As a follow-up to my earlier post on ‘Myths of radicalisation’, which questioned the conventional narrative about how some Muslims get drawn to jihadism, here is an extract from my book From Fatwa to Jihad, telling the story of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombings, and of how he became a jihadi.
From Fatwa to Jihad, pp 81-83, 98-104, 107-110
In the days following 7/7, thousands of journalists decamped to Beeston, a suburb of Leeds where the three of the bombers had spent much of their lives, most apparently expecting to find a kind of ersatz Kabul. ‘I came here expecting lots of angry young men’, wrote Urmee Khan in the Observer. ‘But there was not one Free Palestine flag in sight’. Khan was a Muslim but, in her own words, came from the sheltered leafy lanes of Surrey in southern England. Beeston was as alien territory to her as it would have been to most people in Britain. Her ‘first impressions of Beeston’ were a ‘surprise’:
The housing was looking grim but far more normal than the menacing streets I expected. Maybe I had envisaged eerie gothic pathways with shuffling clerics spreading words of hate. No, it was all drab but very normal.
Later, Khan went to the town centre ‘expecting it to be run-down and shabby. Instead I found a vibrant and colourful building in what used to be a church. Noticeboards advertise Pilates classes, Muslim, women-only gym work outs, police drop in sessions and a sign advertising cut-price car window tinting. It was slightly surreal – this could have been any community centre in Britain, yet this was Beeston.’
Not just the town but the people, too, seemed normal. The ‘young men are no more religiously-observant than an equivalent group of white men’. Teenage boys ‘often get drunk on vodka in the park. But their talk tends to be about girls and football, not international jihad.’ At a sewing class at the local community centre, women chat about Big Brother and read Heat magazine. ‘All the women’, Khan observes, ‘including those wearing headscarves and saris, are reading celebrity gossip enthusiastically’. Khan concludes the essay by observing that she came to Beeston, ‘looking for mullahs bent on destruction’. Instead, she ‘found kind, decent people: young mums, bored kids, community cohesion.’
Far from being a ‘little Lahore’, Beeston is very British. It is a working class area, slightly rough at the edges, whose inhabitants have the same dreams, hopes, aspirations, problems and confusions as those of any similar area in the country. And if Beeston was normal, so it seemed were the bombers. The leader of the group, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was born a few miles away in St James’s University Hospital, Leeds. He was popular at school, and nicknamed ‘Sid’. ‘He was friends with the in-crowd’, remembers one of his school friends Robert Cardiss. ‘He had white mates as well as Asian and he would quite often be round the back of the gym at breaktime smoking a fag with the rest of us. He didn’t have any girlfriends that I know of, but he’d talk to girls. He was friendly.’ Cardiss added that, ‘Some of the other Pakistani guys used to talk about Muslim suffering around the world but with Sidique you’d never really know what religion he was.’
* * * * *
It was not the Qur’an but crack cocaine that first led Mohammad Sidique Khan down the path to jihad. Not crack cocaine that he injected into his veins, but crack cocaine that he tried to stop others from injecting. In the late 1980s drug dealers moved into Beeston. The dealers were mainly young Asian men with flash cars, loud hiphop and even louder bling who set up shop in crack houses and in the local park. The long-time residents of the area had no idea how to deal with them. Then the Mullah Crew showed up. The Crew, or the Mullah Boys as they sometimes called themselves, were a group of second-generation young men, British-born but of Pakistani origin, who decided to clean up the neighbourhood. One of their tactics was to kidnap young drug-addicts and, with the consent of their families, give them cold-turkey treatment in a flat near the Wahhabi-inclined mosque on Stratford Street. Mohammed Sidique Khan was a Mullah Boy.
The Mullah Crew did not simply sweep the dealers off its turf. They were also contemptuous about the ways of the older generation. They saw themselves as Muslim, but rejected most of the traditions of Islam. Despite their campaign against dealers, the Boys were happy to smoke dope and drink vodka, and often used the local massage parlour cum brothel. But the tradition that most grated with the youth was that of arranged marriages. The Mullah Crew encouraged love matches (though only between Muslims) and even started conducting marriages from the premises of Iqra, a local Islamic bookshop, which soon became a kind of drop-in centre for the Boys.
On the face of it, the activities of the Mullah Crew might seem to be a way that second generation Asians, fully integrated into British society and no longer accepting the restrictions of first generation Pakistani-based traditions, had forged to take control of their lives and their community. In that sense the Crew might appear to be like a local version of the Asian Youth Movements of a decade earlier – except that the AYM was a political movement, and the Mullah Crew was little more than a street gang with pretensions.
