Let’s just start off by asking what image came to your mind when you read that title and clicked on it? What sort of person do you think we interviewed?
A few minutes past midnight on Friday, September 19h, a caravan carrying seven people rumbled in from Ireland. Fresh off shooting a segment for a documentary about the integration of Muslims worldwide, the caravan stops at the immigration checkpoint in Holyhead, Wales. It was here that the crew of seven – six UK citizens and a Malaysian – realized that their stop might have been a little more than routine. Detained on suspicions of terrorism, they were questioned, investigated, and eventually released.
Well, at least that’s what the news reports say. And here’s the kind of pictures they published:
CILISOS wondered if there was more to the story, and so on Thursday I was put in touch with him to arrange for an interview. He is stern but polite over the phone, first asking about my editor, Chak, who initially contacted him while he was still in the UK, and about CILISOS. He mentions again that he was a little short of time as he had just landed that day and needed time with his family. We set up an appointment to meet the next day, after Friday prayers, in a cafe across from a mosque in Bukit Jelutong.
I’m at the cafe early – just to give myself some time to set up and prepare for the interview, and about 10 minutes later, he walks in. Farihin Abdul Fatah is an imposing man. His (estimated) 6-feet-plus in height made taller by his quiet confidence. Dressed in prayer garb, he walks over to the table and extends his hand in greeting. He then asks if I wanted to move outside or somewhere closer to the door in order to make smoke breaks easier. Say what you want about smoking, but the habit does help in breaking the ice a little (Not a sponsored statement).
Speaking of ice, Farihin possesses what is known in clichéd romance novels as a “steely glare,” which adds conviction when he speaks and unwavering attention when he listens.
This gaze is somewhat softened when his wife (whom he also refers to as his “social media agent”) joined us a little later. Pleasantries aside, we sat down and Farihin began the story of the longest 48 hours of his life.
The beginning of a long 48 hours
When Farihin and his crew arrived at the immigration checkpoint, they were approached by officers in both plainclothes and uniform, as well as sniffing dogs. “They admitted that they have been following us,” says Farihin before I could ask. Apparently this was revealed by an intelligence source in a court hearing attended by the UK-side producers wife two days after their release. But whichever the case, the dogs detected a suspicious substance in the caravan and Farihin and his crew were taken into custody.
When asked what the suspicious substance was, he didn’t know either. He thinks it may have been leftover as fumes from the van, since it was repaired for an overcharged battery before they left on their trip, and that the dogs were indicating towards the front and back of the vehicle. But either way, the authorities were “already there and prepared [before we arrived], so….”
Farihin says that they were made to wear forensic suits – hooded white nylon plastic suits like the ones you might see on CSI, with plastic bags over their hands.
He also mentions that they were separately driven to Manchester, two hours and fifteen minutes away according to Google Maps, in private cars; him accompanied by a lady officer and a funny Welshman with a thick accent. “The plastic bags [over his hands] got pretty sweaty after awhile,” he mused.
He also pointed out that they were never handcuffed throughout the trip – one of the many mentions that he makes in regards to the respect and professionalism of the British police – though he wondered what the outcome of this practice would be “If we were real terrorists….” as he trailed off with a grin.
Interrogations, searches, and….. doner kebab???
Once in Manchester, they were subject to questioning focusing on their knowledge of explosives, on their interviews with terrorists, and their meeting with a Sinn Féin party member (the reason they were in Ireland). When I asked if he thought that the arrest was due to the filming of their documentary, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility, saying that it could be. However, everything was recorded and documented anyway so there really wasn’t anything much to hide.
He did mention that it be understandable why they were singled out – their crew was Afghani, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi, and an English Muslim convert (the UK-side producer). He says that the Afghan crew member’s father was a mujahideen who died fighting the Russians, so “if you look at their backgrounds you can probably see why [they might be flagged]”
At the same time though, Farihin mentioned that they were “treated like VIPS” by the authorities throughout their detainment.
“The British police were beautiful people. We were treated like VIPS, served meals – they checked with us if we wanted food or drink every now and then … and our religious beliefs were respected. They didn’t judge us. They were very nice.”
And yes, they all got doner kebab because Mohd. Faruq (the UK-side producer) asked for it and the cops actually checked if everyone else wanted one.
Anger, resentment, disappointment
When I asked if he felt singled out, Farihin contends that he got off a little easier than some of the others. He was questioned twice while some of the others went through four sessions. He says Mohd. Faruq probably got it the worst as he had some materials that might have been seen as suspicious, such as a magazine that contains some applications of Jihad which – Farihin stresses – they do not subscribe to.
The families of the UK crew were also subject to some distress as the police were ordered to raid their houses there and then – at the time already past midnight. Family members were transferred to hotels while they watched their houses barricaded with tape, not fully knowing what was going on. On his side, he only worried about his family whom he had not been allowed to contact since he declined to do so in an initial form that he was asked to fill in back at Holyhead, thinking that it wouldn’t be a long process and he didn’t want to worry them.
