The fundamentalist question

What turns unemployed youths from Tipton, a public school boy from Wanstead, and a West-Coast American liberal into Islamic terrorists?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

When the suspect for the kidnapping of US journalist Daniel Pearl was named as 27-year-old Briton Omar Saeed Sheikh from Wanstead in east London, it didn’t come as a great shock. Sheikh is the latest in a line of British and American Muslim extremists who have committed acts of violence since 11 September in the name of fighting against the West.

Three young British Muslim men from Luton and Crawley were reportedly killed fighting with the Taliban; a man from Bromley in London tried to blow up an aeroplane mid-Atlantic; an American youth crashed a plane into a Florida skyscraper in the name of Osama bin Laden; a man from California was picked up with the Taliban; two men from Tipton, West Midlands, and one man from Croydon, south London, are being held as al-Qaeda suspects in Camp X-Ray.

To lose one citizen may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose at least nine looks like carelessness. Why is it that these men, born and brought up in Britain and the USA, are gripped to fight for an irrational, religious dogma – and seemingly possessed with an absolutist hatred for the infidel West? Why does their experience of living in the West not imbue them with a respect for the virtues of democracy, rational debate and secularism? Why don’t they feel like they belong?

UK home secretary David Blunkett has proposed a ‘citizen’s pledge’ to help win the loyalties of immigrants to the UK – but few believe this will tackle the problem. After all, Western Islamic extremists have not just got off the boats; they have lived in the West all their lives, and are often well-educated and well-acquainted with Western institutions. In vain, their life stories have been scoured for clues, as if local unemployment, bad personal experiences, family breakdown, mental instability or whatever could somehow explain how they ended up fighting in Afghanistan or trying to blow up a plane.

But whatever these radical Islamists share, it is not a common upbringing. These few individuals share little apart from the fact that they converted to an extreme form of Islam while living in the West.

Omar Saeed Sheikh, now accused of the Pearl kidnapping, became a feared Islamic terrorist nearly a decade ago. He was born in east London and was educated at the fee-paying Forest School and the prestigious London School of Economics (1). By all accounts he was bright, excelled in his studies, and was county chess champion. But former schoolmates provide handy testimony of Sheikh’s personality problems. ‘He was always a bit odd, poor social skills and the tendency to bully people rather than mix with them, which doesn’t make for a well-balanced individual’, said one. ‘I don’t think he ever had a girlfriend’, said another (well, that explains it, doesn’t it?) (2).

Richard Reid, the ‘shoe bomber’ who tried to bring down a plane over the Atlantic in December 2001, was born in suburban Bromley in south London. This is ‘hardly a natural breeding ground for dissidents – the borough’s schools are among the UK’s best’, noted BBC News. But Reid’s father was in prison for much of his childhood (‘I was not there to give him the love and affection he should have got’, said dad), and Reid himself entered a life of petty crime, which landed him first in young offenders’ institutions and then in prison (where he converted to Islam) (3).

Then there was Zacarias Moussaoui, charged in the USA of being the ‘twentieth hijacker’ – a Frenchman who, according to his brother, was ‘brainwashed’ by Islamic extremists in London. Apparently, Moussaoui, an intelligent, moderate Muslim, fell in with extremist groups after getting lonely in London hostels that were filled with alcoholics and the mentally ill (4).

And 24-year-old Shafiq Rasul and 20-year-old Asif Iqbal from Tipton in the West Midlands, now imprisoned in Camp X-Ray in Cuba, loved football and apparently went drinking and clubbing. After leaving school, Rasul studied law in Birmingham, and Iqbal took odd jobs and became involved in petty crime. Some have looked to the poverty and exclusion in Tipton – a town hit hard by industrial decline – as an explanation. ‘Local residents say that it is not hard to see why young Asian men might be drawn to Islamic extremism as a panacea to racial persecution and bleak prospects’, reported the The Times (London) (5).

