This item is available on the Militant Islam Monitor website, at http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/919
August 7, 2005
The Lost Generation
The London bombings put a new face on Islamic radicalism. Angry voices from a troubled community.
Aug. 15, 2005 issue - As British police closed in on two of the alleged July 21 bombers in London, one suspect yelled out, "I've got rights!" That small detail speaks volumes about the evolving nature of terrorism in Europe. The cry, in English, indicated a more than passing familiarity with British law—not to mention, ironically, a full appreciation of the legal protections offered by the very society terrorists seek to destroy. It also suggests the degree to which the London bombings have turned the conventional wisdom about terrorism on its head. These jihadists weren't struggling immigrants, materially deprived and living resentfully on the fringe. They were Britons, raised on the sceptr'd isle and living lives with prospects. In many ways, they conform to the demographic portrait sketched by forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, whose recent study of 400 terrorists found that 75 percent came from the middle or upper classes. A similar proportion hold professional or semi-professional jobs, and two thirds went to college. They weren't raised in poverty or under Middle Eastern despots, but on PlayStations, Nike and the European Convention on Human Rights. Why on earth, their perplexed fellow citizens ask, would they wage war on their own countrymen?
The answers are profoundly unsettling, not only for Britons but Europeans across the continent, where tiny minorities of the Muslim population pose a serious threat of violent jihad. To take stock of this phenomenon, NEWSWEEK delved into the roots of the new extremism. The encounters that follow—with a spokesman for the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pious young man who avoided jihadist recruiters and the targets of a police "stop and search"— testify to the deep wells of anger and frustration among British Muslims, however moderate. Among the conclusions:
Government policies are likely to deepen tensions. As elsewhere in Europe, British Muslims have long viewed the Afghan and Iraqi wars, and the continued sufferings of Muslims in the Middle East, Kashmir and Chechnya, as horrific assaults on Islam. Now, antiterror legislation at home is further alienating even mainstream Muslims. Fears of racial profiling grew in Britain last week after Ian Johnston, chief constable of the British Transport Police, said his force "should not waste time searching old white ladies." Since the 7/7 bombings, faith-hate crimes directed at Muslims have risen sharply. Many Muslims have been dismayed by Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement last week of a raft of new anti-terrorism measures, including provisions for deporting foreigners who advocate or justify terror. "A lot of people feel it's over for us in this country," says Abu Bakr, the owner of an Islamic bookshop in the city of Birmingham.
Today's radicals are a new breed. They are rebelling not only against British (or French, Spanish, Italian or Dutch) society, but against their own community and its traditional leaders. Rather than following their parents' immigrant path of job and measured assimilation and growing material prosperity, many have instead turned to the religion of extremism for identity and life's meaning. "Why are so many young Muslims, particularly boys, not integrating well into the larger community?" asked Shazia Azam, a 24 year-old social worker, at a recent gathering in Leeds protesting extremism. "Is it the West that is rejecting us? Or are we rejecting the West?"
Perhaps it's both. Many of the children of immigrants who arrived in the '60s and '70s have grown up feeling out of place in both the Old Country and the one they were born in. "When you visit Pakistan, you're seen as a spoiled brat from the West," observes Birmingham bookshop owner Abu Bakr. "Here, they call you a Paki." Groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir—which last week Blair said he was going to try to ban—feed on these identity crises. Where immigrant parents may idealize the Pakistani provinces they left behind, their second-generation children idealize the global mujahedin, the fighters who they see as taking up the mantle of Islam in Afghanistan and Iraq. "They're the real serious Muslims, man," Zubair, a 25-year-old Muslim factory worker of Afghan descent, told NEWSWEEK in 2003 in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion. "I'll do jihad if jihad comes to Britain."
It's about ideology, not just religion. There are few, if any, local heroes for these youths. Imams imported from Mirpur or Gujarat or Cairo often literally don't speak their language. Nor do Muslim community leaders summoned to Downing Street or given knighthoods. Too often, these moderate voices are "Tony's cronies"—sellouts and quietists afraid to speak out against Blair's wars on Muslims abroad and the brutality of his antiterror tactics at home. Step up firebrands, like Abu Hamza, a self-styled "sheikh" who once publicly announced a plan to blow up airplanes. For the angry young men frustrated at the immigrant timidity of their parents' generation, the scholars preaching peace and quiet Qur'anic study lack the macho glamour of the self-taught radicals. "How do you compete with the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Hamza?" asks Birmingham preacher Abu Khadeejah.
