By uttering the formula of submission to Allah:
I confess there is no god but Allah,one is embracing not only submission to Allah (which is what ‘Islam’ means: a Muslim is one-who-submits)—and the obligation to spread submission to Allah—but one is also becoming one of Allah’s people and thus morally superior to anyone who has not so submitted.
and I confess that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger
This moral superiority has all sorts of implications. It can be morally permissible to lie to non-believers, to take their property, to kill them, to enslave them, to force them to second-class status.
All of this makes Islam an uncomfortable neighbour: both in the sense of being next to Muslim-ruled societies and in the context of having Muslim migrants. Not helped by difficulties in accurately translating key Islamic texts, in not grasping how very different the underlying logic of Islam is from those of Christianity, Buddhism or Judaism—particularly in implications for non-believers—and in the fact that the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers. Someone can be a “cultural Muslim” without embracing all the above implications, particularly regarding non-Muslims and particularly not its most extreme forms.
The human complexity that this logic manifests (or not) within is brought out by an deeply enlightening article (via) by a BBC researcher who ended up having many conversations with the brother of a July 7 bomber.
The brother worked as a taxi driver in Leeds. Like his jihadi brother, he was born in Leeds, children of one of the first Pakistani couples to move to Yorkshire.
The article is a bit like a detective story, but a whydunit? rather than a whodunit?. The author, Shiv Malik’s, local knowledge helps:
… of the four 7/7 bombers—three of whom came from Beeston … I had lived in Leeds for many years, and so I was familiar with Beeston’s shabbiness. Many journalists who landed there after 7/7 saw its poverty and assumed that there must be a direct link to the bombings. But the more we learned about Beeston and its bombers, the more this hypothesis turned out to be a red herring. Although poverty and exclusion are themes that wound their way through the lives of the Beeston bombers, it is the internal frictions within a traditional Pakistani community in Britain that best explain the radicalisation that led to the deaths of 56 people.It is worth remembering that suicide bombing is a tactic, one not limited to Islam:
Suicide bombing is not just a religious phenomenon. It is employed by many secular organisations, including the Kurdish PKK and the Marxist Tamil Tigers. In fact, until 2000, the Tamil Tigers had carried out more suicide attacks than all other groups put together.Study of the profiles of suicide bombers have found the motivations are more about sociological characteristics than psychological ones:
Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University psychologist, has profiled 50 suicide bombers and found that there were hardly any common factors. None were deranged or schizophrenic. Few had problems like depression. Merari concluded that the only factor linking all forms of suicide terrorism was the way bombers were recruited and trained. It is the psychology of the group, not the individual, that is key.The problem was not being too disconnected to all human society, but being too connected with a social milieu. One that is, however, hostilely disconnected from the society around it, due to adherence to a “pure” form of the underlying logic of Islam. (Just as Kurdish and Tamil/Marxist identity was hostilely disconnected to Turkish and Sri Lankan societies respectively.)
But why was that identity so hostilely disconnected? British treatment of Muslim immigrants is not remotely like Turkish repression of Kurdish identity or Sri Lankan linguistic exclusion of Tamils.
According to Malik’s research, the answers turned out to be drugs and marriage and the conflicts these caused between first and second generation Muslims.
