On 11 December 2010 two bombs exploded in central Stockholm, the Swedish capital. The suspect who blew himself up was Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly a former resident of Luton town and a student of University of Bedfordshire when it used to be University of Luton. The bombing suddenly reawakened the old memories of the time I spent at both university of Luton turned university of Bedfordshire. One of the most important things to happen during that time was 7 July London bombings killing 51 totally innocent people. As the trail of investigation moved after 7/7 it turned out that the bombers involved in the atrocity used Luton as their launching ground. This suddenly gave Luton the title of “hotbed of terrorism”. I believe it was not the case at that specific point because I believe there were many indicators making it look more than just a hotbed of terrorism.
I received a message from Phillip Kemp from BBC Radio 4 on my Facebook who asked me about my views about Luton connection to terrorism in Swedish capital. I was keen to talk because I believe during my stay I made attempts to highlight the issue and it was not possible for the university alone to deal with this monster on its own. So I agreed to give an interview and I went to BBC Islamabad studios for the recording on 25th December 2010. Few days back I listened to the whole program and realised that I should write about it to present the complete picture. I will also try my best to highlight what actually is the problem and how it could be sorted out. who could sort this mess out because I believe the cat is still not out of the bag.
I joined university of Luton on 18th August 2004 as a student of BA Media Production as an international student from Pakistan. This was my first time in UK and I knew nothing about the university and the environment in actual terms. I went to Luton because of it’s ranking in media studies. After reaching Luton I went out to the fresher Fair, a huge marquee setup with lots of different events planned. One of the startling observations I saw was different societies, Islamic society, Quran and Sunnah society, Pakistan society and some others. I was shocked to see such hardcore mindsets standing at the stalls telling me how to be a good Muslim. Leaving it behind I moved along with my studies. It was nothing like the usual crowd so I decided to stay away from it. I was living in College house now demolished halls of residence right next to Luton business school and student union. It was an open hall of residence with hallways and shared kitchen among five flats. We always used to sit and chat in kitchen A and talk about different things. We used to talk about world politics; domestic issues, foreign policy and you name it. Sometime it could take whole night sitting and chatting there.
During those early days I saw a poster in main reception area with Pakistan’s flag on it. It was about an event organised by the Pakistan society “Pakistan’s leadership and its future”. It seemed interesting to me and I decided to attend. I came back and discussed with my Pakistani friends and we decided to go their as a group. Another reason for my interest was the fact that Pakistan’s ambassador would be coming. I knew Dr. Maliha Lodhi and thought it would be great to catch up with her too. At the actual event we did not see Maliha Lodhi but Abdul Basit who was deputy high commissioner in London represented her. The second speaker was named Dr. Imran Waheed, about whom we knew little at that time. Abdul Basit spoke first after the society’s secretary Introduction. Finally it was Dr. Imran Waheed’s turn to speak and I realised the whole seminar was a planned setup. He started speaking about General Pervaiz Musharraf who was at that time president of Pakistan. He said quite a few nasty things about Musharraf govt that weren’t true. It was unbearable to listen to all the nonsense coming out of this guy and we decided to leave the lecture theatre. He was plainly telling lies about everything. But once outside the room we thought no, we cannot let him have his way and we went back to sit through the lecture and confront him at the end.
Abdul Basit was visually upset when Imran Waheed was talking, he even raised some objections during the speech but he was ignored. After waiting for an extended period of time for my turn to ask questions, I finally got my turn. I raised three points challenging Imran Waheed, telling him that he is not telling the truth about many issues. I also said I believe he needs to stop maligning Pakistan on baseless facts and get is facts right.
I was affectively asked to sit down without answers and when I persisted they told me we could sort this out afterwards. I was not having this and insisted Imran Waheed has lied in front of everyone so he should clarify things there and then. But organisers were seeing it getting out of their hands abruptly wounded up the event and asked everyone to go to the next room to eat. When we were leaving a guy came by and started giving arguments in favour of the speaker there. I said there is no point talking now because the event ended without answering my questions.
