Flashback: The following interview was first published on 27 July 2015…
Jamaat-al-Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr says that the country still does not know the real story of July 1990 but he is not yet ready to share it.
What he does share is that it is the Jamaat’s attempts to clean up the drugs scene in the country that saw them step on the corns of influential people in the society and led the NAR Government to launch an offensive to deprive them of their land in Mucurapo.
Bakr sat down for a one-on-one with Wired868 reporter, Otancia Noel.
WIRED868 REPORTER (WR): This July marks 25 years since that fateful day in 1990 when your troops stormed into the Red House and destroyed the parliament’s virginity forever. Looking back at that unforgettable six-day period 25 years later, what is your first thought?
YASIN ABU BAKR (YAB): Well, not much has changed by way of governance; that’s the first, first thought that comes into my mind. And I remember on that fateful day saying that, if this society did not stop and make a right-about turn, they were going to descend into the abyss, the place of no return.
Today, 25 years later, that is exactly what is happening…
So 1990. Usually people ask what happened in 1990 and start with 1990 but 1990 has a genesis. Many, many things happened before 1990 that led up to 1990. People don’t just get up one morning and go in a parliament to overthrow a government; that is insane. And if you are insane, you would not be capable of planning and executing such an action. So to claim that we are insane is to claim that the other people are also insane for letting something like that happen right under their nose. And supposedly they were having a hundred eyes on the Jamaat every day.
So there is a genesis to 1990 and the genesis basically is that the government broke the rule of law. The Jamaat were having constant problems with the State, the machinery of State and there were several people in the government who were involved in narcotics, drugs, and we were trying to clean up the place. And so there was an ongoing battle with us trying to clean up all these drug dens and things like that. And then the police, ably assisted by the politicians, tried their best to stop that and give the population the impression that we were doing something really bad.
So that led up to several different kinds of confrontations, resulting in their running into the mosque every Friday during the prayer time. That has never happened with no other church in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, no mosque, nowhere; that has simply never happened before. And there was a constant violation of the rights of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen because of this ongoing drug problem.
And then finally, the State, unlawfully, ably assisted by the Police and the Army, came onto the compound. The Police and the Army unlawfully occupied the land that belonged to us. So, like good citizens, we went to the courts and the judge ruled that they had unlawfully occupied our premises and they should be removed and they refused. They appealed the judgment. And then it went to Justice Crane in the Appeal Court and Justice Crane gave them seven days to move and they refused to obey the law of the land.
We went to the Chief Justice and the Chief Justice said that is anarchy because the government must respect the rule of law. But they refused to obey the rule of law so they left us no other solution but this head-on conflict and the constant occupation.
The school was at its worst that year because the police kept walking through the school with guns and interfering with the women and all the attendant problems stemming from unlawful and illegal occupation of the land.
One brother got shot in his ankle and we went to the police and the police said that they could not move because they were obeying the orders of the government and that the most they could do was change the groups that they had there. And they did change them. The Army did the same thing.
We went and spoke to one Officer Vidale and he said, “Well, what can we do? We’re following the orders of the Minister of National Security,” who was then one of the main problems that we had. And then eventually we had to do something to defend ourselves against this constant, constant thing and again living in a state where the government is not obeying the rule of law and that is anarchy.
And so we did not get up one July morning in 1990 and say, “we’re going to run into the Parliament today.” It would be very, very stupid for anybody to believe that and for the State to say that some people could do that right under their nose. Stupid people could do that and succeed when they so smart and they allowed that to happen. So it’s a whole, long story before 1990 and then eventually, of course, 1990 occurred.
WR: So would it be accurate to say, Imam, that July 1990 would never have happened if you-–not you singular, Yasin Abu Bakr, but you plural, the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen–had not been provoked?
YAB: Well, it was not just provoked; it was more than provoked. They would run into the mosque every Friday and disrupt the prayer and the prayer time. That never happened in this country to no other group. The provocation was beyond all measure. And then culminating, of course, in the fact that we found out that they were going to try to come and break down the building.
And when we went to jail, they came and broke down all the buildings except the mosque. When the tractor tried to push down the mosque, the tractor turned over but they destroyed everything else.
Two weeks before July 1990, we found out from somebody who worked in the Ministry of National Security that they were coming to destroy the mosque and destroy all the buildings and destroy everything that we had. And they knew that we would defend it and they were going to kill everybody because they were fed up because we were relentlessly against something that I don’t want to talk about right now.
WR: So why not now?
YAB: I refused to talk about it even before the Commission but the time will come when the whole of Trinidad and Tobago will know the real truth of that matter.
We said that we found out two weeks before that they were planning to come and destroy everything and kill us all, mash up all the buildings and everything, the schools, the homes, the garment factory, the supermarket, the printery, the library… And they did, they subsequently did.
We had a health clinic and two doctors would come every week (incidentally, one of them used to be the acting President, Wahid Ali) and another doctor came regularly and Dr McKend came and did extractions and dentistry work, all free of cost.
And then they had a problem because we brought doctors into this country to do a programme and they turned it down and we had to send the three doctors back. And then we brought medical supplies here and they refused to allow us to clear our medical supplies and stuff like that. All free, of course, for the people.
