Things were looking very promising as we arrived. Each speaker had a reasonable share of startled listeners. In particular, the tearful old lady, who was rhapsodising in an elevated voice about the flowers and the birds, had quite a sizeable throng - all with wry smiles on their faces. I joined the crowd and found myself smiling wryly as I wrestled with contending urges to burst out laughing and to call her a silly old goat.
Tasha tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the other side of the corner. The barber shop choir were marching up in their suits - chins held high, chests pumped out. They were brimming with confidence and had God by their side. This was going to be an uplifting event. They started off with a chant which echoed out across the park. I couldn't make out the words. We rushed over. A huge horseshoe of gaping mouths had gathered. There was a film crew, some jostling photographers and a hippy girl with jewellery dangling from her bottom lip, who was dedicating her afternoon to lighting the stub of a rolled cigarette. We sqeezed through the crowd and sat on the floor to listen to the speakers.
'Asalom y alekum.' was the opening line. The atmosphere changed very rapidly. We were sat on the floor before a group of seven or eight immaculately dressed preachers of Islaam. They wore bow ties decorated with the islamic crescent and star. They stood in a circle, like a group of bodyguards around a central character - the oldest in the group, who clutched a copy of the Qoran and announced in a resolute voice that today he would speak about the 'Clash of Civilisations'.
Their message was a standard rant about the power of America, Britain and their allies. To add to the thrill, he touched upon white supremacy and some social issues completely unrelated to the religious theme of his speech. A few excited cries of 'Well go home then!!' and 'Then why are you here' rang from the crowd. The speaker continued undeterred.
The bodyguards played a key role in the delivery of the speech, by echoing their 'brother' with quiet instructions, "Teach, Mohammed", then telling the crowd to "listen", like a school teacher might tell his pupils. Put simply, the act was intimidating and the message was threatening. According to the Qoran, when Jerusalem is seen to be surrounded in arms and it's people surpressed, then the end will be in sight. This is armageddon. Further to this, there were some confusing views on how and why the Western states divided up the Middle East at the end of the first world war. According to our speaker, the British and French intorduced new borders into the Arab world intentionally dividing the region and causing one arab man to go to war with his 'brother'. The result is what happened in Kuwait when Saddam invaded. According to this message, the Westerners are to blame. Meanwhile, the West blames Saddam for his own invasions. The debate rumbled on...
People began to get angry. I suspect that a few were even afraid. Some people were clapping and cheering, others heckled and scoffed. There was some mention in the talk of the 'Honourable Fariq Kahn', who is currently in the US and not allowed to enter UK at the moment. There is some background reading to be done there, I think.
So Hyde Park showed itself in a different light this week. There was a difference in the way one group of speakers delivered their message. They discouraged debate and set out to intimidate their audience; an insensitive, but powerful technique. We moved on, unsure of whether or not we'd been threatened. The hippy girl continued to flick her lighter.