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Could the Asian man sitting opposite have a bomb in his bag?

2005 July 16
by Paul Vallely

What makes ordinary British-born Muslims become suicide bombers – the answer goes far beyond religious fundamentalism.

It is the ordinariness of the British-born suicide bombers which is so shocking. The caring teaching assistant for kids with special needs. The cricketer. Even the isolated offences of youthful disorderly conduct. It also just sounds so . . . normal.

The question has been repeatedly asked this week: “What turns lads from Leeds into suicide bombers?” The answers given have been partial and unsatisfactory, as have been the responses about what should be done now. 

From various points on the political spectrum there have been renewed calls for identity cards, for new offences of aiding and abetting terrorism, for the deportation of foreign clerics who preach hate or praise terrorist acts, for moves to tackle high unemployment among the Muslim community. All of which may, or may not, be good ideas in themselves. The truth is, however, that none of them would have prevented these four individuals from perpetrating the carnage that they did.

For a start the bombers were not poor or unemployed. They were not outsiders, whom ID cards would have exposed. Nor were they influenced by an imported foreign preacher – indeed it appears to have been the eldest of the group, the teaching assistant Mohammed Sadique Khan, 30,  who was the key figure in radicalising the others, and did so in a Leeds youth centre.  The real causes are more worryingly complex.

Alienation is a cultural rather than an economic business. It is rooted in racists who indiscriminately call out “Bin Laden” or “Taliban” to Asians in the street. It is there in media reports about forced marriages and honour killings. It is there in animal rights protests about halal meat. It is there in the sneers of liberals who mock that legislation outlawing religious hatred would stop Rowan Atkinson telling jokes.

Whatever the individual rights or wrongs of all that, cumulatively it constitutes what Muslims see as a culture of disdain for them and their faith. Marginalisation and a sense of exclusion go beyond poverty and a lack of jobs, though it is revealing that Mohammed Kahn once gave an interview to the Times Educational Supplement in which he voiced his anger at the squalor in which families lived in his part of Leeds where too little was being done to regenerate the area.

All this is made worse for Muslims born and brought up in the UK because a British education has conferred upon them a sense of entitlement which their parents lacked, and which only adds to their frustration. Their sense of separateness is exacerbated by Britain’s alcohol-centred nightlife which separates young Muslims from their white school friends leading them into what one Pakistani newspaper yesterday called “an increasingly non-integrative style”.

Nor is it helpful to say, defensively, that this is nothing to do with Islam. There is within the Muslim faith a sense of collective identity which Christians and secularists find instinctively difficult to grasp. Nothing in the West parallels it since the medieval notion of Christendom.

The Koranic term the ummah refers to a  community of faith, feeling, brotherhood and destiny. “The ummah is one body,” says the Prophet Mohammed, “if one of its members is sick, the whole body experiences the fever and the affliction.” Islamicists place increasing importance on this, insisting that – even though Islam also states that Muslims are bound by the laws of their host state – loyalty to the ummah overrides national, ethnic or linguistic loyalties.

This is why we hear young Muslims from Leeds insisting, in broad Yorkshire accents, “I’m as British as you are”. And then in the next breath they talk about “our brothers in Iraq” or Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya – and Kashmir, an issue which is generally off the Western radar but looms large among British Muslims. The ummah translates the feeling of being persecuted into a trans-national phenomenon.

There is another key religious factor. Sh’ite Muslims have ayatollahs whose word sways large numbers of believers. But most British Muslims are Sunnis for whom authority is much more dispersed. It is like the difference between Catholics, for whom the Pope makes rules, and Protestants, who insist that interpreting the Bible is a more individual matter.

It is against this background that the bus bomber suspect, Hasib Hussain, grew impatient with different mosques saying different things. A friend reported: “When he heard so many arguments he thought: ‘Forget it, I will go my own way’.” There was thus no way that the wisdom of the generations – the strength of tradition in any religion – could act as a check on him. He was adrift and prey to the persuasions of any charismatic literalist who maintained that if he died on the battlefield he would go straight to paradise.

All these factors interact. Such dubious religion would not have much purchase were it not for the sense of disenfranchisement which so many young British Muslims feel.  As one Islamic commentator, Salma Yaqoob, put it yesterday “shoddy theology does not exist without a dodgy foreign policy”. Not to mention a culture of social alienation.

But there is something else, to do with personal psychology, and this is not straightforward either. Hasib Hussain, appears to have been a tearaway for whom religious conversion provided an easy answer. And if his shoplifting escapade came after his overnight conversion, then an act of glorious martyrdom would have been a dramatic way to right all the wrongs of his past.

Mohammed Khan, on the other hand, appears to have been motivated by the impulse that mass murder would make the world a better place by taking power for the powerless – an urge which in happier times he expressed by helping disadvantaged children. The contrast indicates that detecting would-be suicide bombers using psychological criteria is no simple matter.

All of which alters how we should respond. 

The risk is that part of the crackdown response risks deepening the culture of alienation from which the problem springs. Ordinary Muslims felt outraged and impotent yesterday when as moderate a UK figure as Zaki Badawi was banned from the United States. The same was true when British newspapers repeated unchecked and unsubstantiated allegations to blacken the name of Professor Tariq Ramadan, perhaps the leading exponent of the movement to reconcile the basic tenets of Islam with the philosophical basis of Western social culture.

Men like Badawi and Ramadan are part of the solution not part of the problem. Far greater sensitivity is needed from both the political establishment and media  the handling of the “crackdown” issues, necessary though some legislative tightening may be.

On the issue of foreign preachers the answer is to train more imams in the UK so that British mosques do not need to summon from Pakistan imams whose only qualification is that they know the Koran by heart. For they have no understanding of Western culture, and often mistake the medium for the message when they encounter attempt by British Muslims to find a way of life which is religiously genuinely Islamic but which is culturally European.

Imported imams from Kashmir can set this process back by two or three generations. Some UK training of imams has begun at London University’s Heythrop College but much more needs to be done so that young graduates, like the bombing suspect Shahzad Tanweer, do not end up in a fanatical madrasa in Pakistan which is so often the conveyor belt to a wild radicalisation.

Likewise with schools. What is needed is state-funding for Islamic schools which will then be subjected to the process of government inspection and Ofsted-approval which is the norm for all other schools.

The key change, of course, must come from the Muslim community itself. There is a new sense among its leadership that the vile rhetoric which was once tolerated, or ignored, outside the mosque must now be robustly challenged. Multiculturalism is a two-way process that requires a commitment from minorities as well as the majority.

But changes from the majority are essential if moderate Muslim voices are to be emboldened. Muslim states, through their embassies and high commissions, must undertake a campaign to support local Muslim communities in a zero-tolerance of intolerance strategy. And British society needs to do its part to make moderate Muslims feel more confident and more accepted.

That means they must be attended to when they talk of the injustices they perceive. They must not be dismissed or shouted down when they attack the foreign or domestic policies of Western governments. For if they are not taken seriously, when they articulate the concerns of their community, a gap will open up between the leaders and those they represent. And that will increase the likelihood of more dangerous routes being adopted by the disillusioned.

All of this requires a long haul. But quick-fix solutions may not just be ineffective, they could be counter-productive. Above all the rest of us must cease to stare suspiciously at every hapless Asian travelling on the tube. In the end the only counter to terrorism, paradoxically, is trust.


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