Drugs was something the first generation migrants from tribal Pakistan had no grasp of how to deal with but some of the second generation Muslims did, with Islam as a unifying motivator:
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.Religion motivating social good works: seems a fine thing. Indeed, the parents approved of this religious commitment within the second generation, up to a point:
Initially, this new-found godliness was welcomed by the older generation in Beeston—until the group began marrying people of their choice.This was defying both parental authority and deeply ingrained patterns which had survival value back in Pakistan but not in England:
In Beeston Hill, the dilapidated heart of Beeston, Pakistanis make up 20 per cent of the population. They are a minority, but large enough to have been able to form their own partially ghettoised and cohesive community. Almost every family is ultimately from a rural part of Pakistani Kashmir called Mirpur, where the rules of tradition are strict and unforgiving. In Mirpur, as in many poor parts of the world, the basic structures of life—justice, security and social support—are organised by the local tribe and not by a central state. One consequence is that people can’t just marry whom they want. If they did, then over time tribal lands would be broken up by the rules of inheritance, and the economic base of the tribe, or baraderi (brotherhood), would be destroyed. This is one reason children in rural Pakistan are often treated as the property of their elders and encouraged, or forced, to marry within the baraderi.There is nothing specifically Islamic about these patterns. On the contrary, literalist Islam—with its notion that all Muslims are of the one community—gave grounds to rebel against it:
Families that allow children to marry for love are considered to have lost their izzat, or honour. In most circumstances, the only way for the family to regain it is to kill the offending boy or girl. Pakistan has the highest number of honour killings in the world.
When the first generation of Mirpuri immigrants moved to Britain in the 1960s, the baraderi system should in theory have faded away, as social services were supplied by the state. But traditions have their uses for preserving solidarity in a migrant community, and the mechanism still flourishes.
But the Mullah boys were armed with faith. As long as the marriages were between Muslims, they didn’t care about tribal tradition. And since the outsiders all converted to Islam before the marriages, the older generation’s insistence that their young marry their cousins was simply ignored.So, the older generation’s failure to deal with the drug problem, and their attempt to control the marriages of their sons, both discredited and disconnected their children from them and their attitudes. Conversely, Islam provided a motivation to deal with the former and to marry the women of their choice.
But, of course, the way the form of Islam the second generation was adopting authorized such marriages was to proclaim that Muslim identity trumped all others. Including that of whatever nation-state one happened to be living in.
Migration can be disorienting, so elements of identity can be clung to in all sorts of ways:
Having lived all of his life in Yorkshire, Gultasab, like his brother, spoke with a gentle Yorkshire lilt. But when I asked him where he was from, his immediate reply was Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan’s major cities. This meant the Khans were Punjabi, not Mirpuri. In a Pakistani city, this wouldn’t have meant much, but in Britain, where migration had accentuated small differences, it meant the Khans would have been at one remove from Beeston’s community of first-generation migrants.He and his brother were born in Leeds but from Rawalpindi. It is like the C19th and early C20th Australian habit of referring to the British Isles as “Home” even if they had never been there.
Markers of identity can work in all sorts of ways:
But Sidique was on a collision course with his family and background. One important reason for this was religion. At some point in the mid-1990s, when he first got involved with the Mullah boys, he became interested in Wahhabi fundamentalism; this pitted him against his family’s traditional approach to Islam.But the traditional mosque set up by the first generation Muslims had a problem:
Gultasab told me that the first time he noticed his brother had become a Wahhabi was when he started praying differently—Wahhabis add extra hand gestures between prostrations. Sidique had attended Friday prayers from a young age, and the three brothers, Hanif, Gultasab and Sidique, would fast together during Ramadan. But it was during one particular Ramadan, when Sidique was in his late teens, that he began to take a greater interest in religion. “As young men of a certain age do,” said Gultasab.
Gultasab told me that his brother had found that the traditional, community-run mosque on Hardy Street had nothing to offer him. The people who ran the mosque had no idea how to connect with the second generation, said Gultasab. They spoke and wrote in Urdu, and the only time they interacted with the younger Muslims was when they taught them to recite the Koran by rote—in Arabic.Not so for in the Saudi-funded Wahhabi mosque:
The Wahhabis did things differently. They delivered sermons and printed publications in English. Sidique’s Urdu was poor, so the only things on Islam he could read were Wahhabi-approved publications. Gultasab said that Sidique’s progression to Wahhabism was reinforced by the fact that some of his friends, and future Mullah boys, were converting too.Saudi financing of Islam around the world is a major problem, since the Saudi state is a jihadi state and adheres (and promotes) the underlying logic of Islam in a very pure form, regardless of the personal peccadilloes of Saudi princes.