‘What drove these young men to take such risks?’, asked one article in The Sunday Times, before offering a pick-and-mix selection of possible reasons: ‘A racial grievance? A foolish spirit of adventure? Even a delinquent craving for violence?’ Apparently, the family of one man claim ‘that he developed a grievance that made him lose faith in Western justice and embrace Islam with zeal’ (7).

But if Tipton tells the old story of poverty and exclusion leading to rebellion, this is contradicted by the experience of white US national John Walker Lindh. This middle-class kid lived a high-life of West-Coast decadence, but ended among Taliban detainees near Mazar-e-Sharif. How? According to an article in the UK Guardian, the ‘answer most people found was two-fold, or rather, two sides of the same coin: the faddism of “Bay Area culture” and excessively liberal parenting’ (8).

As one article in Newsweek put it: ‘Marin County [where Lindh was brought up] has been gently mocked by the cartoon strip “Doonesbury” as the epicenter of the self-esteem movement, a land of hot tubs…a bastion of moral relativism where divorces were for a time listed alongside marriages in the newspaper.’ His parents didn’t do much to counter this view. When half of the USA was crying treason and baying for Walker’s blood, his father told CBS’s The Early Show: ‘I don’t think John was doing anything wrong…. We want to give him a big hug and then a little kick in the butt for not telling us what he was up to.’ (9)

Reporters have visited the places that the Western Islamic fundamentalists hail from, as if they might hold some clues. What was it about Luton, Crawley, Tipton, Marin County that turned these Westerners into fundamentalists? But this doesn’t help either – the streets just look like ordinary streets, and the schools like ordinary schools.

Some commentators have looked to causes, such as global poverty or suffering in the Middle East, to try to explain the actions of the Western Islamic fundamentalists. UK lawyer Mahmud al-Rashid told me that ‘young lads are so angry, they may be persuaded that going to Afghanistan is the only way’, claiming that this anger stems from ‘a dissatisfaction with the way that the world is being run – with arms, oppression, multinationals and corporations, banana growers in the Caribbean. It is a capitalist world that has made the rules, and the weaker nations can’t do anything about it’.

Abdul Rehman Salim, president of the Society of Muslim Students, says that ‘a lot of Muslims have been disillusioned by the Gulf War. There has been a rise in recruitment since that war’ (10). Others have pointed to Israel’s attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as triggers for some British and American Muslims’ anti-Westernism.

No doubt the wars pursued by the West in the Middle East have aggravated young Western Muslims’ grievances – and many Islamic extremist groups use rhetoric that rails against the oppression of Muslims. Abu Hamza, head of the Supporters of Sharia, a much-publicised radical Islamic group based in London’s Finsbury Park mosque, claimed in a press release on 20 January 1999 that the aim of his group was to ‘highlight what Islamic law says about international world events which directly affect Muslims’.

However, Western wars in the Middle East and worldwide poverty are hardly unique to the current period. In the 1950s there was the Suez crisis; in the 1960s, US ally Israel entered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and world poverty is no worse today than it was in the past. Yet Muslim immigrants arriving in Britain during the 1950s and 60s did not develop an anti-Western Islamic consciousness. Indeed, they identified much more with Britain than their British-born children seem to today – suggesting that Western foreign policy is not sufficient to explain the rise of Muslim fundamentalism.

In fact, as Eastern Eye news editor Abul Taher told me, radical Islam did not really start to emerge in Britain’s Muslim community until the end of the 1980s. Around this time a number of Islamic exiles from the Middle East came to the UK (such as Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, leader of the Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun, who arrived from Saudi Arabia in 1986). Second-generation Muslim youth were ‘fodder for radical leaders who led them and gave them answers’, says Taher. In the 1990s, the emergence of this Islamic consciousness came to public attention with the growth of radical groups on university campuses, and stories emerging of young Muslims being recruited to fight the jihad abroad in the Gulf War, Kosovo, Chechnya and Kashmir.

So why did radical Islam begin to emerge in the West in the 1990s? The emergence cannot be explained by the strength of the doctrine of radical Islam. Rather, the reasons some young Muslim men began to be gripped by anti-Western religious dogma should be sought in changes within Western society.