So there were all of those things and many, many more; it would take days for me to tell you the amount of atrocities that were committed by the government of anarchy who were not obeying the rule of law. The judgements are in the court. You can go in the court and see all of these judgements which are there.
So it was really a question of self-defence. We knew they were coming and we knew that they had prepared everything and we knew that, in our efforts to defend the buildings, they were going to wipe us out and kill us. So that is what led up to that and we hurriedly made some plans and we were able to go to the Red House and arrest the perpetrators of those acts. They pleaded guilty and they said they had a solution to the problem. They admitted that they had committed the acts that we accused them of but I told you that story will come out one day…
And that is how that fateful day happened.
WR: Has any government since 1990, Mr Panday’s, Mr Manning’s or Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s, moved to mend fences with the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, to apologise or to remove the provocation(s) that precipitated July 1990 or anything like that?
YAB: No, instead of mending fences, they put up fences. They didn’t mend fences, they put up fences. Of course, they subsequently came down because they were unlawfully put up but the persecution has remained from then until now.
In addition to that, they have implemented what they said they were going to do during the four or five days of the siege. They said they were going to adopt a starvation option; we’ll get nothing to eat and we will surrender. That, of course, never happened because we’re accustomed to fasting. Subsequent to that since we came out of prison, legitimately as far as they are concerned, they have now implemented the starvation option because we cannot get no work at all.
We are not allowed to work in any government department; we are not allowed in the Police Service, in the Army; we’re not allowed to do anything other regular citizens of this country can do. Although the amnesty had squashed all of that, that never materialised.
So the persecution continues up to today. Twenty-five years later, the persecution and the oppression and the discrimination against the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen continues up to today.
WR: Many people are saying that the current government is oppressive, even dictatorial. Do you think that the prevailing political conditions might, as we speak, be driving someone with a social conscience like yours to do something about it?
YAB: I don’t know. I don’t know that there are many men in Trinidad and Tobago now because this situation that obtains at the moment could never have happened. The kind of corruption that is happening in this society could never obtain if there were men in this society.
So I don’t know where the men are. Every time you try to look up to somebody, they fall in the same corruption bag. Where are the men? Where are the men? And the people support these people. What is ironic is that people support these people. So how out of these same people can come someone who would say: “Look, let’s put an end to this kind of corruption among governments and get a government who would serve the people and not bleed and hæmorrhage the Treasury and think it is theirs and not realise that they are servants of the people.”
I got a case for that and I don’t know how you can ever win that because it was a quote from the American President Thomas Jefferson, who said: “Whenever the people are afraid of governments, that is tyranny but whenever the government is afraid of the people, that is democracy.”
So I can ask you now: “Where is the democracy? Is the government afraid of the people or are the people afraid of the government?”
It only have one answer, you know. The people are mortified; they’re terribly afraid of the government. That means the police, it means all these extra-judicial killings. So the people are scared, the people are mortified of the government. And, according to Thomas Jefferson, that is tyranny…
The government, on the other hand, are not afraid of anybody. They can’t be afraid of anybody and keep doing what they are doing…
WR: What do you think of the Commission of Enquiry into the events of July 1990? Do you think it was useful or not?
YAB: A waste of time and money! Millions and millions of dollars wasted. And the poor and the oppressed people in the depressed areas, it would have been well spent giving it to the people in those areas. Because what did it achieve? Nothing!
As a matter of fact, the recommendations that were being made, one of them was that they should pay the teachers in the school. Up to now, the government does not pay the teachers in the school although that was one of the serious recommendations. And so all of the recommendations that have been made, none of them has been implemented. Absolutely nothing… except that I didn’t go so they give me a case which, of course, they can’t win…
WR: Do you have any regrets at all about July 1990?
YAB: No, no, no, I have no regrets.
WR: If we could somehow return to 1990 and come forward again, what would you change? Would you still go the violent overthrow route and, if yes, what adjustments would you make to your military strategy? I don’t need the details, the broad strategic lines would suffice…
YAB: Well, I don’t know what are the conditions that would obtain at the time so I can’t say what kind of action should be taken. I don’t have any knowledge of the future so I can’t predict what will happen but conditions that prevail at the time is what spurs revolutions and revolts among people. It’s always the conditions that prevail. The conditions that are prevailing now are absolutely no good at all so I don’t know what that can spawn or spur.
WR: Fuad, your son, said that “T&T is in a really bad place,” and warned that people were so frustrated that “things could explode.” This was in the Guardian in July last year. Do you think that the country is in a better place in 2015 than it was in 1990?
YAB: Worse, worse, worse, worse, worse! If something isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. It can’t remain static, one way. I say it’s getting worse and worse and worse, of course.
WR: Do you think that the coup helped? How do you see the events of July 1990 in terms of the country’s progress and development? Were they a help or a hindrance?
YAB: Government has continued the same way. All they have tried to do is to repress those who they think would do something. But it has become worse, worse, worse, worse, worse.
