British Bombers’ Rage Formed in a Caldron of Discontent – New York Times
July 31, 2005
By AMY WALDMAN
LEEDS, England, July 30 – Mohammad Sidique Khan was never on the corner, a detail friends offer as a compliment. In a neighborhood where many young South Asian men had lost their way, or foundered into drug dealing, Mr. Khan’s peers admired his focus on family, work, working out, and Islam.
The discipline of Mr. Khan, 30, was shared, and not just with his friends Shehzad Tanweer, 22, and Hasib Mir Hussain, 18, who joined him on a murderous assignation in London on July 7. The three men and Germaine Lindsay, 19, detonated four bombs that killed 56 people, including themselves.
Mr. Khan, Mr. Tanweer and Mr. Hussain were part of a larger clique of young British-raised South Asian men in Beeston, a neighborhood of Leeds, who turned their backs on what they came to see as a decadent, demoralizing Western culture. Instead, the group embraced an Islam whose practice was often far more fundamentalist than their fathers’, and always more political, focused passionately on Muslim suffering at Western hands.
In many ways, the transformation has had positive elements: the men live healthier and more constructive lives than many of their peers here, Asian or white, who have fallen prey to drugs, alcohol or petty crime. Why Mr. Khan, Mr. Tanweer and Mr. Hussain in particular crossed a line that no one had before, how they and Mr. Lindsay linked up, or whether their plot was homegrown or steered from outside, remain mysteries, at least to the public.
But the question asked since their identities were revealed after the bombings continues to resonate: what motivated men reared thousands of miles from the oppression that outraged them to bomb fellow Britons, ushering in a new chapter of terrorism?
Many here see answers in the sense of injustice at events both at home and abroad that is far more widespread among Muslims than many Westerners recognize; in the rigid and deeply political form of Islam that increasing numbers of educated European Muslims are gravitating to; in the difficulty some children of Muslim immigrants in Europe have had in finding their place or direction.
It is a broader narrative being played out by such immigrants across Britain, and Western Europe. The young men here grew up brown-skinned in white Britain, in a blighted pocket of Leeds straddling their parents’ traditional values and the working-class culture around them. They have been reared shoulder to shoulder with old stone churches and young hooligans, and face to face with attitudes toward family and morality different from those taught by their parents.
“They don’t know whether they’re Muslim or British or both,” said Martin McDaid, a former antiterrorist operative who converted to Islam, taking the name Abdullah, and worked in the neighborhood.
They are alienated from their parents’ rural South Asian culture, which they see as backward. Reared in an often racist milieu, they feel excluded from mainstream British society, which has so far not yielded to hyphenated immigrant identities as America has. They have come of age in an era marked by conflicts between Muslims and better armed powers – India, Serbia, Russia, Israel, America and Britain – and the rise of an ideology that sanctifies terrorist attacks against the West in response.
So some young men have solved the “don’t know” riddle by discovering a new assertive and transnational identity as Muslims. The change has played out within families in the small, brick “back-to-back” terraced houses of little Beeston’s lattice of down-at-the-heels streets.
In one corner shop sits Ejaz Hussain, 54, who came from a Pakistani village in his teens, and has reared eight children in Britain. The bombers’ fathers and he worshiped at the same mosque; their sons left, rejecting the mosque’s form of Islam as incorrect and its determination to keep politics outside the mosque as unjust.
Walk down Stratford Street, past another mosque of the elders the bombers and their cohort rejected, to the store of Mohammad Jaheer, a burly Bangladesh-born shopkeeper who went “religious,” as young men here say, 10 years ago at 16. Islam has saved him from what he calls an animal-like life as a Western businessman spending time at clubs, he said. He helped form the Iqra Learning Center, an Islamic bookshop, five years ago, to educate Muslims and non-Muslims about the faith.
That bookshop, just a few blocks from his shop, was raided by the police because of its possible links to the bombers. Over time its education came to include provocative material that some contend was meant to inspire jihad.
Mr. McDaid, who worked at the bookshop, said it was intended only to raise awareness and passions – among Muslims and the British establishment alike – about the oppression of Muslims around the world.
Passions have been raised, among the bombers most radically, but among many others here and across Europe. Mr. Hussain, who helped organize two peace marches in the bombings’ wake, rejects the notion that an outsider from Al Qaeda recruited the men, although others disagree.