The key factor in the rise of fundamentalism in the West was the end of the Cold War in 1989. This effectively unfroze politics – dissolving the left-right axis that had structured political and social identities for much of the twentieth century. With the collapse of the left, the right could no longer sustain its coherence – and in Europe and the USA, right-wing governments tumbled. Society was left increasingly atomised and directionless. This malaise was compounded by the erosion of long-standing institutions which had helped tie individuals into society, including the family, the church, the monarchy and civic organisations.

The ideology of Islamic fundamentalism grew stronger in this vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. Where post-Cold War politics seemed uncertain and unconfident, Islamic fundamentalism promised firm rules, a coherent sense of identity, and a sense of belonging to a global Islamic community.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir developed a presence on university campuses in the UK in the 1990s, causing a great deal of fuss with inflammatory anti-Jewish and anti-homosexual propaganda, which culminated in the group being banned by the National Union of Students (NUS). Allegedly, after an argument about the relative importance of building an Islamic homeland in the Middle East, Hizb-ut-Tahrir split in 1996: the Middle Eastern-focused stem withered, while the UK-focused offshoot, Bakri Mohammed’s Al-Muhajiroun, grew in strength and is still making headlines today.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s many published documents, available from the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM) at the London School of Economics, make interesting reading. Much of the literature rails against the degeneracy and selfishness of Western society, with one leaflet for a meeting at South Bank University in London warning that ‘the sweeping degeneration of society has already taken place! Billions have already been affected through the sweeping thoughtlessness of society, mental paralysis, and the “freedom” epidemic. Society is on the rampage…. There is only one possible cure to this epidemic…ISLAM…It is a complete system from the Creator that has cures for all unseen diseases and illnesses for all times’.

Another leaflet implored people to ‘Discover Islam’: ‘Urban riots, suicides, alcoholism, family breakdown…and general lawlessness all bear testimony that the Western secular way of life is not working. Life is in a state of constant flux. Nobody trusts anybody.’

In the face of this confusion, Islam offers certainty and rules. As Hizb-ut-Tahrir put it, ‘[Islam] contains a complete blueprint for life from the level of the individual to the level of the state with unique foreign, economic, judicial and ruling systems. The Creator commands us to rule by His perfect system and to reject all Man-made laws.’ These kind of rules are apparently what attracted American John Lindh to Islam. ‘He wanted to be told precisely how to dress, to eat, to think, to pray’, said one article. ‘He wanted a value system of absolutes….Americans were so busy pursuing their personal goals, [Lindh] said, that they had no time for their families or communities.’ (11­) Meanwhile, one convert to an Essex branch of Al-Muhajiroun told the New Statesman that ‘[before I converted to Islam] I felt that I had no sense of purpose. I felt that I wasn’t being allowed to contribute to anything’ (12).

Islamic fundamentalism also moved into the void left by the collapse of politics. At a time when politics is anything but passionate, radical Islam provides a rhetoric of struggle against the infidel enemy and gives people something to fight against. As Abul Taher says, this holds an appeal for Muslim youth: ‘Young people have always been idealistic – radical Islam is attractive because it offers a romantic Utopia.’

Dilwar Hussain from the Islamic Foundation in Leicester agrees, arguing that groups like Al-Muhajiroun ‘thrive on the image of being very strong and forceful. That’s how they pick up members’. Al-Muhajiroun websites are fronted by dramatic, warrior images – all flashes of light, crossed swords and rippling flags. An al-Qaeda training document found at a house in Manchester calls for confrontation, struggle, individual strength and self-discipline: ‘Islam does not coincide or make a truce with unbelief, but rather confronts it….[Islam] knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction.’ Al-Qaeda lists the virtues of a good fighter as: commitment, sacrifice, ‘unflappability’, intelligence, ability to act, and so on (13).

That Islamic fundamentalism feeds off generalised problems in Western society, without being the property of a particular community or culture, is shown by its seeming attraction across different communities. John Walker Lindh was a white, all-American boy, and both Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Al-Muhajiroun in the UK have won student converts from the white British, Jewish and Sikh communities. Shoe bomber Richard Reid was of Afro-Caribbean descent, and converted to Islam in the black community of Brixton in south London.