This is not a post-2001 problem. On the contrary, it is part of the causes of September 11:
In 1999, it seems that Sidique began to consider the step from Wahhabi fundamentalism to a form of jihadism actively committed to violence. By this time his life had become intensely narrow: the mosques where he prayed, the buildings where he helped to run Pakistani youth groups, the Iqra bookshop where he gave talks, his brother’s house—every place in his life was within a quarter of a mile of the centre of Beeston Hill’s Pakistani community.This very narrow social milieu was based on opposition to both the first generation of migrants (and why they had come to Britain in the first place) and to the wider society (with its drug problems and serial contradiction of pure/literal Islam). But second generation issues are hardly new in British migrant experience:
Among those who study British race relations, there’s an informal theory that states that 30 years after the establishment of any sizeable ethnic minority community, there will be riots. After Jewish migration into Britain in the 1900s, there were riots in the Jewish communities of east London during the 1930s. After the 1950s migration from the Caribbean, there were riots in 1981 in the Afro-Caribbean areas of Toxteth, Chapeltown and Brixton. And after the 1970s Pakistani immigration into northern England, in the summer of 2001, like clockwork, serious unrest kicked off in Oldham, then spread to Leeds, Burnley and Bradford.Which creates an avenue for recruitment:
One explanation is that it takes about 30 years for a sizeable second generation to establish itself and then become frustrated with its status, both within its own community and the wider society. This frustration arises in part from a question of identity. Whose culture and values do you affiliate with? Those of your parents or of your friends? Those of your community or of your country?
Hassan Butt, a former recruiter for the British jihadi network (the term violent Islamic extremists in Britain use to describe themselves), who twice met Sidique Khan, says that the reason radical Islamic movements in Britain have been able to recruit thousands of young Muslims is that they have managed to exploit this identity problem.Identity tensions are explicitly used in recruitment:
Butt told me that as a recruiter, his most important job was to discover what his potential recruit identified with, and then to pick holes in it. For example, if the potential recruit felt Pakistani, then Butt would focus upon the difficulty of being both British and Pakistani. Butt and many other recruiters find this easy because they know what it is like. Having lived in Britain all his life within a strongly Pakistani household, Butt felt neither British nor Pakistani.So an identity was offered, one that was particularly powerful in a globalised world:
Religion—in this case a purified and politicised version of Islam, far from the traditional “folk” religion of the first generation—was a natural way of transcending this cultural dislocation. “Here come the Islamists and they give you an identity… you don’t need Pakistan or Britain. You can be anywhere in the world and this identity will stick with you and give you a sense of belonging.”Such recruitment was not only against Western society, but also against the first generation in their communities:
Butt also explained that traditional communities often inadvertently push their young into the arms of the radicals. Attitudes to jobs, dress, schooling and socialising all play their part in driving youngsters away from their parents’ generation. But one of the biggest factors that has helped the growth of British Islamic radicalism is marriage.Identity, belonging and romantic love: a powerful combination to disaffected young men. An identity that can become all embracing because it is so psychologically comprehensive:
Islamism’s most important tenet is that Muslims should not be divided by race or nationalism—that all Muslims are one. It therefore can offer an Islamic route out of having to marry your cousin.
“When you’re cut off from your family,” Butt explained, “the jihadi network then becomes your family. It becomes your backbone and support.” He added that when you join it becomes impossible to leave because there is nowhere else to go. The network starts operating like a cult.But a cult with a lot of money and connections behind it:
According to Butt, the other big factor that has helped Islamist recruiters is the fact that in many communities, Islamists are winning what some have termed a “civil war” within Islam. For simplicity’s sake, contemporary Islam can be divided into four schools: traditionalists, fundamentalists, modernists and Islamists. Unlike the split between Christian fundamentalists and other Christians, both Islamic traditionalists and fundamentalists lean towards scriptural literalism. The main difference between the groups is how they regard the 1,400 years of theological innovation since Muhammad’s death.The Islamist rejection of anything except the original texts creates a powerful, simple and accessible identity. It is also why Saudi Arabia is not a traditional monarchy, unlike the Gulf States, Oman, Jordan or Morocco:
… fundamentalist movements—of which the Saudi-backed Wahhabis are the most important—reject all theological innovation since the life of Muhammad and his closest companions. Muslims, they say, should pay attention only to the holy book and the collected sayings and doings of Muhammad. This is why, over the last 50 years, Wahhabi authorities in Saudi Arabia have demolished more than 300 historical structures in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. They want to create a timeless Islam.Remembering also that the most conspicuous achievement of Muhammad’s companions was the greatest burst of religious conquest in history.
