When Poems are Against the Law

A UK jury has convicted Samina Malik of collecting articles “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. The 24-year-old has been called the “Lyrical Terrorist” in the UK press because apparently on a website she has used the phrase as a screen name, which she changed from “Lyrical Babe” because she said she thought it “sounder cooler.” For the record, I have use the screen name “Duchydog” on some websites, but I swear that I am not planning on becoming a dog (or a Duchess).

The jury rejected that charge of “possessing articles for a terrorist purpose,” which seems to underscore the idea that it’s not so much that her actions were against the law as much as her thoughts. And perhaps her identity… she is a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, and writes scraps of sentences about martyrdom on pieces of paper while at work at an airport (gasp!). She says they are random thoughts or bits of poems, which would explain why they’re written scraps of paper from the till.

Many writers randomly write things down. I have been known to stop in all sorts of places to scribble some word or phrase that comes into my head so I don’t forget them (Anne LaMott suggests this in the wonderful writing text Bird by Bird). I have found scraps of paper with random words or phrases or story concepts in my pockets later and wondered, “wow, what if I was hit by a bus and was unconscious at the hospital and some stranger emptied my pockets and read this? They would think I was a dangerous lunatic.” (This is what writers do… we imagine things…) What seems like a strange writer-fantasy tinged by paranoia turns out to have a base in reality. During her trial, Malik was painted as sinister for these scraps she wrote on scraps of paper and visited the wrong websites, and her unfortunate violent poetry. There is no talk of possessing weapons, or untraceable phone calls, or stacks of cash, or fake ID’s. Just scraps of paper, a web history, and of course, being a Muslim.

I do think it is ill-advised to give oneself a screen name with “terrorist” in it. I wish people wouldn’t do stuff like that… and I recognize their freedom to do so. People give themselves all sorts of obnoxious screen names, and people write all sorts of obnoxious things about how they want to hurt people all over the web. While it should draw our attention as we figure out helpful ways to intervene and prevent any real-world violence, it should not be used as an excuse to harass people or prosecute them for possible crimes that might commit.

As for the fact that she visited the website of someone connected to terrorism, I can’t see how charging one person for what they read or where they post comments that makes anyone safer. I agree with writer Hari Kunzru on the Guardian website, who points out that we should all be concerned about prosecutions like this. It’s meant to have a chilling effect, which makes  it even more important that we keep reading and writing about a wide range of ideas.

Meanwhile, Samina Malik is under house arrest until her sentencing December 6th.

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