A Life of Struggle: Imam Yasin Abu Bakr

On Thursday, October 21, 2021, just after 9:00pm, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr of the Jama’at al-Muslimeen of Trinidad and Tobago, passed away at the age of 80. He collapsed at home and was taken to the St. James Infirmary in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The Imam was a monumental presence in the historical life of Trinidad and Tobago, and the gap he leaves—especially at this extremely dangerous time—is one that requires sober reflection. Yasin Abu Bakr was the famed leader of the July 27, 1990, Muslimeen uprising in Trinidad. One of Abu Bakr’s prominent children, Fuad Abu Bakr (who shares a close resemblance to his father), posted: “To Allah we belong and to him is our eventual return. ALLAHU AKBAR”.

Abu Bakr was a lion: a perfect portrait of courage who stood fearless in the face of threats and overwhelming odds. Standing well over six feet tall, he always exuded confidence and strength. Abu Bakr was a man who could be as humorous as he could be dauntless and ferocious. He would thunder in his sermons, and then speak in the gentlest tones in person. He was very much a self-made man, who was born to poverty in a large working class family, and who raised himself socially and economically, becoming a policeman, then studying abroad (at what is now Ryerson University in Toronto), and eventually creating his own businesses. The ethos of self-reliance and autonomy stood out in the unofficial credo of the Muslimeen which was printed on a sign that was prominently displayed at the Mucurapo compound:

We the willing led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the grateful. We have done so much for so long with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing”.

Class in Arabic at the Muslimeen headquarters in 1993 (Photo by the author)

Yasin Abu Bakr was devoted to seeing his people delivered from domination in Trinidad and Tobago. Poverty, discrimination, and hopelessness simply enraged him, and that rage emboldened him to push against the system with every sinew of his body, and every spark of his sharp mind. He read widely; he travelled widely, especially throughout the Islamic world. He planned, developed, and created. Abu Bakr was no social media activist of the kind that predominates in Trinidad today, fixated on the number of likes and shares that their videos get. Abu Bakr created real-world, concrete, practical alternatives: he secured a land grant; he established a mosque; he founded schools; he established enterprises that generated profits and employed thousands from marginalized communities; he ran a drug rehabilitation program; he recruited disadvantaged youths, got them to marry, start families, and work in Muslimeen companies. Abu Bakr thus established a wide social and economic network that turned the Muslimeen into a political force in its own right.

There are too many thoughts, too many words, that I can share about the life, the worldview, the practice, and the many impacts of Abu Bakr. I will just say that he was probably the most unique Trinidadian I ever had the honour of meeting. The leader of the Islamic Front of Trinidad and Tobago, Umar Abdullah (a prominent activist in his own right who has been at the forefront in protesting the current state of emergency, the curfews, the extended lockdowns, and mandatory vaccination), wrote eloquently about his colleague. In a statement, Umar Abdullah wrote the following:

“A good heart with a tower of strength has stopped beating, a good soul has ascended. We are honoured and blessed to have come to know him. He was truly an inspiration to all of the lives he touched; remembering his gentle yet mighty soul will forever remain in our hearts. We as a nation should never forget the importance of the role he played as one of the last standing pillars of strength in the Muslim community. Often the echoes and rumblings reflecting the cry of the people can be heard coming from his camp. When he spoke we paid attention”.

Placing the passing of Imam Abu Bakr within the present, Abdullah made some especially pertinent observations and raised some sharp questions:

“Needless to say, we are today witnessing the dismantling of our democracy here in Trinidad and Tobago, and quite interesting to the observer Imam Yaseen Abu Bakr’s death comes at a time when the resilience of our people is once again being tested and as we reflect on that very dark day in our country’s democracy; the 1990 coup, where 24 of our citizens made the ultimate sacrifice. No one can deny the contribution ‘the Imam’—as he is often referred to—made on that day, changed forever the political landscape of this great nation.