Far from being unique in Western politics, Islamic fundamentalism is an extreme form of a general problem. On one level, there is a parallel between the act of destructive nihilism on 11 September and the destruction carried out by Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh – who, as a member of a fundamentalist white militia, apparently came from the opposite end of the political spectrum to Islamic types. As US commentator Michael Lind has pointed out, religious fundamentalism exists across the spectrum of Western politics – from the anti-rationalist anti-technology green movement to President George W Bush himself, who during the 2000 presidential campaign named his favourite philosopher as Jesus Christ. Lind concludes that ‘the greatest long-running threat to secularism, democracy and science could come from within, from the emerging coalition of the religious right and the romantic left brought together by a loathing for open society’ (14).

Meanwhile, the cynical and virulent anti-Westernism of the jihad warriors is not so far from the anti-corporate rantings of other sections of Western youth (except that the anti-capitalists limit their actions to smashing up McDonald’s). Both groups of young people are cynical about modernity and progress, harking back to a pre-modern golden age. And both share a disdain for the instruments of liberal democracy – one of Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s slogans was the catchy ‘Democracy is hypocrisy’, which could have come straight out of the mouth of an anti-globalisation protester. A filmmaker friend of mine interviewed a Islamic fundamentalist at a Palestinian rally in 2001, who railed against government. ‘What am I going to do: write to my MP? Ask Tony Blair?’, he spat out, with absolute contempt. In his mind the only answer was for Muslims to ‘wake up and fight the jihad’.

Although it has a general resonance, Islamic fundamentalism holds a particular appeal for second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants. This is less because of their communities’ cultural heritage, than a result of how these communities have been buffeted by the winds of change in Western society over the past two decades. In general, young Muslims have experienced the problems of rootlessness and fragmentation in a more heightened way, because they have been marginalised by mainstream society. As exiles in the West, the 11 September hijackers would have experienced a similar sense of dislocation.

Lawyer Mahmud al-Rashid pondered the question: ‘Why do young people today feel so dislocated and disillusioned?’ Things were different for his parents, he said, who, although they were new arrivals, identified much more with Britain. ‘My mother really felt for the Queen. She wanted to be buried here, not in Bangladesh. My father came to help rebuild Britain.’

When the first generation of immigrants arrived in the 1950s and 60s to fulfil Britain’s postwar labour shortages, they were expected to assimilate and buy into the nationalistic ideals of Queen and Country. There was a conservative undercurrent to this commitment: immigrants who came from the Commonwealth were brought up with an idealised image of England, and when they got here they were expected to be grateful, but there was a sense that being British meant something – which doesn’t exist today. ‘They were part of something’, said al-Rashid. ‘What are we part of? Does Britain really want us? Who is Britain?’ Since the 1980s, and particularly in the 1990s, we have seen the fragmentation of mainstream British identity, and in its place the elevation of the values of diversity and multiculturalism.

When Britain became less sure about what united it, diversity as a value rose to the fore. When liberal values of reason and democracy retreated, when national institutions broke down and nationalism became an embarrassment, multiculturalism arose as the expression of this situation. ‘Diversity’ doesn’t mean anything itself – it just expresses a lack of consensus. When a society has no idea about what is right, it says that every way of life is equally valid. The elevation of the diversity, in turn, compounds the divisions between communities and the lack of consensus more broadly.

So local authorities led by Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council began to dispense money to black community groups in the 1980s, emphasising the ‘right to be different’. As Kenan Malik wrote on spiked: ‘Black people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather, different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles’ (see The trouble with multiculturalism).

