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What turned Sid from Dewsbury into the terrorist bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan?

2005 November 18
by Paul Vallely

It was not what we expected. A fascinating biography of Mohammad Sidique Khan on Radio 4 last night revealed that the leader of the group which planted the London bombs on 7th July was called Sid at school, had more white friends than Asian ones, and aged 16 was so besotted with America he wore cowboy boots.

He had never been made to go to Koranic classes after school. He was not interested in religion at all. He ignored debates about the plight of Muslims abroad. And when it came to cricket he didn’t even support Pakistan. “Apart from the colour of his skin, he was just an English lad,” one friend said.

So what radicalised Sid Khan? There were none of the baleful influences usually trotted out by commentators. There was no radical mosque or firebrand preacher. He did not go to a segregated Muslim school or live in a ghetto. There was no lack of integration or multicultural separatism. What turned secular Sid into a pathological religious fanatic was watching videos of the mutilation of Muslims in the houses of friends when he was in his twenties.

Yet he was not a one off. Interestingly the man who killed the Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, in 2002 had a very similar background. The killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, was born in the Netherlands to a quiet moderate Moroccan family, he went to an academic high school and worked as a youth counsellor at a community centre. Like Sid Khan, he also became radicalised only a couple of years before his desperate act. The letter he pinned with his knife to the half-beheaded body of the man who had repeatedly referred to Muslims as “goat-fuckers” (van Gogh was no paragon of liberal rationalism) was a revealing mix of Islamic slogans and hip Dutch street slang.

The usual assumption is that men like Khan and Bouyeri have over-dosed on their religion. But perhaps that is wrong. Maybe they had too little, rather than too much; perhaps if they had learned more about mainstream Islam at school they wouldn’t have embraced such a destructive version of it later in life. This may seem a counter-intuitive thought, but then inoculation always is.

Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye is about a young black girl growing up in 1930s America. Her self-esteem is rock-bottom, thanks in part to her dysfunctional family, but also because of the spoken and unspoken messages of the world around her. To be valued in the America of her day you had to have blue eyes and look like Shirley Temple; if only she had blue eyes, she thought, her parents would love her. Her poor self-image affects her motivation at school and her ability to form relationships.

Phil Sumner, a Catholic priest who has worked for the last 30 years with first the black and now the Muslim communities in Greater Manchester, has used the novel to coin the phrase Bluest Eye Syndrome. By which he means that any child from an ethnic minority, as they walk down the street, sit in school or watch the television, constantly undergoes a similar experience. People like them are all too often in unskilled jobs (if they have jobs at all), or disproportionately represented among the prison population, or perceived as potential muggers. Protestations from well-meaning teachers that they are “colour-blind” and treat all kids the same, fail to understand that to treat everybody the same is subtly to maintain the status quo.

All this tells us something about Sid Khan. In last night’s documentary, Koran and Country, his schoolmates pronounced themselves perplexed by his dramatic turn-around. He had loved the West, they said. So much so that he came back from a long stay in America determined to become a US citizen. When his Asian friends mocked his cowboy boots, and the leather jacket that didn’t suit him, he just ignored them. What was at work here was Bluest Eye Syndrome. The young Sid was identifying with the images of what he saw as most valued in Western society.

Such a reaction is not uncommon among young Asians who are the first generation in their community to enter higher education. For they have developed expectations of entitlement, material progress and cultural acceptance. If these are disappointed then psychological urges, which have been subconsciously repressed, emerge. And because they have learned so little of their own faith, they are susceptible to embracing it in a negative, perverted and even criminal version. The greater their sense of disappointment or betrayal, the more vulnerable they are to a radical interpretation.

Fundamentalism is often caricatured as a reversion to medievalism. In fact it is – in its Christian, Hindu, Zionist and Islamic forms alike – an unmistakably modern reaction by people who feel excluded from, or humiliated by, contemporary society. Sid Khan is only the most extreme manifestation of that alienation.


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