Brian Whitaker, guardian.co.uk, Monday 10 January 2005 11.55 GMT Article history, An intriguing news item was emailed to me last week. The CIA, it said, is trying to infiltrate Muslim groups, both in the US and abroad, by training its agents to act as muezzins in mosques.
The muezzin is the man who summons the faithful to prayer, traditionally by climbing to the top of a minaret five times a day to issue his call. This places him in a uniquely useful position, according to a senior US intelligence officer quoted in the report.
"He is a highly respected member of Islamic society and, as such, almost beyond suspicion," the quote said. "Not only that, but the towers provide a perfect vantage point for our agents to see what is going on at ground level."
The CIA opened its first muezzin school at a deserted army airstrip in Virginia in 1989, with the school being specially equipped with six minarets from which its agents could practise, the report said. It added that the CIA was now capable of producing up to 100 qualified muezzins each year.
Asked about the difficulties of mastering the adhan - the call to prayer - in Arabic, one former CIA muezzin was quoted as saying: "Oh sure, it's hard as hell. The adhan is a ...., let me tell you. It takes months and months of hard work. And if you haven't got the voice in the first place, there's jus' no way."
Wondering about the source of this tale, I searched the internet and found that it was published by khilafah.com, a website linked to the dour Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, on December 25.
This confirms two things about khilafah.com, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and their kind - firstly that they are willing to believe any old rubbish that happens to fit their view of the world, and secondly that they have no sense of humour whatsoever.
The muezzin story, written in the style of an American news agency report, begins quite plausibly, but becomes dafter and dafter. At one point, the former CIA officer - who refers to Muslims as "the Muzzies" - is asked whether anyone noticed he was a foreigner while he was performing his muezzin duties. "Oh, that was fine," he replies. "They taught us at the school how to cover our faces in boot polish so we looked darker than we really were."
The entire story is a joke. It first appeared more than three years ago on a satirical website called ......, under the headline "CIA scales new heights in war against ragheads".
Khilafah.com amended this to read: "CIA scales new heights in war against Islam", but otherwise reproduced the story unchanged.
The ....... sounds like the name of a newspaper - but ...... is a lump of granite sticking out of the Atlantic ocean, halfway between Ireland and Iceland. It is 30 metres long, 25 metres wide and 19 metres high, and its only permanent inhabitants are periwinkles and a few other types of mollusc. Periwinkles do not read newspapers.
There are plenty of clues on the ...... website to show it might not be what it seems - public health announcements such as "Your doctor or pharmacist can advise on how to get the most from smoking", and a headline saying "Asian tsunami catastrophe: UK house prices unaffected", for example.
It also includes a guide for immigrants to the UK, explaining that British families like to keep dogs and cats - but not elderly grandparents - in their homes, and that, as a special privilege, children living on council estates are not required to have a crash helmet or driving licence when riding stolen motorbikes.
Perhaps the Islamists at khilafah.com didn't notice any of this. Or perhaps they read it avidly, as proof of British decadence.
A few weeks after the September 11 attacks, I talked to a group of Muslims (not of the khilafah.com variety) in London. They were worried about the growth of Islamophobia and media stereotypes portraying Muslims as violent, misogynistic, stern, humourless people.
The most useful thing they could do about that, I suggested - only half-flippantly - was to collect jokes and amusing anecdotes and publish them as the Bumper Book of Muslim Humour. After all, Jewish humour is renowned, and it has probably done more over the years to counter anti-semitism than all the efforts of the Anti-Defamation League.
Interestingly, a search on Google for Jewish humour (or "humor") found 90,800 web pages. A similar search for Muslim humour found only 973, and the first item asked: "Is there such a thing as Muslim humour?"