Fuad Abu Bakr, political leader of the New National Vision (NNV), accuses the Government of using his father and Jamaat-al-Muslimeen Imam Yasin Abu Bakr as a scapegoat, reveals why he clashed with the Imam over the 1990 Commission of Enquiry and explains why the NNV is not a Muslim party, as Wired868 continues its review of the 1990 attempt coup through the eyes of the Jamaat.
Abu Bakr sat down with Wired868 reporter Otancia Noel for this one-on-one interview:
WIRED868 REPORTER (WR) Otancia Noel: What do you think has provoked the recent detention of the Imam and where do you see this whole issue ending up?
FUAD ABU BAKR (FAB): There is so much public pressure for someone to be held in connection with the Dana Seetahal murder but confidence in the police is low. Dana’s family and other prominent members of our society have all been lobbying for someone to go down. A $3.5 million reward is on offer.
What better scapegoat than the man everyone loves to hate?
The truth is that our leaders don’t respect the law and there is a political flavour to this persecution. The Minister of National Security, who said on national TV that “The Imam knows why he is detained,” has implicated himself. He confessed that at his age he still remembers 1990. But the law took its course in 1990. The Imam and others were imprisoned for two years until the highest court of our jurisdiction ordered their release.
Unfortunately, those events have been the fuel for continuing persecution. Four years ago, properties belonging to the Imam and Kala Aki Bua were sold to pay for damage done to Police Headquarters almost two decades earlier. Twenty years! And I don’t have to remind you that the Privy Council stated categorically more than 15 years ago that “any further prosecution of the Imam and others would be an abuse of process.”
The former attorney general Anand Ramlogan, who some say is still working powerfully behind the scenes since his removal from the Cabinet, made a public statement about the sale of the properties, boasting that his government was the only one brave enough to deal with Abu Bakr. Remember that the People’s Partnership Government took office in 2010, full 20 years after July 1990 and more than a decade after the Privy Council’s verdict.
They are “brave enough” to deal with Abu Bakr but not brave enough to arrest the ex-minister who is (allegedly) wanted for conspiracy to murder a radio DJ. You see, poor people can be persecuted; Muslims in general and the Imam in particular are all fair game.
Fortunately, in many sectors, public opinion is in the Imam’s favour. Many people are tired of the cold cases, tired of Abu Bakr being the scapegoat. They have been calling for real justice, for action against the real goat in this matter and against other corrupt officials in our society.
The smokescreen has been lifted and the detention has, I am confident, backfired.
WR: Okay. Let’s talk about the attempted coup. This July marks 25 years since that fateful day in 1990 when your father’s troops stormed into the Red House and raped the Parliament. Looking back at that unforgettable six-day period 25 years later – I know you were just about two years old at that time – what is your first thought?
FAB: In fact, I am a little bit older than that. I am 29, soon to be 30, so that means I would have been four years and a bit in July 1990.
Like I have said before, my recollection of the event itself is very, very minimal so I can’t tell you about the actual event itself. However, after that, as a young man growing up in a society, I had a serious interest in what had transpired and, being exposed to history and other things as well, I pieced together things afterwards.
I read extensively on it, I spoke to teachers who had some idea of what had happened, to members of the Jamaat who were involved, to members of the armed forces at the time, the Police and the Army and even ordinary members of the public. That is where I would have gained all my information on it from.
WR: Of course, since you were just four years old, your recollection of the days and weeks leading up to July 27 is bound to be, well, not very good. But is there anything that you think might have given you a clue about what was in preparation, what was about to happen?
FAB: No. At four years? Nah! I could remember that during the coup – this is probably one of the best, one of the strongest memories I have of that time – my siblings and I, we had to live with our grandparents at that time. My grandfather was a retired police officer and he lived at the top of St Ann’s on a old julie mango estate.
I can remember us feeling some sort of resentment towards the police. So myself, my siblings, my cousins, quite a few of us were up there and we hid in the bush and threw mangoes at the police officers who were patrolling perhaps because of the state of emergency and the curfew. We hid from them and we got away with it but our grandfather got the complaint from the police because obviously they know him well since he was an ex-policeman. And he scolded us for that action.
