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Egyptian Gets Cold Shoulder in Britain

Hani Sebai arrived as a dissident in 1994. But after the July bombings, the vocal Muslim cleric finds he may have worn out his welcome.

September 04, 2005|Hossam Hamalawy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Each time he trims his beard, Egyptian cleric Hani Sebai says, he remembers how interrogators burned it after he was picked up by security services in Cairo nearly a quarter of a century ago.

After several rounds of detentions, he fled the country with his family. "I knew from the beginning that London was going to be my destination," he said. "I knew the British were famous for defending human rights. We had a very rosy picture of London as a city where the oppressed could find protection."

So many foreign Islamist dissidents came to the same conclusion that the British capital earned a new nickname: Londonistan. But in the wake of the July bombings here, the most vocal -- some would say vitriolic -- of them may have worn out their welcome.

Last month, British Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced that the government would deport any non-Briton seen as fomenting or justifying terrorist violence. Sebai, the director of London's Al Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, now finds himself the target of calls by the British tabloids to ship him back to Egypt. He has been accused of describing the July 7 attacks that killed 52 commuters as "a great victory that rubbed the noses of G-8 countries in the mud."

Although he did use words in Arabic roughly to that effect on an Al Jazeera talk show, he insists that he was speaking as an analyst describing how the Al Qaeda terrorist network would have viewed the attack, and wasn't expressing his personal views.

"I didn't defend Al Qaeda," he said from his home in Hammersmith, an ethnically mixed West London neighborhood. "I don't justify any of [Al Qaeda's] actions. I never incited anyone to kill innocent civilians, and I never blessed the operations that happened here in London."

Nevertheless, his remarks, which ricocheted around the globe on the Internet, provided proof to many commentators that Britain's stance toward the Islamist exiles in its midst was out of whack. As Harvard University history professor Niall Ferguson wrote last month in the Telegraph newspaper, citing Sebai and another Muslim cleric, "A pernicious ideology has been allowed to infiltrate Europe's immigrant communities. And that has happened because we have blindly allowed our country to be a haven for fanatics."

The Egyptian government long has called on British authorities to extradite Sebai, saying he was a leading member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant group linked to Al Qaeda. A military tribunal in Cairo gave him a life sentence in 1999 for his alleged involvement in a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Albania.

Sebai, 46, refuses to speak to non-Arab reporters. As Al Jazeera flickered in the background, he was giving his first interview to a Western media outlet when news bulletins of the failed July 21 bombings flashed on the screen.

"What a black day," he said quietly. "These guys are stupid. I could have been on that train, or any of my kids. This is not helping the Islamic cause in any sense."

On his website, www.almaqreze.com, Sebai posts theological studies, articles, poetry and statements critical of Arab governments and the United States. The website also has posted statements of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who heads Al Qaeda in Iraq. On the site, Bin Laden has been described as one of the "lions" carrying the banner of jihad in the Arab peninsula.

But in his interview with The Times, Sebai distanced himself from Al Qaeda's operations, including the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that they were "Islamically unjustifiable, since they targeted Western civilians who were not involved in the war efforts against Muslims."

"There is a difference between respecting someone as an individual and endorsing their views," said Sebai, whose Friday sermons at the Warwick Community Center in London attract a sizable number of worshipers. "You can admire Che Guevara, but you don't have to necessarily be a Communist."

The Egyptian dissident arrived in Britain on May 6, 1994, on a Sudanese airliner. After leaving Egypt, he stayed for one week at a hotel in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, with his family before taking off to seek asylum in London.

"Up until the late 1990s, any Islamist could have bought a ticket to London, hopped on a plane and applied successfully for asylum upon arrival in Britain," said Mohammed Salah, an Egyptian journalist who covers militant groups in Cairo for the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat.

Tensions were running high in Egypt then, with the outbreak of the Islamist insurgency against President Hosni Mubarak's regime. The armed campaign was mainly launched by the militant Gamaa al Islamiya, which targeted police, as well as foreign tourists in an effort to cripple the country's economy. Islamic Jihad limited its attacks to government officials.

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