The consequence, as was borne out by the riots in northern cities like Bradford and Oldham in summer 2001, has been a ghettoisation of ethnic minority communities. Reports into the disturbances have illustrated in stark terms how different ethnic groups live ‘divided lives’, a predicament that has been encouraged by the official policy of promoting (or tolerating) segregation in education, community representation and government funding. And current attempts to counter the consequences of multiculturalism can only reinforce the problem. So in response to concerns that anti-racist education may have marginalised white pupils, the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has recommended that teachers instil ‘pride in white culture’ (15). This effectively makes white Britons into another ethnic minority – hardly the best way of building common understanding between groups.

Second- and third-generation Asian immigrants don’t have any idea of Britishness to identify with, but they don’t have the traditional ties of the first generation either. They were bought up in Britain – they go to clubs, support football teams, wear Nike clothes. As Dilwar Hussain told me, fewer of the second generation are devout observers of Islam, and they don’t have their parents’ strong relationship with their homeland.

But though it thrives on the retreat of Western values and the corrosion of Western communities, Islamic fundamentalism never closes the gaps it expands to fill. It never provides a real community, never provides a satisfying identity or coherent rules. Instead, it is a desperate, blind groping, that further displaces the very thing it strives for.

For a start, the Islamic fundamentalists who go off to fight the jihad are generally isolated from mainstream Muslim communities. Rather than being integrated into a strong Mosque/marriage way of life and gaining a shared identity through their connections with their Muslim communities, they tend to go off on their own or in small groups. As Dilwar Hussain puts it: ‘A person hears something radical, they go off on their own tangent, they do whatever they want.’ The Richard Reids and John Lindhs of the world commit acts of violence in the name of an abstract, mythical brotherhood – the world community of Muslims. But this community they imagine doesn’t exist. It is difficult to see many strong shared interests between Muslims of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Tipton in the UK.

It doesn’t even look as if there are strong bonds between different cells of Islamic fundamentalists – the intelligence agencies would have a much easier job if there were. In an attempt to satisfy its striving for identity and structure, each group pretty much makes up its own rules – of course, a seventh-century text doesn’t really provide a blueprint for how to live a twenty-first century life. So in 1988, a Hizb-ut-Tahrir document called ‘The Islamic Rule on Hijacking Aeroplanes’ laid out what it was permissible to do as a Muslim:

‘It is not allowed for Muslims to hijack aeroplanes or to terrorise, attack or kill people on board, whether Muslims or Kafir [unbelievers], except if they are Kafir at war with Muslims…. Whilst hijacking the aeroplane those on board have nothing to do with the injustice of the ruler, for they cannot be held responsible for the injustice of the ruler. Allah says, “Each one carries responsibility for his own actions”.’

From this it looks like the 11 September hijackers would be considered illegitimate, not just by the standards of the majority of Muslims in the world today, but by other fundamentalist groups of the recent past. The small group of hijackers on the East Coast of America pretty much made up their own rules, just as Hizb-ut-Tahrir made up theirs. The final letters found in the bags of the 11 September hijackers were full of constructed rules and rituals (such as ‘tie your clothes around you in the same way our good forefathers had done before you. Wear tight socks that would hold on your shoes and wouldn’t allow your shoes to slip off’) (16). Ultimately, it is perhaps only the ritual of organised violence and destruction that provides radical fundamentalism with its content.

But despite its nihilistic trajectory, Islamic fundamentalism is not the serious threat to Western society that it is whipped up to be. The attention paid to a group of youths from Tipton went way beyond the danger they presented. There are not thousands of young Britons running off to fight the jihad – they could probably be counted in their dozens. Dilwar Hussain estimates that the members of the main radical Islamic groups in the UK amount to around 300. And most of those who take on the rhetoric of jihad – even most of those who go to fight the jihad in Afghanistan – will not commit any serious damage in the West.

Yet the problem of Islamic fundamentalism is both exaggerated and trivialised. An uncertain society like the UK is defensive about the threats it faces, and so tends to blow them out of proportion. But at the same time, its uncertainty means it is unable to face up to the challenge Islamic fundamentalism poses to its identity. A big question about ‘us’ and what British society can offer is made into a little question about ‘them’ and what went wrong with this handful of individuals.

These evasory responses to Islamic fundamentalism are unlikely to solve the problem – indeed, they could make it even worse.