So I can remember feeling that resentment or rebelliousness towards what was the police authority at that time. Maybe that was born out of the incident itself.
WR: Here’s a scenario for you: you are 20 years old and the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen decides to storm the Parliament and overthrow the elected government. Your father, the leader of the coup, says you are NOT to get involved. What do you do?
FAB: I think any action that is as strong as that one obviously has causes. And those causes have to be heartfelt for individuals to risk their lives, to risk not coming back home to see their families, their children. And, therefore, given such strong circumstances as a young man and understanding what was taking place, I would have wanted to be involved if it was necessary.
Man must take responsibility and I always remember that Martin Luther said that if a man is not willing to die for something, then he is not worthy of living. And ideals and values are important things, the protection of your family, the protection of your honour, the protection of your nation, the protection of your fellow man… I think those are things that a man should be willing to sacrifice himself for.
And I am a man and I feel as though, if a situation like that arose, I would be willing to lay myself on the line in protection of those things…
WR: So going back to the time when you were four, four and a half and your father was locked up, were you allowed to visit your father while he was in prison for those two years? What was that experience like? What impact has being without your father’s presence for two whole years during the formative period of your life had on you?
FAB: Yes. I can actually remember that a little bit better. I and my other siblings, we were all very close to our parents, especially my father and it is a difficult thing for a child to not have his father who he or she is accustomed to around. We did get the opportunity to visit him and I must say thanks to the prison authorities that we always got the opportunity to meet him in a dignified manner.
It was very casual; we sat in a room together; it wasn’t the typical prison visit and I understand that that is a privilege that I remain grateful for.
So, yes, it had an effect. I think we learned from a very young age to deal with difficult situations. Life is not a bed of roses; it is made up of continual challenges and I think our experience has actually made us stronger as individuals. There is always this analogy of diamonds being formed under pressure and I feel as though some of the difficult periods we have been through in our lives have helped to make us more solid as individuals.
I see some of my peers going through difficulties in their lives and they can’t cope with it. Some of them break down, they suffer from depression. I have had friends who have tried to kill themselves and that is sad. So I am actually grateful for what I have learned and what I have been through, which shaped me and made me stronger.
I know that has a lot to do with faith and belief in God.
WR: The Imam chose not to testify before the Commission of Enquiry into the events of July 1990. Do you agree with his decision not to do so? Would you have preferred him to tell the country what really happened?
FAB: No. I made it expressly clear to the Imam that I think he should have gone forward and explained the entire situation to the best of his ability to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. I always implore him to tell his story so that people would understand that it was a matter of self-sacrifice for a greater good for the population of Trinidad and Tobago.
I don’t know if we are ever going to be fortunate enough again to see human beings who are willing to put themselves on the line because of their belief in a greater good. The type of selfish, self-serving individuals that exist now, nobody, very, very few people are willing to risk themselves for anything at all
I felt as though (he should testify) – and I expressed my opinion – but he is the Imam and he is a central figure in the coup; he chose not to and I respect his decision. But I felt as though it was a positive thing to have that opportunity to clarify certain things.
But I must say again that there are some people who know better and they just don’t want to accept the truth. Trinbagonians at times they don’t want to be properly informed but they always want to have an opinion. They want to talk, they sometimes want to parrot what other people say without giving the issue proper thought, without really trying to find out both sides, without much understanding and that is definitely one of the turn-offs I have with my people.
WR: Well, the Imam has told me that there are things to be explained but the Commission of Enquiry was not the time for him to explain. He, he said, would know when the time is right for it. But do you think that the Jamaat, your father, owes the country, owes the people of T&T an apology for what happened in July 1990? I mean, he was trying to help them out of what he considered to be trying circumstances but either he overestimated the degree of disaffection in the society or he misread the level of their desire to help themselves. But whatever the reason, the public reaction was not what he anticipated… Would you agree?