A form of Islam rooted in the texts and origins, so an identity available to all, is powerfully attractive in our globalised age. Just as Pentacostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity:
Islamism, is a relatively recent offshoot of fundamentalism. It emerged in response to the final demise of Islamic authority with the fall of the Ottoman empire after the first world war, but harks back to the early days of the caliphate, when the Koran was the basis for law-making. It sees Islam not just as a religion, but as a socioeconomic system. The Koran is God’s version of Das Kapital. Islamists pick and choose teachings from across the ages, and while they read script literally and share a religious zeal with the fundamentalists, they are more akin to an ideological movement than a religious one. Their style of work is often compared with the student far left of the 1960s and 1970s.While many of its features Islamism shares with fascism, in others it is more like Leninism or Trotskyism. There is certainly an argument for treating Saudi funding of schools and mosques as being in the same category of Soviet funding during the Cold War. (That Kim Philby’s father St John Philby was the India Office’s liaison with the al-Saud during World War One and converted to Islam even provides a family link.)
And Islamism has been winning among second-generation Muslims:
Butt says that the war between these schools [traditionalists, fundamentalists, modernists and Islamists], which has been playing out across the Muslim world for decades, has ripped into Britain’s generation gap—and that the Islamists are winning.They are, after all, offering an identity open to all if you just accept their doctrines. Hence radical Islam has been penetrating Western prisons quite successfully. A violent ideology has something to say to the violent.
In ten years of recruiting, Butt says that he always wanted a theological clash, but it never came. “The traditionalists and the modernisers just wanted to run their own study circles without interference.” On the other hand, if the jihadi network see someone with strong Islamic tendencies, “the moment he leaves his house in the morning, they’re there until he returns to his house in the evening.” Butt also says that unlike the traditionalists, the network won’t judge a potential recruit on his actions. “If the network see a drug dealer or someone from a gang, they will not condemn him like the traditionalists and say ‘oh brother haram, haram [forbidden].’ What they’ll try to do is to utilise his energy.”
Saudi money is a vital part of the pattern:
There is also an economic dimension to the outflanking of the traditionalists. Since most of traditional Sunni Islam is devoid of an organised establishment, the money for running a mosque normally comes directly from the local Muslim community. In Britain, this means that in order to maintain community harmony, the teachings remain bland and the imam will avoid theological controversy. It also means that once there is enough money to run the mosque, there is no incentive to find new believers.With better techniques, resources and incentives operating for the Islamists, the traditionalist Islam of the first generation is losing out:
On the other side, British fundamentalists and Islamists are centrally funded. It is estimated that over the last two decades, Saudi Arabia has set aside $2-3bn a year to promote Wahhabism in other countries. It is not known how much of that money has come to Wahhabi groups in Britain, but one major recipient has been the Leeds Grand Mosque.
Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir are also centrally funded. They gather money from members, pass it to a central administration which then hands it back out again. These groups’ lack of local community focus means that they have to compete harder for “market share,” which has made them hungrier and more efficient.
