From Lyrical Babe to Lyrical Terrorist

A British-born Muslim was given a nine-months suspended jail sentence today for "possession of material likely to be useful to a person preparing to commit an act of terrorism." Samina Malik, dubbed the Lyrical Terrorist, had fantasized about dying a martyr's death in her poetry.
By Zainab Rahhal
Samina Malik
Samina Malik. R.R.

Samina Malik was a 23-year old Muslim woman working in the WH Smith bookstore at London's Heathrow Airport. It never occurred to her that she might some day have to exchange her tiny bedroom - where she let her fertile imagination flow in her poems - for an even smaller room: a prison cell.

Malik is the first woman to have been convicted under the U.K. Terrorism Act.

Malik, who is British born, was arrested in October last year after an email she had sent was found on another person's computer. In her bedroom, Scotland Yard subsequently found books with titles such as “The Al-Qa’idah Manual” and “The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook”, as well as poems by her own hand idolizing Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures.

What really put Scotland Yard on alert was a WH Smith receipt on the back of which Malik had written: "The desire within me increases every day to go for martyrdom."

Last month, Malik was found guilty under article 58 of the U.K.  Terrorism Act which criminalizes the possession of material "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism". She was released into house arrest pending sentencing.

Yesterday, she was given a nine months suspended jail sentence, and was allowed to walk free.

Malik wasn't always the Lyrical Terrorist, the pen name she chose for herself. In 2002, she was writing rap poetry and called herself Lyrical Babe. In 2004, she became more interested in religion, started wearing a hijab and changed her writing name to Lyrical Terrorist, because, as she told the court, "I thought it was cool."

The case of the Lyrical Terrorist has attracted a lot of attention in Britain and elsewhere because of the unusual angle. The fact that Malik had not committed a terrorist act but only fantasized about it, led some to say that she was being convicted for a "thought crime."

Certainly, some of her poetry was disturbing. In a poem entitled “How to Behead”, she described the beheading process in detail. In another one, called “The Living Martyrs”, she praised Osama Bin Laden and his companions.

On her profile on the social networking site Hi-5, she listed her interests as "helping the mujaheddin in any way I can", and "watching videos by my Muslim Brothers in Iraq, yep the beheading ones, and other videos which show massacres of the kafirs."

In one of her poems, she wrote: "Kafirs your time will come soon, and no one will save you from your doom."

Yet, before the judge at the Old Bailey, she said in tears: "This is all talk. I am not a terrorist."
Arab support and criticism

The case also made headlines in the Arab blogosphere. In Egypt, Malik found a fierce defender in the very popular blogger Nawara Najm. Under the headline “The Mother of Democracy: The Incrimination of an English Poet for Writing Poems”, she wrote an article in which she expressed her anger and her solidarity with Samina Malik.

“Britain which is providing a safe refuge to Salman Rushdie - the author of The Satanic Verses - and which knighted him as a Sir, is the same Britain which is condemning the intentions of Samina and is arresting her for writing poems and saving documents she downloaded off the Internet from the website of the U.S. Department of Justice", Najm wrote.

She continued to say that Samina’s incrimination was not based on facts “such as joining the Jihadist Salafi movement or receiving training on the use of arms or the reception of massive amounts of money to purchase weapons and explosives”, but rather on “feelings and the writing of some personal notes”.

Not everybody agreed.

“So she says she was only looking for a Muslim husband on Muslim websites?!! What does she want? A medal? This is the stupid story of a stupid girl and naturally you made her into a hero and a comrade in struggle”, read one negative comment on Najm's blog.

What provoked Najm was an article in the pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, in which Abdul Rahman al-Rashed had attacked Malik, saying that “inciting terrorism is more dangerous than terrorism.”
Najm didn't approve of Malik's writing but she insisted on her right to express herself freely regardless of the nature of her opinions. “Hadn’t it been for the freedom of imagination, thinking and creating", Najm wrote, "humans would never have come up with any invention or made any scientific discovery”.
To support her position she said: “I could write a story or a poem in which I would imagine killing someone. I thus would have lived an experience without having hurt anyone. This is what Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Homer, Sophocles and all the authors and poets did. Why did the latter see their work published while Samina is imprisoned?”
Malik has her defenders in Britain too. Matthew Paris, in the Times, argued that had Samina been white, her lawyers would probably have been able to convince a jury that she was just a young girl going through an awkward phase.

In The Guardian, Jonathan Heawood similarly argued that "[Malik's] posturing is a function of suburban adolescence rather than radical jihad; and that white teenagers in the U.K. have been proclaiming similarly nihilistic desires for decades, only to shuffle into mortgage slavery as soon as they leave adolescence."

"If Samina Malik is sentenced to anything more onerous than ten days on a creative wiriting workshop we will have seen a serious miscarriage of justice", Heawood concluded.
In the Arab blogosphere, some chose to support Malik while others supported her being arrested, arguing that her admiration for Osama Bin Laden, and her wish to die while carrying out a terrorist act, went far beyond freedom of expression and posed a direct threat to her community.

Others referred to the Virginia Tech massacre in April of this year, in which thirty-two people were killed by a student who was obsessed with killing and had expressed this obsession in writing. "Should we have arrested him before the crime to prevent it", asked one commentator.

In the end, the old question remains: is freedom of expression absolute, or does the safety of the community warrant imposing boundaries on that freedom?