FAB: Well, I don’t think the response was what the Jamaat anticipated. I think the looting that took place was a very interesting phenomenon, not in a international context because if we look at a lot of the issues now within America and other societies, when there is something that ignites the people, you see looting and damage and stuff and I guess it’s people venting. I don’t understand the phenomenon totally because me personally that would not be the way I would act if something was transpiring.
I feel as though that was the way people participated in showing their annoyance and anger at what was transpiring in our society at that point in time. The media as well don’t like to report it that way; they like to point fingers but there was a large segment of the society – I’m not saying a majority – but quite a few people that participated in that action and you cannot blame the Jamaat – I’ve seen people blame the Jamaat because that was not foreseeable from the population.
So apologise? I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know if that is necessary. Actions should be judged by intentions and from what I gather the intentions of the Imam and other people were sincere. They really felt as though they were in a position where they had little choice but to defend themselves in that way and get rid of the NAR Government at that point in time. They did not mean for people to loot or for people to lose their lives; they understood that that may have transpired but there has to be the understanding that sometimes there is a greater sacrifice. Yes, people may lose their lives, yes, people did lose their lives, even they may have lost their lives but the action was for the total benefit of the entire society going forward.
We have rebuilt. I don’t know if we have benefited the way we should have in our understanding. I think that consciousness has not developed since; it has probably regressed and that is probably the worst part of it. We should have understood and learned and regrouped as a people, the whole of Trinidad and Tobago should have tried our best to stop the causes from ever recurring. But yet in this time we are seeing corruption, we are seeing the same leaving behind of certain sectors of our population, the same poverty, that I think were critical in causing the July 1990 action.
WR: Many people are saying that the current government is oppressive and dictatorial. Do you think that the prevailing socio-political conditions might be driving someone with a social conscience like yours to do something about it?
FAB: Yes, I feel as though there are quite a few negatives in the socio-political landscape that are creating a lot of tension within our society and I feel, from taking the pulse of the people, that things are extremely polarized politically. People seem to feel they have been unjustly dealt with by this government and previous governments and it is almost as though… I don’t know if something similar is going to transpire but it feels as though we are going to have difficulty in this political period if we continue; that is how polarized the country is.
It’s a sad situation and, like I said, I hoped that people would have learned from the past, not to prevent things by having more guns or to prevent things by having surveillance when the Jamaat or social groups or whatever or suppressing certain individuals. Not like that. But it has to be done by being fair in their political dealings, being honest, communicating properly with the public at large, giving a fair share to everyone within the society; those are the things that are going to stop social unrest, not guns and all the other things they are trying to buy now….
WR: I read the following paragraph somewhere:
In fairness to all concerned, the idea of living together as a community with meaningful goals and aspirations for bettering oneself and the society at large was the primary goal of the Jamaat when it was formed; but as things went along, ideas and agendas were misrepresented, misinterpreted and misunderstood. People changed, times changed and, along the way, some things had a negative impact on the original ideology and philosophy of the Jamaat.
You were not around at the outset when the Jamaat was still taking shape but you were born into it. Would you like to comment? Do you feel competent to make a judgement on whether it has, as the writer seems to be suggesting, drifted far from its roots and, if yes, in what way(s)?
FAB: I can speak about my conscious, first-hand knowledge as a member of the Jamaat. I feel that an organization is continually growing; it goes through challenging periods and then it has periods when it thrives and flourishes. We live in difficult conditions and Islam, I feel, is under a worldwide threat almost.
There is a lot of negative stigma on Islam and a lot of stereotypes even in Trinidad and Tobago because of the coup and the way it was portrayed and the subsequent negative media around it. There has been and there continues to be a certain level of marginalization of Muslims, especially those who attend and participate in this community and this mosque. And that is a negative thing.
But to say that the Jamaat in general has changed ideology and philosophy, I wouldn’t say that is correct. I think it is a religious organization obviously built around community living and outreach and helping people towards Islam and helping people in general to understand how to live. And I still see the Jamaat as doing that.
It has had challenges and that has set it back as well. But God willing, insha Allah, it will continue and become stronger.
WR: So let’s talk politics for a little bit. Do you see your being the Political Leader of the NNV and the Imam-in-waiting of the Jamaat as a conflict of interest?