When I asked him further about his sentiments, he said that, yes, he did feel some sort of resentment over the incident, over the rise of Islamic militancy, and of the misrepresentation of Islam; but just before he met me he had read a passage in the Quran that put things in perspective for him, in the Surah Maryam.
“Do you not see that We have sent the devils upon the disbelievers, inciting them to [evil] with [constant] incitement? So be not impatient over them…” – Surah Maryam, 19:83 – 84.
Keeping up appearances
At a point of our interview, Farihin’s wife comes in and shows him something on his phone. I pause for awhile, knowing that she was looking through our site, and hope she didn’t find anything disagreeable on it. As it turns out, they were looking at our preliminary article about Farihin and were trying to figure out how we got hold of his Facebook photos since he had deactivated the account some months ago. While it was a mystery for another day, our interview became flipped as I was in turn asked about my views.
It was Farihin’s wife, actually, who first asked me what I thought about Islam, then about Jihad and the Islamic State/ISIS situation in Syria. Thankfully I’ve done enough research to (hopefully) provide them with satisfactory answers. Writing an article about ISIS and being a longtime fan of Ahmed Deedat helped too.
During this conversation, we touched a lot on the media’s (especially the western media) representation of Islam as well as the profiling of Muslim extremists. I also received a crash course in the significance of beards across cultures both Muslim and non-Muslim since I asked him about the media’s focus on his beard, getting the feeling that he isn’t too keen on the media’s spin on his appearance.
Sadly, the post 9-11 climate has created a sense of suspicion of Islam as a whole. Worse yet, photos of Taliban fighters have ingrained in the minds of the general public what a Muslim terrorist is supposed to look like. Has beard? Check. Has turban? Check. Quasi-European/Middle Eastern features? Check. Let’s make sure he doesn’t try to blow anything up. Oh wait, he’s actually Sikh. Oops.
And it’s this sense of overgeneralization and the lack of understanding that is a problem for many of us who make assumptions based on the references that we have. The sense of Islamophobia is so prevalent that Ben Affleck recently stood up against it (Here’s the video). Even at the CILISOS office, before we arranged an interview with Farihin and I was still discussing the initial article that Chak (my editor) was going to write, we asked a lot of questions about this poster:
Because I’ve kind of done some reading up on Jihad and the Mujahideen, I didn’t think too much of the event being called “Jihad Media”or the “Mujahideen Media” t-shirt. What I thought might (with added emphasis on the might) be indicative of a radical slant was the t-shirt he was wearing, with the stylized Keris and the Jawi writing on the top. As it turns out, it was a t-shirt he got from the local organizers of a Jordanian International Horseback Archery event he attended.
Arrows and fire
It is when discussing ISIS and Jihad that Farihin’s steely glare returns. He gives me an analogy of Jihad:
“If someone comes and crosses the line, threatening your family and land, you have to defend it – THAT is Jihad, not taking away lives like ISIS”
He noted that he also gave this analogy to the questioning officer back in Manchester.
His voice bristles when he talks about the ISIS flag and it’s misuse of the Shahada to attract Muslims “who don’t know and want to serve [their faith]” and how those who “end up serving ISIS are the most pitiful.”
He blames this on the use of firearms and firepower; saying that, in religion, the use of fire against another human being is an act of God, only for God, and not for humans. He also explains that in history, before the use of firearms, fighters had to confront their opponents face to face rather than from a distance which gave rise to mutual respect even among enemies. He talks about how wars back in the day were fought on the negotiation table.
“Real Muslims then, focused on how to avoid war”
This view on firearms isn’t surprising though. Farihin and his wife are archery enthusiasts with a preference for traditional longbows.
It was also sometime around this point when Farihin drops a bombshell….
“I’m actually Singaporean”
Aaaaaaand BAM! Totally didn’t see that one coming.
Farihin has been in Malaysia since 1988, and is ready to become a, as he puts it, “legal Malaysian” after his release.
“But how was the release process like?” I asked after recovering from the shock.
Farihin says that at 2pm Saturday afternoon, they were notified that they were to be detained for another 5 days. However, as he was performing his prayers later in the day, he was told that he would be released. He was interviewed again, given another medical checkup (to ensure he was in good health and not, y’know, abused or something) and released.
Funny stories and lessons learnt
As his wife put it, Farihin, like all other people, has a lighter and more serious side. It came up a couple of times, such as when he was recalling a question asked by the police on whether or not he had experience with explosives. “Yes,” he replied,
“I’ve had coffee exploding in the microwave once. And I also threw hand grenades [pausing while the investigator’s eyes widened] … during National Service training in Singapore”
He’s also in a way thankful for the detainment as it had given him a chance to be closer to his Creator,
“…but of course I don’t want any longer than the two days la.”
When we ended our interview, I offered to pay for the drinks and snacks that we had, but Farihin insisted on paying. After some back and forth, I accepted his offer to pay, as well as their invitation to join them for archery one of these weekends.
And I left without a doubt in my mind that Farihin is a humble man, a devout Muslim, a family man,
…and certainly not a terrorist. Or Malaysian (Yet).