“According to our President, Her Excellency Paula-May Weeks ‘July 27 is an annual opportunity to be reminded of the value of our democratic freedoms and the need to ensure that such an egregious violation of our citizens’ rights and dignity can never again befall our nation.’ The question that should be asked was, who sacrificed and were preserving and protecting our democracy on that fateful day, was it the insurrectionist under the leadership of Imam Yaseen Abu Bakr? Or the government who continued to defy the will of the people?” [emphases added]

On Fridays his sermons were live streamed to Facebook, and one recently caught everyone’s attention because he issued a stern warning to the government if it should continue on its dictatorial and discriminatory path. It was just last month that Abu Bakr stood up during one of his Friday sermons and warned the government of a coming war. Among the statements he made that day, live streamed to Facebook, was the following:

“In Trinidad, don’t fix the society, don’t give to the poor what is their due, don’t start to be fair and just, don’t let go the prisoners who you locking up for 15 years without a trial, don’t do that and you will see what will happen—remember I warn you today. I warning the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, I warning the Police, I warning the Coast Guard, I warning everybody who is involved in the repression, the oppression of African people, I warning you today, this is your last day warning”.

In that sermon, Abu Bakr also addressed the damaging impacts of the government’s lockdown measures that disproportionately affected poorer and working class citizens who lost employment, received little or no social assistance, and were left to fend for themselves while locked down at home, in sheer despair:

“Covid-19 is killing persons. It affects the weakest among us. But we have people in our communities who are not eating because they cannot afford to eat. So give them food to eat. Why are they not doing that?

“I will tell you why. There is money in the virus. There is money in the vaccine. So they are putting the money elsewhere and they are starving you, and the more they starve you, the easier it is (for the virus) to kill you as the body can’t resist. So they keep being starved. But I say this now. A hungry man is an angry man. So you will see what happens if they keep starving us”.

(A widely circulated extract of that sermon is reproduced above at the right, along with the full sermon from Friday, September 10, below at the right.)

The Imam was clearly active and engaged in public life until the end. He was also, until very recently, a regular participant on WACK Radio 90.1 FM, every Wednesday afternoon from 1:00pm. Heard on air and online, the radio station also live streams from its studio to YouTube. I watched Abu Bakr’s last appearance in late September, when he and his comrade stormed out of the studio after some particularly bigoted remarks about his wives were uttered by someone who called in during the program. To the end, Abu Bakr was smeared with the label “terrorist”—even as Trinidadians lived under the daily terrorism of a state that reduced large parts of the population to unnecessary poverty and sickness, in the name of “fighting Covid”. (Note: just as Trinidadians are earning the least, and struggling financially the most, the government just rushed in a new property tax that could see many poorer persons, not to mention elderly pensioners, unable to pay and thus risk losing homes or land they have had their whole lives—this is clearly an attempt by the state to confiscate, expropriate, and dispossess.)

And what is this now, but the lively Image of a perverse Reason of State, set up in opposition to Truth and Justice; but under the august Name and Pretence, however, of both? As Loyalty, for the purpose, shall be called Rebellion; and the Exercise of the most necessary Powers of Government shall pass for Tyranny and Oppression. Decency of religious Worship shall be made Superstition; Tenderness of Conscience shall be call’d Phanaticism, Singularity and Faction…”. (“Reflection” on “A Wolf and a Lamb” in Aesop’s Fables)

Continuing from what I wrote at the start, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr was and still is a monumental figure in the histories of Trinidad & Tobago, the Caribbean, and Islam internationally. I had the honour of meeting and sitting with him for a prolonged period, over years, and those interviews were the basis for my very first study in Trinidad and my very first book: Against the Trinity: An Insurgent Imam Tells His Story, which was self-published in 1995, then material was added and it was republished in 1996. The work had to be self-published: no publisher interested in Caribbean affairs would touch it; yet, like many of my works which have had the greatest impact, it was a blessing to self-publish the book, and through no special effort of my own (given limited resources) it still ended up on the shelves of the top libraries of the world. The Imam repeatedly told me in the years following publication—even in long-distance calls in recent years—that he thought it was the only credible and authentic source of information on the Muslimeen uprising in 1990. He was particularly proud of this book, in which he spoke at length, the full extent of my interviews with him being reproduced in the book. To this day the book stands apart as a challenge to the dominant narrative that the insurrection was a grab for power—Abu Bakr instead made it clear, forcefully and repeatedly, that he organized the armed uprising to protect the land on which his community rested, and to punish a harsh and corrupt government that he asserted was involved in the international drug trade. Dr. Selwyn Ryan, Trinidad’s leading political scientist and author of a mainstream account of 1990, published an article complaining about our book because it so thoroughly went against everything he penned and which he claimed was “the truth”.

