What drives Western Muslim adolescents into the arms of fundamentalism and deliberate death?

‘A kind, really nice boy’
The Observer (England), May 4, 2003 (Opinion)
Nick Cohen

With the IRA, it was relatively easy. If young so-and-so was the son of old so-and-so of the Belfast Battalion, the security services would know it was worth taking a look at him. Violent republicanism passed down the generations. The death of volunteers wasn’t a part of the IRA’s strategy – it was as careful with its members lives as it was careless of the lives of others.

If he blew himself up, it would be an accident, but an understandable accident. His friends wouldn’t be stunned. They wouldn’t say, as Hamida Akhtar, a friend of Omar Sharif’s mother, said last week: ‘They were always a very nice, quiet family and very Westernised, not fundamentalist. The girls wore skirts and tights and they all spoke English at home.’

Sharif’s father was a successful businessman. His kebab shop, launderette and amusement arcade in Derby earned him the money to give his son a good start at a prep school. If, by a fluke, an MI5 officer had met the boy, he might have predicted many futures. He wouldn’t have predicted that Sharif would be a target for the Israeli police as they tried to solve a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv bar.

The British police said on Friday that Sharif wasn’t on their books. They hadn’t marked him down as a suspect. Nor did they know anything about Asif Hanif, his alleged co-conspirator. Hanif did kill himself and three innocent bystanders at the bar. The Hanifs lived in west London and were more religious than the Sharifs. But then, friends of Hanif said last week that his teenage religious passion was for Sufism. If this is true, it’s incredible. Sufi mysticism is about as far away as you can get in Islam from the doctrines of Osama bin Laden.

To hear that someone who was once Sufi has turned himself into a human bomb is like hearing that a former Anglican nun has bombed an abortion clinic. People who thought they knew Hanif were flabbergasted by the fate he had brought on himself and strangers. Kevin Prunty, his former head teacher, said the news was a ‘complete shock which is extremely hard to contemplate’.

The shock is becoming commonplace as terrorist tourism grows. No one who knew Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, when he was young could have imagined his subsequent career. He had no connection with religious extremism. He wasn’t even Muslim until he converted in prison. After release, he ended up at Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park’s mosque, moped about and then joined a trans-atlantic flight with a sophisticated bomb hidden in his boot.

It’s too early to be sure of all the details of Sharif’s and Hanif’s stories. But their friends’ testimony chimes with the memoir Abd Samad Moussaoui has written about his brother, Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused by the United States of being the ‘twentieth hijacker’ in the 11 September bombings. The book is written in a spirit of bitter astonishment. The Moussaoui family were Moroccan immigrants to France who wanted to assimilate. The mother didn’t teach the children Arabic or take them to a mosque. The brother remembered Zacarias as ‘an ideal younger brother. He was smart, clever and kind, a really nice boy’.

There were plenty of teenage miseries. The father wasn’t around and Zacarias didn’t get on with his mother. He had a French girlfriend from a high-bourgeois family and local racists beat him up for going out with a white girl. There were other instances of racism, real and imagined, but as Abd Samad Moussaoui says: ‘Other people have childhoods and adolescences that are worse than ours. How come someone so open, so communicative and warm, so involved in working towards his degrees, let himself be swallowed up by such scum?’

In all cases, friends remember the change brought by the embrace of a suicidal faith which gave life and death purpose. Sharif went to London, where he ended up being influenced by Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque and the al-Muhajiroun group. When he returned, he was a changed man. He dressed in long robes and wore a full beard.

Zacarias Moussaoui moved from Narbonne to study in London and, inevitably, found his way to Finsbury Park. When he came back, his brother was ‘aghast’ at the transformation. On one occasion, his sister was about to head for the shops in a short-sleeved dress. Zacarias screamed: ‘You’re not to go out looking like a whore!’ then burst into tears. He told Abd Samad Moussaoui’s wife, Fouzia, there was no point in women studying. Later, when the three of them were watching a TV film in which a wife was hit by her husband, Zacarias muttered: ‘Serves her right. That’s what women need.’

The fact that Sharif and Hanif went to Israel provides a superficial rationality. Radical Islamists who deplore the atrocities of 11 September believe that suicide attacks on Israelis are fine and that Hanif is heading to heaven. The Palestinian cause is the Muslim Spanish Civil War, a struggle which inspires the Islamic world. In Palestine, the main force of suicide bombers isn’t composed of foreign volunteers, but Palestinians from Hamas and the other Islamic groups. They are fighting against Israeli occupation for comprehensible motives.

But reason breaks down when you wonder why Hamas doesn’t behave like a conventional guerrilla army. Why suicide bombing? Why the indiscriminate targeting of civilians? When Hanif went to the Tel Aviv bar, he must have assumed he would have killed Jews, and their deaths would have made him happy. But he might just as easily have killed Palestinians or tourists.

In his recently published book, Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman says that there should not be too great a surprise in the US and Europe at cults of death. Nazism and communism were ideologies whose programmes were unhinged but which, none the less, persuaded millions to kill and be killed. European history is instructive because the ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam is nowhere near as clear as bigots on both sides of the divide make out. ‘They’ are ‘us’ and ‘we’ are ‘them’.

The clash of civilisations is inside people as well as between them. Osama bin Laden was as Westernised as Omar Sharif, Asif Hanif and Zacarias Moussaoui. All of them, all of us, are in a Salman Rushdie world of multiple identities, although bin Laden probably wouldn’t thank you for explaining this to him.

Four conclusions follow. The first is that a solution to the Palestine question based on enforcing UN resolutions, not some aimless ‘road map’, is a matter of urgency as well as of morality and justice. The second is that liberal Westerners should accept that Hamas will no more be happy with the return of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem than the Israeli Right. Both are irrational movements which dream of ethnically cleansing the other.

Berman follows in a tradition of writers who have tried to get earnest liberals to accept that rational explanation can only go so far. There is a moment when they have to realise that once a religion or ideology takes hold, it has a logic and life of its own. Did the injury to Germany brought by the Treaty of Versailles explain Hitler? Does the presence of US bases in Saudi Arabia or Israeli colonies in Gaza explain bin Laden?

Acceptance of the power of murderous ideology takes us to our third point – that all ideas matter, however deranged. It isn’t always wise to dismiss Abu Hamza and the members of al-Muhajiroun as braggarts or clowns.

Forty yearas ago, historian Norman Cohn anticipated Berman when he looked back on the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century and wrote: ‘It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility.’

The final conclusion is that the security services might keep an eye on families after all. Abd Samad Moussaoui said that the men from al-Qaeda who had ruined his brother’s life looked for ‘young people who have become estranged from their families, the strong moral anchors that are their father, mother, brothers and sisters, and even friends’.

Beware adolescents panting for an answer to their angst. Such boys are dangerous.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 6, 2003.
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