'My brother the bomber'
I have read a lot on terrorism over the last two years, trying to understand. This month's Prospect magazine was a goldmine of thoughtful articles. The lead article is one of the best pieces of investigative journalism and analysis on 7/7 that I have read. It's by BBC journalist Shiv Malik, who spent months in Beeston researching a programme about the 7/7 bombers that in the end was never shown. Interviewing lead bomber Siddique Khan's taxi-driver brother over several months, and looking at the social context of where three of the bombers came from, he paints a picture of lead bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan's gradual radicalisation over several years, that concerned the community 'Sid' came from, but which was not reported or challenged, because of the divisions and fears within the community.
But does Shiv Malik read too much into one case study? Yahya Birt , national director of City Circle thinks so. City Circle is a group which seeks to 'promote the development of a distinct British Muslim identity; to assist the process of community cohesion and integration by building bilateral strategic alliances between Muslim and non-Muslim communities; and to harness and channel the skills and resources of Muslim professionals into practical projects thereby facilitating and empowering young Muslim women and men to ‘put back in’ to the wider British community'
Birt writes in the same issue that arranged marriages and identity crises are not the drivers of extremism, which is what Malik article says, and that ' it is only the extremists who argue for absolute choices between Islam and the west'. He writes that 'Islamic revivalism in Britain is maturing'. Which is good news, and what City Circle does, looking for common ground, working with, for example, the anti-war movement is a positive example of an engaged, socially responsible British Muslim movement. With an empowered sense of community, British Muslims at ease with their 'Muslim-ness' and the Britishness are far less likely to turn to extremism, whether to ease alienation or to assuage political anger.
People who feel valued and appreciated and confident and useful and fulfilled are less likely to turn to violence, whatever race or religion they are. That has always seemed obvious to me.
But violent murderous extremism does exist. (Not just amongst Muslims, obviously - but that is what I am specifically writing about here , I hope that readers see that I am trying to understand , yet again, why 4 British Muslims committed the 7/7 atrocities, something that I have been grappling with for 2 years and which, this weekend, as we approach the anniversary, as car bombs are found in London and as we await the verdict of the 21/7 bombers, feels particularly timely).
And not everyone is so enlightened and engaged, or looking for ways to channel their energies into useful community work as the men and women who attend City Circle meetings. The question remains as to what to do about the dangerous minority fringe in Britain, with their binarised mindset and cult-like devotion to a toxic, action-heavy, theology-lite political Islamism,unfortunately fuelled by the daily diet of global sufferings of the Ummah, seen on the 24-hour news.
How can the problem be tackled, the ideas refuted, the hearts softened and minds changed, the bombs defused and put aside? Killing yourself and others like this is un-Islamic. It is inhuman. It is just wrong, by any moral code, anywhere. It is particularly abhorrent that a Holy Book, the Qu'ran should be misused in this way to justify criminal activity. (Although it won't be the first time that terror and political power have worn the clothes of religion, as a quick glance through the history of Europe, or anywhere else in the world will tell you).
Ethical foreign policies, greater integration, greater social opportunities, a sense of empowerment and engagement with the political process, a general tolerant acceptance that 'Britishness' does not mean you have to be white, or go to the pub or follow football...yes, all this could help with the sense of aggrieved victimhood and the egotistical lack of empathy towards an ever-widening circle of non-believers that marks out the young British fundementalist extremist's route to becoming a bomber. (A public inqiry into 7/7 and withdrawal from Iraq would help lance several festering boils too.)
But nothing and nobody stopped the young man filling the Mercedes with gas canisters and nails and driving it into London this week. Denouncing or informing on him as someone planning murder and mayhem might have stopped it though. And to speak out against him, whether he is your brother, your co-religionist, your friend or colleague or no - would not be 'traitorous'.
Not to speak out is traitorous. I don't care what race or religion you are, if you are planning to murder and maim people, of all or any race or religion, then you are a dangerous criminal and I hope that you are caught and punished. And if you know your brother - or friend or acquaintance - is an extremist nursing dreams of violence, then you are a coward and a traitor for not trying to stop him carrying out his plans, and you should be ashamed.