If you were to ask a moderate Muslim whether he wanted the American military out of Muslim lands, "the answer would be the same as bin Laden's," argues Imran Khan, a British Muslim documentary filmmaker. "If you were to ask moderate Muslims whether they consider Egypt's Hosni Mubarak a dictator, their answer would also be exactly the same as bin Laden's. The beef we've got is exactly the same. The only way we differ is methodology."
That's a colossal difference, and one of the themes crackling through the profiles that follow. Some of these young(ish) British Muslims may sound radical, and the Hizb ut-Tahrir leader certainly is. But their anger at what they see as Western aggression against the Muslim world isn't. Understanding that anger—and listening, even while cracking down on criminals killing in its name—is crucial. Get it wrong, and you could have a new generation of homegrown jihadists.
Waging a Jihad of Ideas
Embedded in Imran Waheed's mobile phone number is "1924." That's the year the office of the Caliph, the leader of the worldwide Muslim umma, was abolished. Waheed is the spokesman of Britain's Hizb ut-Tahrir, the extremist group campaigning for a single Islamic state governed by Sharia throughout the Muslim world. A 35-year-old psychiatrist with Britain's National Heath Service, he sits in Birmingham's Marriott Hotel wearing a checked sports shirt and shiny black brogues and sipping mineral water. Speaking in full paragraphs, complete with references to Descartes and John Stuart Mill, he tells of the many professionals included in his organization's membership. "Doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists—people who can think."
Waheed joined HT when he was just 17, because "they presented Islam in a strong intellectual aspect." They offered muscular arguments refuting capitalism and communism and, unlike the official imams in the mosque, weren't afraid to be political. Local leaders, he says, told "stories of the prophet and the companions, but they were not linking them to any existing political reality." By contrast, Hizb ut-Tahrir presents Islam as a total system for society: "If people don't pay zakat [charity], who will punish them? As a doctor, I think frequently about issues like genetic cloning. Why aren't the imams in the mosque discussing this?"
Britain's mosques are out of touch, Waheed believes, but the British government's plan to re-engage them is completely misguided: "They want to vet imams. A Home Office-approved imam is not going to have more credibility." As for the conventional wisdom that mosques are full of firebrand clerics from the old countries, spouting jihad? Nonsense, says Waheed: "The firebrands are sitting in Downing Street. Tony Blair, he's a firebrand cleric, describing aspects of Islam as an evil ideology. He sends thousands of youth to don green berets and go fight for queen and country. He's radicalizing British youth to go and fight in Iraq."
So, say critics, is Hizb ut-Tahrir. "Show Allah what he loves to see from Jihad," reads a pamphlet on the group's Web site. "Hurry to rescue your brothers in Al-Fallujah and eliminate your rulers if they stand in your way. To die for the sake of Allah is better than life and what it contains." Waheed won't condemn the Iraqi insurgency, or even call it an insurgency at all. "People whose land is attacked have the right to defend it. The BBC never described the French resistance as 'insurgents'."
Waheed condemns the suicide bombings in London but doesn't wholly denounce the tactic itself. "If suicide bombs are targeted against a military occupation," he says, "then Islamic scholars have said that it's a tactic that can be used." As for the Islamic scholars who have condemned it? "Vending machine scholars: you put your money in, you ask for the fatwa, and they produce it."
Though not viewed as violent itself, HT is nonetheless widely perceived by terrorism analysts as a gateway to extremism, whose members sometimes move on to more radical jihadist groups like Al Muhajiroun and other organizations advocating violence and the overthrow of Western governments. One American think-tank called it "a conveyor belt for terrorism." Waheed disagrees. "It's the exact opposite," he claims. "We are inciting people to nonviolence. What we need is nonviolent political struggle. We need to expose the rulers of the Muslim world. The biggest conveyor belt for radicalization is American and British foreign policy." Putting the heat on groups like HT isn't going to help: "What we're seeing is an attempt to blur the margins between violence and nonviolent political protest," he says. "That's the real motive of the war on terror." He welcomes the new "rebranding" of the war on terror as a battle of ideas: "Blair says, 'we're going to go into the Muslim community and we're going to combat the idea that American foreign policy is to suppress Islam.' Well, we're saying, 'Come on down.'"
Ahmed (he prefers to be identified only by his middle name) was once just the kind of young Brit that extremist Muslim groups sought to recruit: a self-styled "bad-boy" from a working-class suburb, marooned between his Pakistani background and his British surroundings. In 1991, when he was 18, his mother died. Ahmed dropped out of school. He found solace in what he calls the "societal vices" of the Leeds streets—taking drugs, going clubbing, dating English women and getting money "any way I could," he says. "It wasn't legal."
