the worst thing of all. Be a Jew!” This is not exactly the message he expected at a jihad training camp, but it is the kind of surprise that keeps happening to Ronson in his relations with extremists.
The climax of Omar Bakri’s Trafalgar Square rally, where Ronson begins his story, was supposed to be the release of thousands of black balloons, each carrying a card calling on Muslims to make war on Britain. But when the balloons were released, they failed to rise to the sky. It turned out the cards were too heavy. Some of Omar’s lieutenants were able to launch balloons by removing the cards, but that meant the message was left on the ground. “The last thing I saw was one young man, his face covered by a scarf, defeatedly kicking a listless black balloon and stomping off.”