Race or religion and politics has nothing to do with it and is no excuse for it: it's a simple matter of preventing people from being hurt or killed. Let me be clear, before people who have not read what I write properly throw the usual race-hate/faith-hate crap at me. I do not seek to blame the 'Muslim community' for the actions of violent extremists on the fringe, any more than I blame 'the vegetarian community' for the actions of people in the Animal Liberation Front. I just condemn people who bomb other people, end of.
But I do feel angry, when I read Malik's essay, about how many people knew or guessed that 'Sid' was an extremist jihadi, and that there were other young men like him in Beeston and Leeds. 'It's just that no-one expected them to actually do anything'.
Well, that comfort blanket sop to the conscience has gone now.
I am sure that the debate is indeed 'maturing', and that young British Muslims in droves are continuing to dismiss the misogynistic, blinkered millenial angst that drew 'Sid' and his followers to their deaths; the toxic group-think that warped them into carrying out their murderous plot.
It is hard to understand how anyone would be drawn into such behaviour - but then again, as Michael Bond writes in the third article from the June Prospect,' Psychology of Bombers', we forget how suggestible we humans all are. And how group-think and behaviour can see us behaving in a way we do not normally contemplate as individuals. The famous 1971 prison guard psychological experiment showed us that much, as did Guantanamo and Auschwitz and the behaviour of people in war.
First World War soldiers following their leaders out of the trenches 'over the top' into suicidal gunfire and falling bombs and barbed wire, 'for King and country' were not so very different in body-chemistry or mindset, I suppose, to the young men hugging each other before stepping onto the public transport system with backpacks full of explosives two years ago. The difference was in what they believed, what they did and why they did it. The suicide bomber claims he does it 'for his people and his God', but really he does it for himself; post-humous celebrity and instant martyrdom. Death and glory. The soldiers running out of the trenches knew no-one would ever remember their names, there was no glory, but their families would grow up in a land that was free, and that was worth dying for.
The tragedy and the worry is that the 7/7 bombers, selfish and violent as their deaths might have been, were not abnormal; they were British, they were human like us, they lived and married and moved and worked among us. They had brothers and sisters and families. It was their actions that were inhuman. Any of us could have talked of 'my brother the bomber', in different circumstances. To deny the bombers' humanity does not solve the problem. The question remains: why?
Kishwer Falkwer, meanwhile, who is the Lib Dem spokesman for communities and local government in the House of Lords writes the final article in Prospect, 'Why Siddique?' arguing that becoming a jihadi bomber is not based on an identity crisis, its political. And round and round we go. Trying to understand.
It's both personal and political, I say. (These days, the personal is the political, more often than you think.) But it is more than that: it is about being alive as a human being. It's about what you understand by your own, and other people's humanity. Whether you prize one group and their aims above another, whether you think blood is a price worth paying for your beliefs. Your blood, or other people's blood. It all starts and ends with the amount of empathy and compassion you have, for yourself, for other people, even if they are different to you.
It's not about being 'Muslim', or 'British', or 'political', or any other label. It's about being human.
Somewhere along the way, 'Sid's' focus narrowed, so he forgot his family, his friends, his fellow-humans, seeing only his 'brothers', and everyone else as 'kuffr'. Because of the narrow grooves his extremist thinking ran along, he shed his empathy, his humanity, and was finally able to look into the eyes of fellow-passengers and detonate a bomb as he did so.
The political became so personal, or the personal so political, that he forgot he was a person who lived amongst people and was no different to his brothers and sisters, no better than them.
He's not the first person to do that, and he won't be the last.
UPDATE: The extremist teachings behind 'jihadi' violence critically assessed by a contemporary Muslim scholar, Shaykh 'AbdulMaalik ar-Ramadani al-Jaza'iri, in the book Talkis al-'Ibad min Wahshiyyat Ab'il-Qataad aladhi yu'du ila Qatli'n-Nisa wa Awlad (Jeddah: Maktabah Asalah al-Athariyyah, 1422AH).The Savage Barbarism of Abu Qatada. ( PDF)
UPDATE 2: Geoff Coupe has pointed me in the direction of the article about the anthropologist Mary Douglas, in Prospect June, which he says ''is particularly apposite. Her theory of 'enclaves' protected by a 'wall of virtue', rings very true.'' Thank you Geoff.