FAB: I don’t know about being the Imam-in-waiting. Allah knows best…
WR: Surely the public is likely to see you that way…
FAB: Yes, I understand that. But I could die tomorrow. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. Besides, in Islam, leadership is not a process determined by lineage at all. God knows best in terms of those things.
But I don’t see it as a conflict of interest. I am a member of a number of organizations so this is no different. The Jamaat-al-Muslimeen is a religious, social organization, I am a Muslim, I have never said I am not. Other people in politics, including our prime minister, are of various other persuasions, religious persuasions and there are also members of other social groups that identify very closely with their religious and social groups, like the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, so I don’t see that as a conflict of interest at all.
My work within the Jamaat as a PRO at some point and as a youth leader has helped to develop me in my interaction with youth and other individuals. We are socially oriented so we do a lot of assistance work, ADR, charity work, etc. I think service to people is service to God; if you are not willing to help people, your fellow man, then you have no place in politics and you have very little place on Earth.
That is what I have learnt here. We have had a profound effect on a lot of young people and the older people as well, helped them to change their lives. Of course, there are some who come here and they don’t change, they don’t change from the way they were before and they do negative things in the society and that is sad. We try but we can’t help everyone.
I feel as though if the society and the government worked hand-in-hand with the Jamaat, if we had the resources, we would have been able to achieve more because our goals and our aspirations are extremely positive and would help the society at large. I don’t feel as though the government of the day understands that. I feel some of them don’t really care. I think they are more interested in their own political ambitions and power and what can achieve that for them instead of working and reaching out to the people who can help Trinidad and Tobago to progress in a positive way.
So, no, it’s not a conflict of interest
WR: I seem to remember hearing somewhere that before the formation of the Jamaat your father either as an independent or as a member of a political party which had a cornucopia as its symbol contested a seat in the Diego Martin area. So is the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen already actively engaged in formal politics?
FAB: Interesting. Is that so? Well, I didn’t even know that. I’ll have to ask him about that.
WR: So is it fair to consider the New National Vision party which you lead the political arm of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen?
FAB: No, that would be totally incorrect. We are wider than the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen; we are open to the entire society of Trinidad and Tobago. We fielded 12 candidates in the last general election and half of them were not Muslims. So the NNV is not even an Islamic party as people would like to brand us; it is really much broader in scope. It is a matter of people who want a true change in Trinidad and Tobago coming together and trying to offer that change, trying to bring a political vehicle for consciousness and for truth in our nation. That transcends race, religion, creed, culture; we are all human beings and we all have certain needs and rights that we all deserve to have fulfilled and that is way too broad to speak about us as if we are the Jamaat alone.
WR: Would you say that your participation in electoral politics might be a source of conflict in the Jamaat? My sense is that there are people in the Jamaat who feel strongly that the Jamaat’s true role does not lie in that area?
FAB: Yeah, I have gotten that comment from a few Muslims. Some Muslims say that we shouldn’t be involved in politics at all; others, on the other hand, say that we should not get involved in the way we’re getting involved. I disagree. I feel that by whatever means you can change a system, bring positivity to your country or wherever you are, you should make an effort to do so.
There are many members of our organization and other Muslims who do vote and get involved politically and they choose to get involved with people who have less-than-proper characters, some of them are not even religiously minded at all. And to me that is a shame in itself. They support people who are clearly in my opinion hypocrites, they say one thing and then when they reach into power they do the next.
I feel as though all God-fearing people, not just Muslims, there are Christians and other people who hold their moral and spiritual values high should try to analyse their options properly in terms of candidates and in terms of leadership and support people who are going to do positive, righteous, good things for our society.
I feel strongly as though the opportunity and the resources to make a profound, positive impact on the society are vested in the politicians, including the leaders of our country and therefore good people, righteous people should be offering themselves for leadership, should be fighting and struggling to do the best for all the people of our country with the resources of our country.
And that is why I am involved politically.
Editor’s Note: In part two of this two-part series, Fuad Abu Bakr responds to suggestions that he has no business in politics because of his father’s history and gives the NNV’s position on same-sex relationships and marriage.