One of the Mullah Boys’ victims was Tyrone Clarke, a 16-year-old black teenager from Beeston. In April 2004 he happened to be walking with his Rafael Lovick through Brett Gardens, a local park that the Boys had decided was Asian territory. A pack of about 20 Asian boys and men, many of them wearing balaclavas, chased them. The two friends got separated, and the mob set upon Clarke with cricket bats, scaffolding poles and planks of wood. He was then stabbed three times. By the time the mob had finished, his mother told reporters, all that was left was ‘a bloody pulp’.
A year later four men – Islamur Rahman, Anjum Amin, Kamer Akram, and Liaquat Ali – received sentences of between nine and twelve years imprisonment for the murder. All were said to be Mullah Crew members. Shehzad Tanweer, one of the 7/7 bombers, was reported to have been questioned about Clarke’s murder, though Tanweer’s father has denied the story. Tanweer did, however, receive a caution for a public order offence arising out of the gang battles.
Both the police and the trial judge denied that Clarke’s murder was racially motivated, insisting that it was gang-related violence. But Britain’s new tribalism has cleaved gangs along racial lines. Shortly after the 7/7, an American journalist visited Brett Gardens, and talked to five white teenagers. They were hovering at the edge of the park, smoking joints, and fearful of stepping inside. The park ‘used to be ours’, said one, ‘but now the Pakis won’t let us cross.’ ‘They start fights with us because we’re white’, said another. ‘They’re fucking racist’. ‘The Asian kids here are very well community-minded’, said a local community worker. ‘They get together, back each other up. It makes them powerful. They can control something: the streets.’
Being ‘community minded’ clearly meant something very different to the Mullah Boys than it had to the Asian Youth Movement. The identity of the AYM, and of its members, came from its political vision, and from its relationship to broader political movements, working class organisations at home and national liberation struggles abroad. ‘The only real movements capable of fighting the growth of organised racism and fascism’, the Bradford AYM declared in its magazine Kala Tara, ‘is the unity of the workers movement black and white.’ The AYM also saw the fight against racism as part of a wider set of struggles such as those ‘in Ireland, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Palestine’. Those struggles (like the AYM itself) had all but disappeared by the 1990s; not just physically in the sense of the decline of the organisations but intellectually, too, as the ideas that had fired those movements burned out.
A decade earlier Sidique Khan or Shehzad Tanweer might well have joined the AYM, or even the Socialist Workers Party. But these were now lost causes. Far from being plugged into a wider political network, as the AYM had been, the Mullah Crew existed primarily because its members were cut off from wider society. Their aim was not to change the world but to protect their turf on the streets of Beeston. In that difference – in the degeneration of political campaigning into gang ritual – lies much of the change that has taken place within Muslim communities in Britain over the past twenty years. And out of that difference have come the reasons that a number of Muslims have turned jihadist.
The Mullah Crew was different not just from an earlier generation of secular activists but from an earlier generation of Islamists too. Pervaiz Khan is a writer and theatre director. In his teenage years, he was an Islamist, an activist for the Jammat-e-Islami. Between 1973 and 1977, he was secretary of the Birmingham branch of the Islamic Youth Movement (IYM) and on its national organising committee. It was through the IYM that the UK Islamic Mission (UKIM), the principal Jamaati organization in Britain, organized its youth work. As a child he had read the whole of the Qur’an, but had not been particularly religious. He was drawn to mosque as a teenager not by the sermons but by the youth club, run by Jamaati activists. ‘They introduced to a much wider world’, he says. ‘They also introduced me to politics. It was through them that I learnt about colonialism and imperialism. It was also through them that I learnt about universal values and the possibilities of social change.’
Like many first-generation immigrants, his parents were ‘quite inward looking. They wrapped themselves up in the culture that they had left. They weren’t anti-white but they did not think much of them. Or of blacks. Whereas the Islamists said, “There is nothing wrong with white people, or black people. It’s not skin colour that matters but what they believe”. It was liberating to hear that.’ Khan’s parents were horrified by his involvement with Islamists. ‘They called them Wahhabis, which was an insult. But as a working class Pakistani kid I was excited because what the Islamists taught me about the world and how to change it was much more inspirational than what I was learning at school or at home.’
