What makes a British Muslim blow himself up for Palestine?
The suicide attack on a Tel Aviv cafe by a British Muslim on 30 April has sparked a wave of soul searching.
21-year-old university student Asif Mohammed Hanif was from Hounslow, west London. His companion, who fled the scene after his explosive belt failed to detonate, was 27-year-old Omar Khan Sharif from Derby.
Hanif’s brother was disbelieving: ‘He wasn’t into that kind of stuff. Anyone who knew him would tell you. He was just a big teddy bear – that’s what people said about him. We used to watch the news and our parents said the suicide stuff is not good.’ (1) A friend of the Sharif family said that ‘This does not add up, knowing the person he was. I believe he is alive’ (2).
Muslim leaders were quick with their condemnation – and England’s first Muslim MP Khalid Mahmood called for action to stop extremists inciting people to carry out such attacks (3).
An editorial in The Times (London) asked why young British Muslims, who were ‘well brought up, well educated, and reasonably well off’ were willing to sacrifice their lives in Palestine: ‘Why do [young British Muslims] devote so much time to causes overseas…rather than grievances at home or getting ahead in British society?’ (4)
In different circumstances, these reactions might be dismissed as disbelief in the face of the radical actions of the young. When the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was arrested for agitation as a teenager, his landlord parents wondered what they had done wrong to drive him to such extremes.
In different times, it could be seen as brave and honourable for a young British man to give his life to help another’s cause – for him to put aside ‘getting ahead in British society’ and join the fight for freedom in a foreign land. The floods who joined the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil war, or the Europeans and Americans (such as French philosopher Regis Debray) who opposed reactionary military regimes in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s, also often paid with their lives for their solidarity.
But these two twentysomething suicide-bombers come from a new political heritage. They stand less in line with Trotsky, Che Guevara or Debray than with Richard Reid, Omar Saeed Sheikh and Jack Roche – other Britons who are alleged to have gone abroad to fight for Islamic extremist causes. And like these other Britons, theirs is a strange kind of political commitment, and a strange kind of solidarity.
One generally recognised point is that these young men were driven, less by the attractions of the Palestinian cause, than by a disaffection with British society.
The Times leader claimed that Hanif and Sharif were ‘spiritually disaffected’ individuals who, ‘saw in radical Islam a cause’. The publisher of the Muslim magazine Q-News Fuad Nahdi blamed the ‘combined forces of racial discrimination and Islamophobia’ for the marginalisation and alienation of young Muslims – ‘few, particularly young people’, he said, ‘feel that they have any viable stake in society’ (5).
A Glasgow Herald leader blamed ‘the familiar cocktail of alienation and disempowerment’ – poverty within Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, hostility towards asylum seekers and Islamophobia. ‘Many quiet, intense, often highly intelligent young men, who feel failed by the system, have rediscovered in Islam a sense of purpose and brotherhood’, noted the Herald (6).
It is certainly the case that young Muslims find a sense of mission and identity in radical Islam – that Islamism offers them a way of understanding their own feelings of isolation and alienation, and seems to offer a practical solution. It is less the case that young Muslims are attracted by the compelling case made by radical Islam, than that they find in it an escape from the vacuum in Western society. One British Muslim studying in Damascus said that many young Muslims travelled to the Middle East looking for a ‘spiritual experience’ – ‘They are known as “spiritual refugees”, escaping from the soulless wastelands of modernity’ (7).
Contemporary Britain is suffering from a crisis in values and identity. Society has experienced an erosion, not just of British nationalism, but of the political allegiances of left and right, and informal associations such as civic groups, local communities and families. Young British Muslims’ problem is less their exclusion from mainstream British society through poverty and racism, than the lack of a strong mainstream into which they would want to strive to be included.
Sharif’s father, Mohammed Sharif, was an entrepreneur who opened up the first kebab shop in Derby and also owned a laundrette and amusement arcades. Sharif was privately educated and had begun a degree in multimedia information systems at Kingston University. Hanif studied business at Cranford community college in Hounslow and had a part-time job at Heathrow airport.
By all accounts, Sharif and Hanif’s lives are notable only for their ordinariness. It is likely that Sharif’s father would have endured much more poverty and racism than his son ever did, yet his father seemed firmly focused on ‘getting ahead in British society’. Sharif, by contrast, encountered a contemporary Britain that is fragmented and inchoate – that is unable to provide people with a clear sense of who they are and what their purpose is in life.
And unlike those who joined the Spanish Civil War, Western militants who head overseas to fight for radical Islam are far from being intimately engaged with the conflicts in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Palestine. This is less a case of militants finding common cause in Palestinians’ fight for their land and livelihood, than of finding themselves – of finding their own individual identity and mission by fighting or sacrificing themselves abroad.
In this context, the nihilistic tactic of suicide bombing seems to allow these young Western militants to fight their own war. Unlike fighting in an army over a sustained period of time, suicide bombing is an individual act that requires no engagement with the conflict itself. It is my act, the sacrifice of my life – it allows suicide bombers to construct in their heads the mission that they are making the sacrifice for.
The Muslim ummah, or Allah, or whatever it is that they see themselves as dying for is an entirely abstract ideal, something they find in their own heads rather than in their associations and struggles with other Muslims. They don’t have to deal with, argue about, or work within the realities of the Palestinian conflict – they can just turn up, find their target, and press the button. They offer their life up to the imagined cause that has given them a sense of mission and belonging.
The transition from being a friendly young man to being a suicide bomber is therefore a change in personal attitude rather than a change in a mode of life. This is why it takes those who knew these young men by surprise; it seems to come from nowhere. As journalist Nick Cohen notes in the Observer, this would not have been the case with IRA volunteers: ‘If he blew himself up, it would be…an understandable accident. His friends wouldn’t be stunned.’ (8) They would have known that fighting for the IRA was what he did every day; it was what his father and his brothers did every day.
Yet the families and friends of young Muslim fundamentalists are always at a loss at how this ‘kind, really nice boy’ who was good at his studies could have turned into a Muslim fanatic, driven to kill and prepared to die. Families clutch at visible changes – perhaps odd comments he made about morality, or his change of dress or growing of a beard.
But these external signs explain little, because the real change has happened inside the head of the young man – in his discovery of a personal cause. Hanif’s actions were the same as the scores of Palestinian suicide bombers. But while Palestinians have historically died for the freedom of their families and their community, Hanif died only for himself.
(1) Sun, 7 May 2003
(2) Polite and caring sons who turned to terror, Guardian, 2 May 2003
(3) UK Muslims shocked by ‘bombers’, BBC News, 1 May 2003
(4) The Times, 2 May 2003
(5) Tel Aviv first, then Manchester?, Guardian, 2 May 2003
(6) Leader, Herald, 2 May 2003
(7) Making of a martyr, Observer, 4 May 2003
(8) ‘A kind, really nice boy’, Observer, 4 May 2003
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.