He pointed to his head and said in reference to the bombers, and their peers: “Al Qaeda is inside.”
An Epic Migration
Ejaz Hussain was 16 when he left his 40-household village in Pakistan and came to Britain in 1967. Everybody was going; no one planned to stay long. He did not realize that he and so many others were part of an epic, and permanent, migration that would reshape Britain in so many ways, the events of July 7 being just one.
The British Raj officially ended on Aug. 15, 1947, but its relationship to its subjects did not. In the following decades men of the Indian subcontinent came to Britain en masse to supply cheap, unskilled labor for factories, foundries and, especially, textile mills in northern Britain.
The majority of the immigrants were Mulsim farmers from the Mirpur region of Pakistani Kashmir. Others came from Gujarat in India, or what is now Bangladesh, or, as with the bombers’ families, Punjab Province in Pakistan. Most were poor, with rural backgrounds and often uneducated, although Mr. Hussain, the thoughtful, genteel son of a policeman, had more education than most.
They started with perhaps £5 in their pocket, and worked 16 to 18 hours a day, with a beaverlike determination to earn and build something for the next generation.
Mr. Hussain, now 54, worked in factories and mills, drove a taxi, and has run a corner minimart for 15 years.
Integration was minimal, thanks to barriers of race and language, culture and religion. The migrants were the colonized who came to live among their former colonizers. “When we came we were like servants,” Mr. Hussain said. Even though they had time for little beyond Friday Prayer, if that, they were Muslims still, for whom true assimilation into Western ways, like drinking, would inevitably be irreligious.
Many, Mr. Hussain among them, thought they would earn and then go home. Instead, they eventually brought over wives or young families, forming insular communities in which English fluency was dispensable.
In the late 1980’s, most of the mills and factories closed. Men began driving taxis, or opened shops or other family-run businesses that require round-the-clock tending by an extended family. Others simply retired.
The first wave’s attitude was, and largely still is, one of gratitude toward Britain, which offered a livelihood and left them alone to practice their religion.
“Britain is the greatest country in the world” for those reasons, boomed Arif Butt, a forceful figure in Beeston who runs one of its mosques and has clashed with its youth.
Arshad Chaudhry, an accountant and member of the Leeds Muslim Forum, sees it differently. “They were very timid,” he said of the first wave.
Beeston Hill, where Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer were raised, and nearby Holbeck, where Hasib Mir Hussain grew up, have a dreary, dissolute air. The houses somehow seem shrunken in scale, and the dreams of many youth seem to have been sized to match.
The two neighborhoods are about 77 percent white and 18 percent “Asian or Asian British,” according to the 2001 census. Almost half the population is under 30.
Many white residents of Beeston tend toward tattoos and pit bulls. The drinking starts early, and openly. Trash and furniture clot some streets. Faces have been ravaged by drugs, whose use peaked a few years ago when legions of zombielike heroin addicts wandered the streets.
More than 10 percent of houses are vacant. Nearly a third of the population of about 16,000 receives the British equivalent of welfare. Unemployment is nearly 8 percent, more than double the rate for the rest of Leeds.
Whites and Asians live for the most part politely, but distantly, adjacent. Both groups say South Asians have actually prospered more than whites, which has generated some resentment. Plenty of British Muslims face staggering poverty and unemployment, but the bombers and their immediate circle were not among them. At least some youth seem more directionless than deprived.
In some ways, Mr. Hussain and other elders say, the young people have had it easy. At the age when their fathers worked like mules, the sons are playing cricket, studying, hanging out. Compared with their parents, they are well educated, thoroughly literate, fluent in English and the Internet.
Some know family businesses are waiting for them to take over. Some go on welfare as soon as they reach adulthood. Some sell drugs. “They are getting lazy, getting spoiled from the government,” said Abu Hanifa, 60, another shopkeeper who works around the clock.
And yet Mr. Hussain and others think the young have also had it harder. In an alien culture, work ballasted the migrants, as did the traditional values they had imported from home. The young have no such anchors; they sometimes seem to be living in rooms without walls.
Mohammad Sidique Khan’s generation was the first to be educated entirely in Britain. The schools they attended made almost no accommodation to their presence. They learned almost nothing about Pakistan or Islam’s history and traditions.