By the end of the Seventies, Khan had left the Jamaatis. ‘They trained me to think about the world. And when I did I found that I no longer believed in God.’ But while he lost his faith in God, he retained his belief in the importance of social change and in the idea of a common humanity, becoming active in leftwing organizations. ‘Islamists in the Seventies were outward looking, political and had a desire to change the world. Today, Islamic radicals have much narrower minds. Even when I was with the Islamic Youth Movement, my best friends were Hindus, Sikhs and Afro-Caribbeans. We used to go round to each others’ houses. It doesn’t happen any more. Today, Pakistani Muslims only know other Pakistani Muslims. Islamists today are obsessed by things like beards and the niqab but have little knowledge about the world and little desire for political struggle. They don’t even have much knowledge about Islamic traditions.’
Multicultural policies in the 1980s had helped create a more tribal Britain by encouraging people to see themselves in narrower ethnic or cultural terms. Muslim inhabitants of towns such as Beeston adopted a more rigid Islamic identity, becoming more isolated from other communities in the town. Second generation Muslims like the Mullah Boys would, just a decade earlier, have probably been far more secular in their outlook, and more willing to forge friendships with people of different faiths and cultures. Now they saw themselves as tribal Muslims and most of the people they knew, liked and trusted came from within the tribe. But not only were segregated from the wider social world, they were also cut off from the traditional institutions and structures of Islam. Even though the Boys saw themselves as Muslim, they wanted nothing to do with the subcontinental Islam of their parents. In challenging the old ways, they isolated themselves from their families and often became pariahs in the community. So disgusted were Sidique Khan’s family about his relationship with Hasina Patel [a woman he had met at university and whom he had married, having refused a match arranged by his parents] that they moved from Beeston to Nottingham, in the hope that their errant son would follow them. He didn’t.
It is a common story. In The Islamist, Ed Husain tells of how his attraction to radical Islam led to a battle with his pious but traditional father. Eventually his father gave him an ultimatum: leave Islamism or leave my house. Husain decided to leave his house. He stole out in the middle of the night and crept down to the East London mosque, which was controlled by the Jamaat-influenced Islamic Forum. He was taken in by ‘the brothers’ and treated like a ‘family member’. For people like him, Husain observes, ‘cut off from Britain, isolated from the Eastern culture of our parents, Islamism provided us with a purpose and place in life.’
‘My generation of young British Muslims’, Husain writes, ‘was torn between two cultures.’ This has become an all-too-common explanation for the alienation of British Muslims, repeated by everyone from Islamists to intelligence experts to explain everything from the rise of drug taking to the popularity of jihadism. But people like Husain and Sidique Khan were not caught between two cultures. They were caught between no cultures. Rejecting traditions from back home is a common feature of second generation immigrant life. I did it, and so did most people I grew up with. For us, though, it was not such a big deal. We were defined less by our culture than by our politics; our sense of belongingness and identity emerged out of the collective struggle for our political ideals.
Multiculturalists assumed that minority groups would want not to jettison the past but to embrace it, that those born here would want to define themselves through their parents’ cultures and traditions. They imagined Britain as a ‘community of communities’ and pushed second generation Britons of migrant stock back into the traditional cultures that they had rejected. And so those second generation migrants found themselves adrift, without any cultural ballast.
The most degraded form of tribal life is the gang. It is not surprising that, as Britain has become more tribal, so gang culture has taken over much of inner-city life. In the space between no cultures, a gang such as the Mullah Crew provided something to which to belong. Such tribalism is not confined to working class areas like Beeston. Mohamed Atta’s Hamburg Cell, the group of educated, Westernised professionals who went on to form the core of the 9/11 bombers, was as much a gang as Mohammad Sidique Khan’s Mullah Crew. Each was a self-selecting group, cut off from broader social networks, with a single figure of authority, brought together by ties of personal friendship, common activity and routine tasks, and bonded through danger and adventure.
For the Mullah Crew, as for the Hamburg Cell, Islam provided the ideas and rituals that bound its members together. What the Boys found in Islam was less a theology of faith than the sacraments of street life. Friday prayers and halal meat were to the Mullah Crew what blue bandanas and British Knight trainers are to the LA Crips. But having rejected the traditions of their parents’ Islam, the Mullah Crew had to find a new kind of Islam to which to relate. Islamism filled the gap.