One response is to try to combat extremism by encouraging moderate elements within the Muslim community, and to further promote the values of tolerance and diversity. Ever since 11 September, UK prime minister Tony Blair and US president George W Bush have been singing the praises of a multicultural society, saying again and again how much they respect Islam.

But this does not help. Not only are the values of diversity part of the cause of Islamic fundamentalism in the first place, but moderation and tolerance, if held up as Western society’s central values, are likely to make fundamentalism more attractive. Alongside these weak and vacuous non-values, the attraction of a singular and fundamental outlook could become stronger.

Another response post-11 September, particularly among the US right, is simply to assert that Western society is hunky dory: strong, convinced in its values, and ready to kick those goddamn Muslim butts. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson advises his ‘Muslim friends’ to ‘topple your pillars of ignorance and the edifice of your anti-Americanism….Do not blame others for problems that are largely self-created’ (17). In a softer form, some in the UK have complained that Islamic fundamentalism has grown because the police aren’t hard enough on Muslim communities, or because our ‘tolerance’ means that young people feel they can do what they like.

The UK government is floating quick-fix solutions to the isolation of ethnic minority communities from mainstream society – with home secretary David Blunkett unveiling plans for a ‘citizen’s pledge’ for new immigrants. As well as a pledge of allegiance to the Queen and her heirs, applicants for British citizenship will also have to swear: ‘I will respect the rights and freedoms of the United Kingdom. I will uphold its democratic values.’ (18) The pretence being sustained here is that the rest of British society holds these things dear and for some reason immigrants cannot appreciate this, and so need to be told formally. The result can only be to shift the burden of blame for extremism on to Muslim communities themselves – to say that it is their fault for not fitting in with British society.

Of course, this is not the case. The 50-year commemoration of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is predicted to be a damp squib. Only 59 percent voted at the UK general election in June 2001. And as for rights and freedoms – well, Blunkett (author of a number of liberty-robbing laws) would know about that, wouldn’t he?

There are no quick-fix solutions to the problem of malaise and fragmentation in Western society. A good first step is to face up to the depth of the problem. Only then can we begin to have a serious debate about where to go from here – about our common values and ideals.

Maybe we in the West could take a lead from Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Pakistan’s University of Islamabad, who argues that Islamic societies ‘have but one choice: the path of secular humanism, based upon the principles of logic and reason. This alone offers the hope of providing everybody on this globe with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ (19).

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

The bomber from Bromley, by Josie Appleton

Value-free Britain, by Josie Appleton

Made in the USA?, by Josie Appleton

The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik

Blair’s gospel of despair, by Michael Fitzpatrick

spiked-issue: After 11 September

spiked-issue: The race card

(1) The Times (London), 6 February 2002

(2) Sunday Times, 10 February 2002. For an profile of the kidnapper from Wanstead see Manhunt for public school kidnapper, Guardian, 9 February 2002

(3) Who is Richard Reid?, BBC News, 28 December 2001

(4) ‘How fanatics brainwashed my brother’, The Times (London), 28 September 2001

(5) The Times (London), 28 January 2002

(6) Shy student or al-Qaeda warrior?, BBC News, 28 January 2002

(7) Sunday Times, 3 February 2002

(8) My son the fanatic, 2 January 2002

(9) A Long, Strange Trip to the Taliban, Newsweek, 17 December 2001

(10) See Higher Call to arms, reproduced from the Guardian, 16 May 2000

(11) A Long, Strange Trip to the Taliban, Newsweek, 17 December 2001

(12) New Statesman, 11 February 2002

(13) Download the Al-Qaeda manual (.pdf)

(14) Prospect, November 2001

(15) Sunday Times, 3 February 2002

(16) See Translation of letter left by hijackers, LA Times, 28 September 2002

(17) Why the Muslims misjudged us, City Journal Vol 12 No 1, Winter 2002

(18) Citizenship tests for immigrants, Guardian Unlimited, 7 February 2002

(19) How Islam Lost Its Way, Washington Post, 30 December 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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