He was lost, until his older brother stepped in with an answer from their childhood: Islam. The weekly meetings and prayers at the local mosque "made me a better person," he says. "I went back to school, I had a purpose. For a lot of people who were on the wrong side of the tracks, Islam helps." At college in Leeds, he started growing a beard, wearing robes and shunning his old drug-and-clubbing friends in favor of pious ones. Yet a decade on, swapping Western values for pious Muslim ones remains a challenge. Ahmed would not shake one female NEWSWEEK journalist's hand, citing Islam's prohibition on the sexes mixing. The next day, however, he asked her colleague —if she was "available" any Friday night.
When he was 21, Ahmed says, he was targeted by Hizb ut-Tahrir. "A few lads in the area were trying to promote the ideals of jihad," he says, casually. "They were talking about the humiliation of Islam abroad and arguing that violence is necessary." He resisted, he says, because he follows the Salafi movement, which believes it practices the purest form of Islam. Their fiercely political creed was at odds with his own quietist faith, Ahmed says. To him, Hizb ut-Tahrir seemed faddish, as if its young adherents merely wanted to "get into something radical."
While working in Leeds for the National Health Service, Ahmed met—and hired—the London suicide bomber, Mohammed Siddique Khan, to help research a report on drug rehabilitation. The two later drifted apart, probably because "I didn't condone his new ideologies," says Ahmed. "He had started to hang out with a more extreme crowd." On July 7, his former colleague and friend boarded the London tube and, along with three others, blew himself up, killing 52 innocent people and injuring more than 700. In hindsight, Ahmed now thinks he can tell when someone is veering toward extremism or violence. "The tip-off is the company they keep: a sudden contempt for the orthodox scholars. And they stop talking about the religion as much and talk only about the wrongs that have been inflicted on Muslims around the world and what should be done about it." The hard part is figuring out what's just angry talk and what's a plan for jihad. Hearing someone advocate extremism isn't, in itself, sufficient reason for reporting them to the authorities, he says. Even though his former friend Khan turned out to be a mass murderer? "Yeah. You can't just report everyone with extreme views."
The Stop and Search
Deep in the east end of London, five police in bulletproof jackets swarm around a black Ford Escort and the three young British-Asian men they've pulled over. NEWSWEEK happened to be there. "They grabbed the keys out of the car," one of the young men told NEWSWEEK's reporter at the scene. "They invoked the Terrorism Act." A slim 25-year-old identifies himself as "Mo—short for Mohammed." "They scared us," he says. "That kid [Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, killed by police who mistook him for a suicide bomber] got shot."
As the police radio HQ, one officer runs his gloved fingers over the seats, checks behind the sunshades, pats down the pockets of a jacket he finds slung in the trunk. Then Mo and his friends are patted down, their arms and legs spread-eagled. Bangladeshi men with white-beards shuffle by, with walking sticks and skull-caps, eyeing the three youths in their gold chains and Nike sports gear. One of the passengers is handcuffed, put in the back of a police car and driven off to the police station. The rest watch as one police measures the tread on their tires, then tells them to change their rear right one. "They're targeting us, the bastards," says Mo angrily, as he wrestles with the jack, watching the motorcycled cop roar off. "We were just coming here to take my mate to the f—-ing airport."
As for the friend whom the police hauled away, Mo says that's because he had a lot of cash on him: "He was going on holiday, back to India, where someone was getting married, and they're trying to say he's money-laundering. That's because they couldn't find nothing. First, they said terror, then they said drugs. In the end, they said he was money-laundering." They were pulled over, Mo is sure, because their license plate identified the car as registered in Gloucester, home of Sajid Badat, a co-conspirator with shoe bomber Richard Reid. "They think we're all the same."
Mo and his friends describe themselves as "just moderate Muslims." But stop-and-searches such as this are anything but rare and are growing more frequent. The danger, he says, is that such policies are "just going to push the Muslim kids even more to this kind of stuff," meaning violence and radicalism. He himself won't be tempted by the jihadists, he hastens to add, because he follows the path of his immigrant parents from Gujarat, India. "We've been brought up well," he says, wiping the tire grease from his hands. "Religion—that's what keeps us on track."
If only that were true of everyone.
With Emily Flynn, Rana Foroohar and Mary Acoymo
This item is available on the Militant Islam Monitor website, at http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/919