By Marina Hyde (THE GUARDIAN, 12/07/08):
‘Never fight with a pig,” runs a popular aphorism. “You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.” It was this sage advice that came to mind this week as pictures of Abu Qatada emerged, showing the freed Islamist preacher popping out to get some groceries. Public outcry was ordered to ensue.
If you’re at the stage of needing flashcards to keep track of your troublemaking Abus, Qatada is the radical Palestinian-Jordanian cleric who fought a deportation order, and was recently released from six years of custody on strict bail conditions, including a 22-hour curfew. Abu Izzadeen – real name Trevor Brooks – is the one who once heckled John Reid in a press conference, but went and undid all that goodwill by picking up a terrorist fund-raising conviction back in April. And Abu Hamza is Captain Hook, the milky-eyed, metal-clawed preacher of hate whose links to Central Casting have never been proven, but who is currently doing a spell in Belmarsh, where he was presumably required to check in his famous appendage at the door.
Anyway, back to Qatada, who as I say was photographed in the street this week in what appeared to be a household-stocks-related sortie. The pictures were duly plastered over several newspapers accompanied by acres of explanation about how this “shames us all”.
And I fear that it does, though not at all in the way being suggested. Rather, it is the overreaction to the news that a bearded bloke has waddled down to the shops that is the really shaming bit. Honestly, he had some Diet Cokes under one arm and a multipack of Charmin loo paper in the other (he obviously prefers a little more softness). Yet to read the description, you’d think he’d been snapped dancing up the aisle of a commercial airliner waving a scimitar.
I’m sure Qatada is a frightful swine, and it’s a shame the old hypocrite lives here on our dime, which he appears to be spending on the Great Satan’s finest exported beverages. But his beatific smile for the cameras suggests this latest outcry is precisely the kind of attention he enjoys. In fact, if he’s anything like Hamza, he’d positively thrive on it. Hamza so loved posing for photographers that he would actually raise his hook up next to his bad eye so they could get both his “evil features” in shot. It was the equivalent of a celebrity having a tried-and-tested, red-carpet pose. In other circumstances, I’d call him a complete ham, but that’s probably enough animal metaphors for today.
And so with Qatada. He was described breathlessly this week as “one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists”,
“Bin Laden’s deputy in Europe”, and even “Bin Laden’s No 2”. What a preposterous way to dignify this chap with the bumper pack of bog roll (the only clear link to a number two in the entire affair). It’s the same witless flattery that led to Richard Reid being designated “the shoe bomber”, as opposed to “that idiot who couldn’t even set fire to his trainers”.
I’ve written here before about what we might call evil dignity, the veneer that attaches itself to bad guys unless we poke fun at them. By railing so prominently against Qatada, don’t we invest him with the very importance he craves, instead of ridiculing the mundanity of his hypocritical, heavily curtailed little existence?
He’s wearing an electronic tag, is presumably under constant surveillance, and his bail money was partially stumped up by Norman Kember, the former Iraq hostage whose return Qatada once appealed for in a video message. Leave him to his fizzy pop and hygiene products – he’s really not worth it.
Real strength of national character is being able to laugh at him, or even ignore him now his activities are so stringently curbed. Laws are imperfect things, and the Human Rights Act does plenty of good, every day, however much some sections of the media rail against it. All right, it means we can’t deport Qatada – but hey, some you lose. Think of him as an old dog that pees on the rug, that you somehow can’t get rid of.
Think of him as something grander, though, and you’re playing right into his hands. This is how al-Qaida has built the impression of an elite team of master villains on the cheap, and we shouldn’t be complicit in the game. Of course it’s a nuisance that Qatada is on benefits, and I’d have preferred to see him limit himself to off-brand loo paper. But if you want to talk about depressingly misdirected public funds, you’ll find rather more has been lavished on things like son of star wars than on keeping this troublemaker in a rented semi. Naturally, it’s a huge relief to know we’re prepared for when Space al-Qaida come a-callin’ … but there are those of us who feel more lives might have been saved had even a tenth of those resources been allocated to intelligence.
In the meantime, then, you are encouraged to dig for victory – which is to say, dig out the absurd wherever you can. Here’s one to start you off: the Daily Mail’s report noted that Qatada “was 20 stone but slimmed down on prison food”. So there it is: proof that there is literally no one whose body mass index is deemed an irrelevance to the paper. You may be enjoying the praise now, Abu Q, but be aware they’ll be all over you the minute the pounds pile back on, so you’re better off learning to treat the two impostors just the same.