WR: Monique Roffey, I don’t know if you know her but she wrote a fictional novel called House of Ashes, which is loosely based on what happened in the country in July 1990. At the end of her novel, the insurgents are taken in a bus from the Red House and TTT, lined up against a wall in the Chaguaramas forest and shot. Do you consider yourself lucky to have escaped first with your life and then with your freedom?
YAB: Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! There is nothing like lucky where I am concerned. I am a Muslim and for me there is nothing like luck. Everything is the decree of Allah. Whatever Allah decree is what comes to pass so I do not consider myself lucky at all, at all. Whoever wrote that novel, I hope they put “fiction” on it because if they didn’t, they can be sued.
WR: Yes, she did say it’s a work of fiction.
YAB: Well, in fiction, anybody could say anything or write anything.
WR: Since we’re talking books, 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.
Would you like to comment on that?
YAB: No, no, no, no, no. Who said that? Not at all. I don’t know that at all. The ideology and the philosophy of the Jamaat remain the same, no change.
WR: Is the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen a spent force or is it, in your opinion, stronger today as a political force than it was in 1990? To what extent is the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen of 1990 intact? I don’t mean in terms of the personnel, I mean in terms of the philosophy, the ideology that spawned the attempted coup.
YAB: Well, it depends on who is asking that question because that question have several different answers. But because it is you asking the question, I will tell you that is a lot of nonsense.
WR: To what extent is the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen relevant today?
YAB: In every way, to every extent. As it has always been, we are a service-oriented, community-oriented body that still serves the poor and the oppressed.
WR: Is the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen planning to engage actively or already actively engaged in formal politics? Is the New National Vision party, which Fuad leads, the political arm of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen?
YAB: Politics is involved in every aspect of a human life. No human being is ever devoid of the political on-goings in a society. Whatever decisions a politician makes affects everybody so nobody can remain aloof from the decision-making body of the politics. So everybody is constantly involved in politics, one way or the other. Some vocal, some otherwise but everybody is involved in politics. It affects everybody.
WR: So is it safe to say that the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen is a part of the country’s future? Are there young people–and “young” does not mean, as one of your trusted lieutenants said to me recently, necessarily under 25 but perhaps under 50–willing and able to take up the reins when eventually you have to pass them on?
YAB: Everybody will die, including my good self and Nature has a way of throwing up its own leaders. It is obvious that somebody will come after me obviously but the Jamaat will be here forever and ever. The Jamaat is not a political organisation. The Jamaat is a religious organization that serves the poor and the oppressed in the repressed communities. And they will be here forever, insh’Allah, because we have had, we have four generations of children already now.
We have grand and great-grand and great-great-grand and so we will defend our position from generation to generation. There is going to be no change in our policy, no change. We want to live as free people and be able to practise our religion without hindrance or without fear and that will go on from generation to generation to generation until we succeed.
WR: Since we’re talking Jamaat generation, the word out on the streets is that some of the people going to join ISIS are second generation Jamaat children. I am told that even entire families are running to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. So what is your take on that, on the suggestion that the Jamaat is sending people to Syria?
YAB: I have no idea what ISIS is about so I can make no comment. And as far as I am concerned, I do not know anybody from the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen who has gone to ISIS or who has gone to Syria. That is a no comment question because everybody who is here in Trinidad making comments about ISIS.
They know nothing about ISIS and Syria except what they see on the BBC or what they see in CNN and the CNN and the BBC is who dropping bombs in Syria and thing so their guess is as good as mine…
WR: Do you think that you owe the country, the people of T&T, your countrymen, an apology for what happened in July 1990? I mean, do you think that you overestimated the degree of disaffection in the society or that you misread the level of desire the population of Trinidad and Tobago had to help themselves?
YAB: The people of Trinidad and Tobago owe me an apology. I don’t owe them any apology and I’ll never apologise; they owe me an apology. (I condemn) [T]his whole business of making pronouncements without having any facts or any knowledge of the truth of this matter, except peripheral things. But the real truth of this matter they have not been able to get from me and I am the author of this book. I wrote this book. So until I give my story about what really happened, everybody is just guessing.
I don’t think the people underestimated, underrated what they could do because when the election came, the people wiped the slate clean. The government was completely wiped off. Everybody. That was the referendum between us and them and the people wiped them off completely. If the people was not in support of us, would they do that?
It was democracy against Islamic fundamentalism. Seven times a day on the radio. Every day. Everything. All the propaganda that could have been made against us was made to brainwash the people into making a decision when they came to the election.
When they came to the election, the people literally wiped them off. So that was my referendum between me, the people and the government of the day. And those same people are still there and I am still here and they still have governments who continue to do the same and worse than that government was doing…
WR: So we’re talking elections now. Is the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen in any way seeking to influence the outcome of the 2015 elections by advising its members how to vote?
YAB: No, no, no, no, no.
WR: Do you have a view you wish to share on the outcome of the imminent general elections?
WR: Okay, Imam. Thank you very much.
Editor’s Note: Yasin Abu Bakr collapsed at his home on 21 October 2021 and was subsequently declared dead at the St James Health Facility. He was 80 years old.