How can they do it?

Jane from Diversion Cubed was wondering how on earth people who had sworn the Hippocratic oath to heal other human beings could allegedly become involved with suicide bombing plots. I can’t fathom it myself. How can you work all day trying to heal people and help people, and then wish to wreak death and injury on innocent civilians?

In that context, I found this article by Shiv Malik on the London 7/7 bombers very interesting (hat tip to Larvatus Prodeo). Malik spoke with the family of bomber Mohamed Sidique Khan and others who lived in Beeston, Leeds. He found that the impetus to become radical is more complicated than one would think:

Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn’t the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters. At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis—with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.

When it is stated like this, the problem of Islamic extremism looks depressingly intractable. The government’s first reaction following 7/7 was to consult with a wide range of Muslim opinion, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and similar bodies. The government now argues that the MCB and some of its affiliates are as much part of the problem as of the solution, and the new initiatives to tackle radicalism stress the promotion of British values at a grassroots level and working more closely with the few liberal modernisers in Britain’s Muslim community. But maybe all that we can do now is remain vigilant and wait for the tide in the battle for Islam’s soul to turn in the west’s favour.

Malik explores the fact that many first-generation Pakistanis in Britain have a very traditional approach to life – one in which Islam is important, but so too are tribal values. It is expected, for example, that young Pakistanis will marry according to their parents’ wishes, often to a cousin or relative within the larger tribe. Radical Islamism offers an escape from arranged marriages. Malik explains:

So while traditionalist mosques carry on recruiting imams from back home, keep their sermons in Urdu and other Asian languages and neglect to publish material to engage new members, the Wahhabis and the Islamists give their sermons in English and take their recruitment on to the streets of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ghettos such as Beeston Hill. They have also encouraged the schooling of British-born imams, have learned to use the internet and have generally come to understand what makes the second generation tick. The Wahhabis and Islamists win new members by contrasting their galvanising message of world Islamic justice with the inactivity and irrationality of the first-generation traditionalists. (Among those who turn to violence, such as Khan, their beliefs are often a mix of fundamentalism and Islamism.) And by arguing that the traditionalists—with their saint worship, mysticism and forced marriages—have been corrupted by weakness and Hinduism, they provide useful arguments to those Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths who want to cling on to Islam but throw off their parents’ constraints.

Part of what pushed Khan towards fundamentalist Islamism was his desire to marry for love, not to marry the bride whom his parents had arranged for him.

Furthermore, in poor areas such as Beeston Hill in Leeds (where three of the four 7/7 bombers lived) there was an increasing problem with drug use. Traditional parents had no response for this problem. It was not within their ken. Malik continues:

Ali told me that the older generation didn’t know how to deal with the drug problem. They were largely illiterate and didn’t know the system, so they would sooner move out than try to fight the dealers. The only people who seemed to do anything about the drug-taking were a group of second-generation Pakistanis called the “Mullah boys.” This was a fluid group of 15 to 20 members that formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a response to the drugs issue. Mohammad Sidique Khan was a leading member. Ali told me that on several occasions, the group kidnapped young Pakistani drug addicts and, with the consent of their families, held them in a flat near the Wahhabi-inclined mosque on Stratford Street—and forcibly cleansed them of their drug habits.

What we learned from Ali was later corroborated by an ex-drug user called Asim Suleman. He had been cold-turkeyed by the Mullah boys in 1996, and Sidique Khan, Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammed, Khan’s line manager in his youth worker job, had asked Suleman back to help with another round in 2001. Following 9/11, the Mullah boys had become increasingly religious. Initially, this new-found godliness was welcomed by the older generation in Beeston—until the group began marrying people of their choice.

I had wondered how men who had grown up in the UK could do this. Malik’s analysis makes sense. The second generation did not want to live like their parents. They wanted to marry whom they wanted, they wanted to escape narrow tribal restrictions and they wanted to do something constructive about social problems in their community, such as drug use. But they did not feel part of the broader British community either. There were two paths for young disaffected men – either to embrace violence and drug use, or to embrace radical Islamism. The latter seemed more honourable. It offered an escape to the conundrum of trying to fit in with traditional Pakistani or English social norms – reject both, embrace Islam, then you’ll feel part of society. Paradoxically, the radical Islamist movement is in some ways more akin to a radical political group from the West than it is to traditional Islam.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the background of radical Sydney cleric Sheikh Feiz Mohammed resonates with this analysis. Sheikh Feiz was a street kid who drank and took drugs in his youth. He saw radical Islam as the pathway out of despair.

A more nuanced understanding of what drives these young men might help a more nuanced response to the issue. An analysis which simply concludes that Islam is evil or that the West is corrupt and decadent misses the mark. As always, it’s more complicated than that. Radical Islamism is a child of a terrible congruence of both Western and Islamic values.

Update

An interesting piece in The Guardian by Hassan Butt, a former member of the British Jihadi network.

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6 Comments

Filed under England, good and evil, islam, morality, politics, terrorism, war

6 responses to “How can they do it?

  1. LDU

    As you mention, it is a very complex issue to get a head around.

    What i think is the problem is that when Muslims have indulge in alcohol and drugs in their youth they feel guilty about it when they grow out of it and identify more with their religion. So, perhaps Sheikh Feiz may be thinking that if i carry on what i’m doing it’ll wash out all the evil i’ve done.

  2. LDU, I think that is exactly right. And someone like Sheikh Feiz wants to stop others from falling into the trap of drugs and alcohol (a creditable aim). But his message is also ultimately one of hatred and intolerance (which is probably another reason why it appeals to angry confused young men).

  3. LDU

    With people i know who’ve taken a joy ride in their younger days, they have this sense of inferiority because they’ve experimented with drugs whereas someone else hasn’t. So they just think the more hardline, the more narrow and the more puritanical approach they take to their faith that ‘gap’ will be filled in; which i think is clearly wrong.

  4. LDU

    Excuse the high influx of comments from my end, but Austrolabe has provided good insight in the role of one of the doctors – http://austrolabe.com/2007/07/05/an-unfortunate-acquaintance/

  5. LDU, you’re more than welcome to comment as much as you want. I’ll have to check out the Austrolabe post…

  6. dawood

    That type of insight is something sorely lacking in most media articles and is something that deserves to be properly studied. I have long felt that we need to do something like this in order to understand how the younger generation of Muslims – both in the “West” and in Muslim majority countries – are trying to come to terms with their religion in an almost post-religious age.

    The issues relating to why people convert also need to be looked at – I have met many converts who specifically came to Islam because of the more extreme anti-capitalist/anti-west element they saw present in the religion.

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