The important point I would like to highlight is that Dr. Imran Waheed was one of the senior most leaders of an organisation Haizbul Tahrir. This guy has appeared many times on talk shows on BBC and other channels and is very well known. Ironically no one in the university or the Student Union at that time asked any questions or raised any concerns when he came in to deliver a lecture. He came in and delivered a fiery lecture in University’s main Park Square campus in the main Sir Ian Dixon lecture theatre and nothing happened, even afterwards. Abdul Basit the deputy high commissioner confided that he also sensed this was all setup as I shared with him what I believe Hizb ul Tahrir or their sympathisers were planted in the audience who were asking relevant questions to the guests. Before leaving I told him he should have walked out of the seminar because his show of uneasiness was not enough for that.
After the event I shared my concern with a lot of people in my friends circle about it. I believe it was not acceptable for a university to allow its space to be used for such extremist activities. It is worth mentioning that the student union at that time was ineffective, completely segregated and had little or no representation from ethnic minority groups. It was not at all in a position to understand or pre-empt such a situation and the fact that societies and clubs were left on their own without accountability was alarming too. On a bigger level there was no accountability at all for elected representatives, which later on was addressed by Miriam Hubbard who served as the president of Student union. I found the issues became even worse with student union’s complete lack of ignorance and understanding about it. There was no mechanism to ensure that people use the student union and its resources for right purposes. In the absence of these it became even harder for any affirmative action to be taken by anyone.
It was not long after the seminar that I bumped into few people who were at the seminar in a popular area in Luton, Burry Park. These guys were distributing fliers and leaflets for Khilafat and shari’ah law from Haizbul Tahrir. I believe it was the same time when I saw Abdul the Stockholm bomber. The guys stopped me and restarted talking about the points I raised in the seminar and specifically about Musharraf. I felt it very strongly that they were not telling the truth. As a result I knew they didn’t know much about the facts themselves. I argued in vain for sometime and then decided to move on because I felt it was not safe for me to talk in the open. Within few days I received a call from one of the guys who told me they want to come and see me at my halls of residence. I said I would be leaving in some time for grocery shopping and he said I am just outside your accommodation and it would not take longer.
I was shocked how they knew where I live and how they found out my mobile number. When they came over I confronted them and asked how they obtained my number and they said they have sources in the university who found it out for them. We had extensive discussion on the concept of Khilafat its ideology and the political setup in Pakistan. I found out that these guys were misguided and thoroughly brainwashed extremists (you can call them jihadists if you want) ready to explode at any point. My assertion was supported by the fact that they knew nothing about Islam, Qur’an and the ideology of Jihad and Khilafat. All they knew was what west and Israel were doing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. The same old rhetoric used by Mullahs in Pakistan and Muslim world to fuel anti American, anti west feelings. During the same meeting I told them that I don’t know what they are looking for or what they have in their mind about me, but I am not going to listen to their rhetoric because I understand Arabic and I have read Qur’an and Hadith myself. I don’t need an interpreter either. They said they want me to understand the grave danger Musharraf is for Pakistan and what sort of things US and their allies are doing all over the Muslim world. They wanted me to support them in this cause. I thought this was the most ridiculous preposition ever made to me. I stood up and started walking them out of my accommodation.
I was becoming weary of their proxy talk, which was dragging on for second hours so I told them I have to go and would not appreciate them following me around. By the same time I decided to take a mobile contract and changed my mobile carrier and this way I got rid of the calls and texts I was getting every other day for a couple of weeks. This was the extent of activities happening around the university campus in those days. It was the same time when I started fearing that secret services might pick me up anytime because I was getting these extremist texts, calls and visitors. The second worrying factor for me was the network these guys had in the university and halls of residence. Most of the time I used to see them with students hanging out in the university, in the library and IT Suite. I never understood their status at the university and never bothered to dig deep in this matter. But one thing I found in this whole process was the dormant role of Student Union and societies. I decided to be vocal and take further steps to work towards a better representation of students from ethnic minorities.
In 2006 the university decided to change its name to University of Bedfordshire due to the merger with De Mont ford University’s Bedford campus. It was one of the defining moments in the history of Luton University where under the leadership of Professor Les Ebdon CBE University went on to a complete transformation. The same year suicide bombers blew themselves up at different locations in London killing 51 innocent human beings. After that a major anti terror operation started in UK and in Luton where the terrorists had close ties. The Student Union adopted one religion one society policy affectively closing all the stuff happening on the name of religion. During my third year I served as campaigns officer in the newly formed University of Bedfordshire Student Union. It was a year of change that went right through the policies from government to the university management.