This was not Islamism as Mawdudi or Qtub would have understood it. The Islamism of the founding fathers drew upon recognisable traditions and appealed to distinct social groups. It was not even a kind of Islamism that the creators of Hamas or Hezbollah would recognise. Terrorist organisations they may be but they are also mass movements with deep roots in their communities, whose social and welfare needs they often meet. This was a form of Islamism that had grown in the space between no cultures, fertilised neither by politics nor by theology but by a yearning for identity in a society that could not inspire loyalty.
For Sidique Khan the pull of fundamentalism came from several directions. His sweetheart Hasina Patel’s family belonged to the Indian Deobandi tradition, which has links to Wahhabism. Radical Islamist groups, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, organised at Leeds Metropolitan University where both he and Patel were students. Many members of the Mullah Crew were also looking for a new kind of faith. And the Wahhabists and Islamists seemed to know what made young Muslims tick. They delivered sermons in English, took their recruitment drives out of the mosques and onto the streets, the gyms, the cafes and the parks and, despite their ‘fundamentalism’, were flexible enough to indulge second generation concerns. They insisted, for instance, that arranged marriages were un-Islamic and a cultural import from Hindu India. It was not just love matches that Islamists were happy to accept. ‘When I said I’ve been clubbing, I’ve smoked some weed, he was cool’, former Hizb-ut-Tahrir member Shiraz Maher recalls about his mentor in the organisation. ‘At a traditional mosque in the Pakistani community they would have told me I was going to hell, but he just said, “If it wasn’t fun people wouldn’t do it”.’ Hizb-ut-Tahrir was also happy to accommodate members with a penchant for pornography, fast cars, forged documents; even prayer was seen as a distraction to be ‘dropped’ rather than a crucial act of piety.
The Mullah Crew did not receive its Islamist ideas by attending sermons given by preachers of hate, a favourite media explanation for the ‘brainwashing’ of the London bombers. Rather such ideas percolated through a small group of friends as they talked in gyms and youth clubs. Khan used his position as youth worker to win public money to build facilities for Asian youth. In 2000, for instance, Khan received a £4000 EU grant through Leeds City Council to set up a gym under the Jamia mosque in Hardy Street. Another gym was set up in Lodge Lane in the name of the Youth Programme of the nearby Hamara Centre. It was here that Sidique Khan would meet with Shehzad Tanweer and Habib Hussain and sketch out the plans for the 7/7 bombings.
What the Mullah Boys yearned for was not God but, like members of any gang, respect and recognition. Martin Gilbertson was an IT technician who did a lot of work for the Iqra bookshop and got to know the three Beeston-based bombers quite well. Sidique Khan, he says, ‘wasn’t the ranting type; what he seemed to want was kudos within the group, and among people on the street outside. Khan’s way was to be a “cool dude”; it was all about kudos in the Muslim community.’ The same words crop up in Ed Hussain’s account of the Islamist groups to which belonged in east London. He began his radical journey with the Jamaati-influenced Young Muslim Organisation based at the East London mosque. The YMO, he writes, ‘had gained in Tower Hamlets and beyond a reputation as being tougher than the toughest gangsters. The Brick Lane Mafia, Cannon Street Posse and Bethnal Green Massive shrank to the stature of playground bullies when compared with the rising star of the YMO. YMO had several members in prison. They won fights, deployed kung-fu experts in the mosque hall, defied the police, and were “bad boys” too…. They were as bad and cool as the other street gangs, just without the drugs, drinking and womanizing.’
Hussain later gave up on the YMO for the more radical Hizb ut-Tahrir. Again, he seemed drawn by the scent of macho glamour and kudos. The YMO ‘seemed little more than an insignificant local group of unsophisticated young Bangladeshi men’ compared to the ‘young, articulate, self-assured’ members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. One such member was Maajid Nawaz, who would later become a leader of the movement in Britain and subsequently spend four years in Cairo’s notorious jails, having gone injudiciously to study – and proselytise – in Egypt where Hizb ut-Tahrir is a proscribed organisation. Nawaz, Hussain writes in awed tones, ‘oozed street cred. He wore the latest baggy jeans, expensive trainers, and had good hair. He had once worn an earring and the empty piercing spoke volumes to east London rude boys. Maajid was equally at home among aspiring black rappers and budding Asian bhangra singers. His clothes, attitudes, and street speak made him very popular, very quickly.’
Hussain and Nawaz have both now left Hizb ut-Tahrir to found the Quilliam Foundation, a Muslim think tank that aims to wean people away from Islamism. But one can still hear in Hussain’s autobiography the voice of the star-struck teenager for whom the radical chic of Islamism was the path to street cool.