(My plans in 2020 were to start editing and updating the book, for a new release to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1990 uprising. All of my plans were completely upended “thanks” to the onset of the so-called “pandemic”. The project remains frozen and may never be completed at this point. Moreover, without Abu Bakr around to see the results—and he was looking forward to the new edition—I have lost an important source of motivation.)

I am still extremely grateful for that unique experience of learning from Abu Bakr. The experience had a lasting impact. Aside from what I learned politically and culturally, and how it helped to shape me (I was still very young when I first met the Imam), that material also had a practical impact in educating others: it became a firm part of a number of my courses over the past 25 years. Even this coming Tuesday, a lecture of mine about religion in the Caribbean features Abu Bakr, and I have chosen to include an extract of that video lecture at the end of this statement.

The turning point that was 1990 marked almost my entire time in Trinidad, where I studied, did field research, lived, and worked, all told for over seven years. When I first moved to Trinidad in early August of 1990, the so-called “attempted coup” had just ended—Port of Spain was still smouldering, and I walked around looking at the scenes of destruction shown in the video below. In early 1993 I first met Abu Bakr, and several of his lieutenants, and spent time at the compound in Mucurapo. Abu Bakr had only recently been released from prison. At the time I was a mere graduate student in International Relations, at the University of the West Indies (St. Augustine, Trinidad). I continued meeting with him for years, including when I finally entered anthropology. Beyond the book, the work that resulted was developed into conference presentations; turned into slides to be shown on overhead projectors, and then slide projectors; parts were embedded in my (now laughably crude) first website, which I launched in 1995; and then some of the material formed the basis for lectures in the first courses I developed and taught (at SUNY-Binghamton) from 1995 to 1997, on Religion and Politics in the Caribbean. The Muslimeen were the very first community which I studied in Trinidad, and even when distant I was aware of their ongoing work via the media, phone calls, and their own social media. Just days before the official start of the impending “pandemic,” I was in Trinidad and went to the Muslimeen compound with the hope of seeing the Imam, to no avail—he was at the other end of the country.

What happened in 1990 in Trinidad was, though I would not have known at the time, a precursor or trial run for 9/11: the shock to a society; the resulting Islamophobia; the fortification of the national security state; and an outpouring of some of the most sanctimonious patriotism about “our beloved democracy” that one could ever expect to hear from light-skinned bourgeois elites. Some of these elements were repeated after 9/11, in the US and in its orbiting dependencies, not to mention among avid imitators and opportunists around the globe. For thirty years I have suffered illogical homilies that effectively boil down to an argument that the only way to save democracy, is by becoming a dictatorship—and now there is not even the pretense of saving democracy. In 1990 I lived in Trinidad under a nightly curfew, with an extended state of emergency. In 2021 I live in Quebec, which this same year has had a nightly curfew and continues to live under a state of emergency—as does Trinidad & Tobago, where lockdowns have been added to the toxic mix of deliberate destruction, discrimination, division, and fear-mongering in the service of domination. Now the convenient threat is a virus.

Like his ally, friend, and mentor—Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (Abu Bakr died almost to the day of the 10th anniversary of the murder of Gaddafi)—Abu Bakr was no follower of political parties. He was not at all interested in switching Candidate X in place of Candidate Y, in the ceaseless branding exercises of revolving door politics in the bankrupt pseudo-democracies of the West (the same ones that now turn on their own people with an almost lustful malice). Elections would not change the system. Yasin Abu Bakr spoke about this at length with me, and here I quote from the relevant pages in Against the Trinity (1995):

“The people said, ‘We will not tolerate that system of the NAR [National Alliance for Reconstruction], that system of government’. And the PNM [People’s National Movement] has come and said, ‘This is what we want to offer you now, a government that cares’. In the minds of the people, [they] said, ‘That is what we want. We want a government not like those, but one who will care about all the people and not the elite’.