Later after several months I got a call from the chaplain who asked me to come and see him at the university chaplaincy. He said if I am free I have to go and see Vice Chancellor and it could also result in further travel to London. I went along with him from chaplaincy to the VC office at Park Square where Professor Les Ebdon CBE said we would be going to attend a meeting at number 10 with the Prime Minister Tony Blair. I had one hour to rush back to my room and change and then come back. We went to number 10 met with Tony Blair who was facing a revolt that day from backbenchers on his education reforms. I remember Les was constantly in touch with the university PR office about the status of PM. We thought he might not last as PM till the meeting, but eventually Tony Blair survived and made it to the meeting with Bill Ramal the higher education minister, Ruth Kelly the communities’ minister at that time. I told the PM three points in that meeting where many others from different sections of Muslims from all over UK were present.
1: It is their country first and then of anyone else. It is not acceptable for them to change the country and way of life for the sake of accommodating a minority.
2: There has to be a policy about who becomes a religious leader or prayer leader in Britain. Because the guy coming in from a rural village in south Asia will bring his backward mindset and radicalised agenda. Britain needs homegrown imams and prayer leaders who are born and bred in UK. Different faiths should be bound by law to open religious schools in UK where local kids could go and learn about the religion and one day lead as imam. The government should setup watchdogs to monitor such institutions.
3: The universities need to be given powers to screen and put in place a second layer of checks and balances in order to have right people coming in for seeking education. The universities should be taken into account about the students who indulge in extremist activities and by that I clarified no spying on these students but creating a system which enables the university’s to better cope with these issues.
I might have used slightly different wording here but the message was spelled out on these bases.
I ran for the Sabbatical positions in elections in slate with Miriam Hubbard and got elected as the Democracy and Diversity Officer. During this year the student union reviewed its constitution and made it robust with the changed university. It was a time when student union took its true role as student representative fighting for the rights of students and working closely with the university for the benefit of students. I remember after a quite period I started seeing familiar faces from the past years in the university campus. It was troubling because I thought we have learnt the lessons from past and moved on. I requested for an appointment to see Les and told him during the brief meeting about my apprehensions and he assured me they would be addressed. He said that there is a system in the university in collaboration with the local community to tackle such issues. I left the matter in his hands and left the meeting, and it was our last discussion on this topic. Indeed it was my last ever discussion about the issue with anyone in University.
In my interview to BBC Radio 4 I spoke about most of these things. I spoke about Hizb ul Tahrir coming into the university campus and talking to students. I believe this is the issue found everywhere in Britain. There is an acute denial of underlying issue of homegrown terrorists. It has become a sacred cow under the guise of racism, binding law’s hands. The second major issue found everywhere in the West is lack of understanding about real teachings of Islam and how to deal with extremists mindsets. The constant inflow of hard line, rigid Mullah from third world countries and the allowance for free advertisements on TV channels of their superstitious ideologies are alarming. It has been nearly five years since 7/7 and the lessons have not yet been learnt. I firmly believe the issue is not solved yet, as I speak, a man was arrested in connection with Stockholm bombing in Glasgow making my point of view even stronger. It would not be wrong to say that the cat is still not out of bag and there could be more Abdaly’s waiting in wings to strike. Only time will tell if my assertions are wrong but one thing is for sure that a flawed and incompetent system cannot assure the solutions because the state of denials threatens the very foundations of the whole system. ?
Finally I would like to write here what Tony Blair said in the meeting I attended at number 10. While opening the meeting he said he believe since 7/7 the British government under his leadership spent a lot of time trying to understand the real issues, in this process he confessed he spent nearly a year talking to wrong people, by that I assume he meant the Islamic Council of Britain. Because he was talking to them a lot. I believe these are the core issue, which he confessed but did little to sort out. Until the real understanding is developed and a massive outreach strategy is chalked out the issue will remain as dangerous as it has ever been. It is also important to note that hypocrisy and double standards would not solve but create further problems. UK is not the same country as it was few decades ago, with a diverse population it needs to come up with smart system to engage and proceed with right mindset and policies. In the absence of such, the real problems will never be solved and UK will continue to fund Qadhafis and Saddams to kill them at a later time. When the lessons will ever be learnt?