Bad Poetry Not a (Punishable) Offence

By Julie PH Last edited 127 months ago
Bad Poetry Not a (Punishable) Offence

Or is it?

Samina Malik, self-described “lyrical terrorist”, yesterday became the first women sentenced under the Terrorism Act. Found guilty last month of collecting materials “useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”, including original poetry with titles such as How to Behead and The Living Martyrs, the 23-year-old West Londoner was given a suspended jail sentence, during which time she will be required to undertake supervised community service for 18 months.

Malik finds herself at the centre of an argument between free speech advocates and law enforcement entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the public from articulated threats. Frankly, it’s difficult to side with either camp without some uneasiness. The sentiments displayed in Malik’s poetry are quite reprehensible, but her freedom to express them is protected by law. Her offence has been described as a “thought crime”, but surely her poems are too loathsome to dismiss as simply “silly thoughts”?

The tricky part is in delineating the lines between the two views, a balancing act that it seems nearly impossible to assess without a little hindsight. If the government had not prosecuted Malik and she had perpetrated some terrible violence, we would be wondering why nothing was done to prevent her. If she had been allowed to go on scribbling hate-filled poetry, the government leaving her to it, and never acted on her sentiments, there’d be no argument about her: she and her poetry would remain unknown. Or perhaps with time and maturity she would eventually grow out of what has, perhaps rightly, been referred to as her nihilism and create verses that contributed something more productive to the dialogue about the experiences of being a Muslim woman in a hypervigilant free society.

What do you think, Londonist readers? Was Malik guilty of anything other than bad – and offensive – writing?

Image of free-speech haven Speakers’ Corner courtesy of Simon Scott’s Flickr photostream

Last Updated 07 December 2007


The statement by the Crown Prosecution Service at the bottom of the Guardian article to me is the most pertinent point: "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."

In the other articles it alludes to her having various training manuals and handbooks on terrorism. I'm sure if I devoted the rest of my afternoon to the task I could easily make a similar collection I wouldn’t because I know that this is an offence in today’s climate.

If they start extending the definition of information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism to poetry then I think we have a problem. The law is woolly and it is judgements like, which will define the interpretation of the law. I would like to read the whole of the judge’s sentence rather than the enigma statement that is all I can find in the media.