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.A techno- and generational savvy-ness which is bearing violent fruit:
For all these reasons, many British Muslim youths who had drifted towards fundamentalist or Islamist organisations were susceptible to the violent global jihadism that emerged in the mid-1990s. This is plain from the anti-traditionalist rhetoric of Sidique Khan’s al Qaeda-produced video suicide note. … It has two parts, but it is only the first—about British foreign policy—that ever gets played in the mainstream media. Part two, which makes up three quarters of Khan’s speech, is addressed to Muslims in Britain. Here is an excerpt: “Our so-called scholars today are content with their Toyotas and semi-detached houses. They seem to think that their responsibilities lie in pleasing the kufr instead of Allah. So they tell us ludicrous things, like you must obey the law of the land. Praise be God! How did we ever conquer lands in the past if we were to obey this law?… By Allah these scholars will be brought to account, and if they fear the British government more than they fear Allah then they must desist in giving talks, lectures and passing fatwas, and they need to sit at home and leave the job to the real men, the true inheritors of the prophets.”An identity both grounded in history but released from it, one that gives identity, status and extols an aggressive masculinity. A potent brew.
And one that sets up conflicts between and within Muslims. Perhaps the most potent lesson from Eamon Duffy’s brilliant study of a Reformation parish, The Voices of Morebath, was that the religious strife of the C16th was one that ran within as much as between people. There are many similarities between the dilemmas of that time and now—hence the return of the issue of torture—and the tension between secular ethics and Islam is very much a reprise of similar tensions back then:
For some reason, I translated my usual question of whether he thought what his brother had done was “good” or “bad”—he had said that it was a terrible thing several times—and instead asked him whether he thought 7/7 was halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden) in Islam. Only when a look of stunned surprise come over Gultasab’s face did I realise that I must have been asking him an entirely different question. After a brief pause, he replied. “No comment.”A conflict made all the more potent by the clash over the right to marry:
Here, it seemed, was the perfect example of the division between two worldviews—secular ethics and an embattled Islamic faith. How long had Gultasab managed to function with these two conflicting positions fighting within him? Everyday morality told him that his brother had committed a cold-blooded act of terror, while his own Islamic theology told him that there was no clear answer and maybe, in some parallel universe, his brother was a kind of hero. How many thousands of young British Muslims are similarly conflicted?
And after Sidique got married, on 22nd October 2001, the links between father and son were cut. No longer rooted to his family, Sidique’s immersion into Britain’s network of jihadists was complete.This is not merely a conflict between certain conceptions of Islam and the West (or, indeed, the Rest), it is also a conflict within Islam:
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.If the conflict is within Islam—far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by the jihadis—what can non-Muslims do? Not much except endure until it burns itself out is Malik’s answer:
When it is stated like this, the problem of Islamic extremism looks depressingly intractable. … 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.But why would it do that?
There are two strategic arenas: separate but related. One of them is the conflicts within Islamic societies. The other is the question of integration of Muslims into Western societies.
Here the worst thing that can be done is some sort of balkanizing multiculturalism. There are certain base values that cannot be compromised because to do so makes the jihadi goal look achievable. Equality before the law, the secular basis for law, that sovereignty is human not divine, the primacy of democratic processes. The acceptance of cultural diversity cannot be done at the expense of a certain basic legal and political coherence. In particular, the notion that one’s primary public, legal and political identity is one’s religion is not acceptable.
For one can make moral claims against human sovereignty: such claims cannot be made against divine sovereignty and so its absoluteness destroys compromise and accommodation. That was something Europe and its descendant cultures learnt the hard and brutal way through its Wars of Religion. These are not lessons to unlearn, just as the unacceptability of torture is not a lesson to unlearn.
Torture is back as an issue because an external conflict has internal resonance—just as Elizabethan England had to worry about whether local Catholics accepted English sovereignty or were bitter enemies, so now Western countries have to worry about whether local Muslims accept Western sovereignty or are bitter enemies.
But just as the solution of barring torture should not be unlearned, the lesson of subordinating religious to political identity should not be unlearned either. On the contrary, it should be promulgated loud and clear. We should not be passive spectators in Islam’s debates because those debates are not merely an internal matter but bear very precisely on what it means to be a Muslim, and, more to the point—because of the logic of Islam—to not be a Muslim.