Will we learn the truth about the Liverpool bomber’s conversion?
Originally published in the Spectator
It’s been more than a fortnight since the bombing of Liverpool Women’s Hospital, and there remain plenty of unanswered questions. It is a sign of the challenge authorities face that even establishing something as basic as the nationality of the man killed in the blast, Emad Al Swealmeen, has proved difficult. There is also much uncertainty over the circumstances surrounding Al Swealmeen’s conversion to Christianity.
Al Swealmeen is believed to have entered the UK from Dubai, and his claim for asylum was rejected soon afterwards. Permission to appeal was refused, but, in 2017, Al Swealmeen converted to Christianity. This year, he applied for asylum under the name Enzo Almeni, claiming his Christian faith would put his life in danger in the Middle East.
In Islamic jurisprudence, the normal punishment for apostasy from Islam is death. This is rarely carried out – partly because those who apostatise tend not to publicise the fact. But the risk is always present. And in some Islamic countries, such as Iran, there have been instances of the punishment being applied. In others – such as Egypt or Pakistan – individuals accused of apostasy have been murdered or had to flee into exile. So deporting a Christian convert from Islam back to their home or another Muslim-majority country is a decision the immigration authorities may be reluctant to take.
This makes it hard to decide in any given case whether a conversion is in fact genuine or simply tactical. A plausible assumption would be that motives are mixed, with some conversions at least being feigned. But is Al Swealmeen’s case about more than abuse of the migration system?
Speculation has focused, in particular, on the Islamic concept of taqiya(deception). Formal justification for taqiya was originally a Shia doctrine, born out of their vulnerability to persecution in largely Sunni-ruled states. It allowed for deception of enemies in questions of faith, if it were a matter of life and death.
This is, of course, not unknown in other religions. It is analogous, for example, to the Catholic justification of mental reservation, which emerged during the religious wars of the sixteenth century and was notoriously (among Protestants) used by Jesuit priests sent to minister to English Catholics suffering under the penal laws. This was also essentially the allegation made against John Henry Newman by Charles Kingsley, which led the former to publish his Apologia Pro Vita Sua in 1864.
It is hard to imagine that such allegations would have much currency these days, even in polemical exchanges between Christians. This is not the case in Islam. Taqiya remains allowable for Shia Muslims in certain defined circumstances.
And taqiya is not the only allowable form of deception. In orthodox Sunni jurisprudence, deception, or derogation from certain obligations, is also allowable under severe compulsion, when survival is at issue, or when the interests of the community are at stake. This can be applied at times of conflict or imminent danger. The Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century gave rise to numerous instances of Muslims concealing their religion to avoid expulsion or worse. There are other examples from the early Muslim historians, the Hadith and the medieval jurists.
Serious discussion of all this is hampered by the far-right’s post 9/11 discovery of taqiya and their failure to distinguish between this and other jurisprudential categories of deception. There is also a mistaken tendency among some to use taqiya as a theoretical basis from which to analyse virtually all interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. Consequently, much of what appears on the subject, for example on social media, is deeply flawed.
While this is a problem, it does not eliminate the need for serious analysts to consider the issue: taqiya and other forms of allowable deception were being practised centuries before the western far-right came into political existence. And these ideas have been given a new lease of life by Islamist ideologues. The concept of deception in the face of the enemies of Islam (in their eyes a capacious category) was afforded serious weight in particular by two giants of twentieth century Islamism: Abu Al-A‘la Al-Mawdudi of Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt.
In ‘Towards Understanding the Quran’, Mawdudi wrote:
‘It is lawful for a believer, helpless in the grip of the enemies of Islam and in imminent danger of severe wrong and persecution, to keep his faith concealed and to behave in such a manner as to create the impression that he is on the same side as his enemies.’
Qutb’s core text ‘In the Shades of the Quran’ contains a passage further contextualising this process:
‘Such people may try to protect themselves by pretending to support the unbelievers, but this must be understood to be only a verbal support given for a specific purpose. It cannot be an expression of any firmly established alliance or deeply rooted love.’
Al Swealmeen was baptised in 2015 and confirmed in 2017. For a time that year he lived with a Christian couple, the Hitchcotts, who have said that they ‘lovedhim.’ He also appears to have suffered at least one bout of mental illness. By April 2021, Al Swealmeen was reportedly attending an unnamed city mosque ‘all day, every day’ during Ramadan, and had lost contact with the Church of England. He appears to have been living at one property, before renting another where he allegedly built an explosive device. This all looks very much like some form of purposeful cunning at least; and deliberate deception at worst.
Had the immigration authorities acted promptly, it seems possible he could have been removed from the UK several years before the attack. Whether his conversion to Christianity was genuine, part of a wider immigration scam, or a calculated act of taqiya – or otherwise ‘allowable’ deception – remains to be determined. There may have been elements of all three. But one thing is sure: taking the conversion to Christianity of Muslim asylum-seekers at face-value may (as some devout believers hold) be the Christian thing to do. But it also risks ending up a holy fool.