Terrorist Poetry: Thought Crime or Threat?

Samina Malik was arrested and spent five months in jail for her violent prose.

Dec. 10, 2007 — -- If the pen is mightier than the sword, is violent poetry tantamount to terrorism?

That was the judgment of British prosecutors after they read some of Samina Malik's poems titled "How to Behead" and "The Living Martyrs."

The 23-year-old store cashier, who called herself a "lyrical terrorist," became the first woman convicted under Britain's tough terrorism legislation last month after writing the poems and downloading material off the Internet.

Her arrest and the time she spent in jail caused an uproar and is prompting a debate about the value of free speech versus national security, with some of her defenders saying that Malik was charged with a "thought crime," a scenario straight out of George Orwell's "1984."

In its potential threat to freedom of speech, some supporters have even compared the case to the detention of Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher jailed in Sudan for naming a classroom teddy bear Muhammad.

Malik, who worked at a WH Smith store in London's Heathrow Airport, jotted her poems down on the back of cash-register receipts with such memorable lines as "The desire within me increases every day to go for martyrdom."

Among her crimes was visiting terrorism sites on the Internet. Prosecutor Jonathan Sharp described Malik's browsing in detail, telling the jury that she visited a Web site linked to jailed cleric Abu Hamza.

And on a social networking site, she listed as her favorite TV shows: "Watching videos by my Muslim brothers in Iraq, yep the beheading ones, watching video messages by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri and other videos, which show massacres of the kaffirs [heathens]."

Her friends set up Web sites and blogs condemning her arrest and deliberately tried to provoke authorities by downloading al Qaeda manuals and outlining methods to kill President Bush with depleted uranium bombs.

But after a teary-eyed Malik insisted that she was not a terrorist and only adopted the nickname because she thought it was "cool," a judge sentenced her last week to the equivalent of house arrest and handed her a nine-month suspended sentence.

Although he said that Malik's crime was on the "margins" of the offense, Section 58 of Britain's Terrorism Act, and that she was of "good character," the judge vigorously defended the legislation:

"The Terrorism Act and the restrictions it imposes on the personal freedom exist to protect this country, its interests here and abroad, its citizens, and those who visit here. Its protection embraces us all."

In a statement, prosecutors emphasized that "Samina Malik was not prosecuted for writing poetry. Ms. Malik was convicted of collecting information, without reasonable excuse, of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism."

Others felt that the law sets a dangerous precedent and indiscriminately targeted Muslims.

"People write god-awful poetry all the time, are we going to go after all of them?" Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said to ABC News. "It's very troubling because many young people will download all types of material from the Internet, which may be nihilistic or disturbing. Having odious views should not be a crime. We really get into the area of thought crime."

Bunglawala, who also condemned the Sudanese arrest of Gibbons, said that both arrests involved violations of free speech even though Malik's words were violent and hateful.

"They're convicting her [Malik] for her state of mind, as opposed to anything she's done or planned."

Malik's family and neighbors did not return calls for comment.