“Unfortunately, the present government has done nothing to do that, because they can’t! Listen, it is what is there in the structure of the law, or the government rule. Let me give you an example. I don’t care who [is] put in charge of this society, it won’t work unless the structure is changed. You know Sir Lester Piggot—he is reputed to be the best jockey in the whole world—you think if you put Lester Piggot on a donkey he can beat anybody in the Derby or the Oaks or something? You see it has nothing to do with him being the best jockey—the fact is that he’s riding a donkey. And the system is a donkey! So I don’t care who you put to ride this system…the system is like a donkey no matter who you put to ride it, it cannot compete in a race with the thoroughbreds. You must give the jockey a good horse. So you have to change the donkey…not the jockey who rides it. That is what has to happen in the society. The structure of the society must be changed. The donkey must be changed into something else”. (p. 111)

“Yes, yes. I don’t know what form it’s going to take, I don’t have any knowledge of the future. But the society is going to convulse, it’s going to clash again—it’s imperative—unless substantial changes are made in the structure. There is no desire by the people who run the country to change the structure. There’s absolutely no desire…I mean when 1970 came [the Black Power Revolt] they said there was going to be no repeat of 1970. Then there came 1990 too. There is going to be another clash unless the things [are changed]…If these people had any sense, they would give us an opportunity to vent our feelings and say what were the things that caused this with an effort to plug those holes up or to amend the laws…but they have done the opposite. They have not allowed us to say to the public what caused these problems. It still remains unknown, it’s still there. It’s covered down. You can only cover the truth, but you can’t destroy the truth”. (p. 112)

Abu Bakr referred to governments in Trinidad and Tobago as “28% governments,” meaning: they were elected by, at most, 28% of all eligible electors. He was factually correct, for a while. Now matters have worsened and here in Canada “we” just “elected” a 20% government, led by Justin Trudeau in the service of the 0.1%. Abu Bakr emphasized that in political systems such as Trinidad’s, where executive power has increased dramatically (as it has now done everywhere where there is a state of emergency) the Prime Minister could act as a dictator:

“The Prime Minister in this country is a god. First of all, the Prime Minister appoints the President—which is madness….The Prime Minister appoints the Chief Justice. He appoints all the judges. Madness. The Prime Minister appoints the Commissioner of Police. The Prime Minister also appoints the Commissioner of Prisons. The Prime Minister appoints the head of the Defence Force. And nobody can veto those appointments. The Prime Minister, therefore, can do whatever he wants. Because the Prime Minister is the one who appoints these people, then, then, these people remain loyal, or they are loyal, to the Prime Minister because of political patronage. There is no such thing, therefore, as independence of the judiciary, or the judiciary remaining unfettered. The judiciary has to do what the Prime Minister wants, what the government wants in their interests, because [if not] they will not be appointed judges, they will not be appointed as Chief Justice”. (p. 73)

Abu Bakr taught that a people that rises up and fights against tyranny cannot be accused of perpetrating “violence,” that self-defence should never be called “violence”. He did so in terms that strongly resonate with our present situation where the reason of state has turned perverse (or, as some might hold, reverted to its natural shape):

“But I’m saying self-defence is not violence. Any violent act was done by the state. They are the ones who occupied the [Jama’at’s] land militarily….the government does not obey any law [if] it goes against them. So in truth and in fact there’s really no law in these societies because there’s nobody to enforce the law, except the military arm which is controlled by the government. I’m saying that the military personnel…[the highest officers] are appointed by the Prime Minister. So their allegiance is to the Prime Minister, their allegiance is not to what is right or what is just, but their allegiance is basically to the government in power, not to the law, not to the rule of law.” (pp. 90−91)

Yes, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, this lion of a man, will be sorely missed. Imagining a world without Abu Bakr was not something which I entertained, when it should have been normal and natural to expect this—there was such a permanence to him. What example do we now have to offer the cowed masses who line up compliantly in obedience to bizarre and arbitrary directives? Who is there to teach courage, to inspire fearlessness? Fortunately, many if not most Trinidadians have been abundantly schooled in skepticism, and the majority demonstrates it by resisting dogmatic vaccine mandates; I fear less for them than I do for Canadians. If Canada has distinguished itself in the world today as humanity’s leading example of cultural failure, where obedience has nearly erased any margin for questioning authority, places such as Trinidad still differ—for all their real or assumed faults—and they differ because their culture benefited from the presence of teachers such as Abu Bakr.

I wish the sincerest condolences to Yasin Abu Bakr’s family, and to his wider Muslimeen family. Thank you again for so much, Imam. May your soul rest in eternal peace.

2 thoughts on “A Life of Struggle: Imam Yasin Abu Bakr

  1. Dennis Riches

    I hope you will find other sources of important motivation to help you complete your project. I knew nothing about this subject before reading this, and I found it extremely interesting.

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