Instead, they were expected to become British, and many have tried. But in areas like Beeston, they say, that has also meant learning to drink, using or selling drugs and losing one’s virginity at an early age.
They grew up in rough and often blighted neighborhoods where “hardness” – the ability to fight anyone, at any time – was essential, said Mr. Hussain’s son Nadeem Ejaz, 30, who runs the family’s green grocery. The red shoelaces favored by young racists from the National Front remain etched in his teenage memories.
Many young Muslims, Mr. Khan among them, turned to martial arts or boxing partly to ensure combat readiness.
Boys regularly divide into white and Asian gangs. In April, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death by a member of an Asian mob that pursued him.
The children of the immigrants have shed the servility, and passivity, of their parents, Mr. Hussain said. They want their rights, even if they have to fight for them. This inspires both pride and unease in him.
Mr. Hussain sees a continuum of self-destruction between the recent bombings and race riots that occurred just 10 miles away in 2001 – seemingly disconnected rage. “Why this damage to their own streets, their own cities, their own communities?” he asked of the Asian youth who participated in the riots, echoing those who now ask how the bombers could turn on their own society. “Maybe if we had paid attention then this wouldn’t have happened.”
A good many young Asian men here are, in British social welfare parlance, NEET: Not in Education, Employment or Training. Here and in other South Asian communities over the past 15 years, they have begun to out-English the English, selling drugs and serving prison terms at alarming rates.
In Stratford Street, a Bengali-British drug dealer with a gold tooth and a practiced air of menace sits on a stoop. Mr. Jaheer, the Bengali-British shopkeeper, passes him by. As Mr. Jaheer and his friends see it, the critical battle here has been between those who have succumbed to their milieu, dragging their community down, and those who have sought to rescue and uplift it.
In that effort to fight Beeston’s addiction, violence and aimlessness, they say Islam has proved an invaluable ally. To those who say Islam turned the bombers against Britain, they answer that Islam also saved youngsters from Britain.
The Draw of Religion
Mr. Jaheer was among the first to become religious, and others soon followed. One by one, young men who regularly slept through namaz, or prayers, awakened. Mr. Khan was among them; so, later on, were his fellow bombers, Mr. Tanweer and Mr. Hussain.
The group was always a small minority among Beeston’s youth, but an influential one. The pioneers coached those who followed them in how to live as Muslims in the West, bringing a new social conservatism to bear. It is permissible to look once at scantily clad women in summer, they would tell youth. After that it is a sin. Young men put away their televisions, saying there was no appropriate programming for Muslims, and sometimes imposed new restrictions on their wives.
“They were doing quite well with the young brothers,” said Nadeem Ejaz, crediting Mr. Khan and others with weaning some youth from drugs. “It was smack city around here. These people took on the initiative to clean up the community.”
The group of friends created a network of organizations to lure Asian youth off the streets through sports, nature outings and education. For the Leeds City Council, desperate to counter the social ills present in Beeston and similar communities, the men were an ideal conduit. Over the years the council funneled numerous grants to their organizations and says some worked well.
Mr. Khan was among the grantees. Under the auspices of the South Leeds Asian Youth Association, he twice applied for, and won, grants of about £2,000 apiece for gym equipment, according to council records.
At the same time, the group’s newfound faith was creating distance from its members’ peers, and sometimes conflict with parental choices.
One of Ejaz Hussain’s sons became very religious five years ago. He works at his father’s corner shop, joking with customers, calling the women “luv,” the standard Yorkshire greeting. But the shop sells cigarettes, bacon and tinned pork, girlie magazines.
To him, the shop – the fruit of his father’s life of work – violates his faith, and he has unsuccessfully tried to persuade the family to give it up.
Religiously, the young men came at Islam like converts – questioning everything, accepting nothing. If they were going to practice, they wanted to do it in what they considered the right way. If they wanted to go to heaven, they felt, they had to find the purest form. They wanted evidence for whatever they did in the Koran.
All of the young men quickly rejected the Islam of their parents, who practice a Sufi-influenced strain of the subcontinent called Barelvi. Shaped partly by Hindu and folk customs, it believes in the power of pirs, or holy men, and their shrines.
The young men, Mr. Khan especially vehement among them, believed such “innovations” contaminated Islam.
They stopped praying at their parents’ mosque, even as they used its basement gym to warn youth against the type of Islam their parents practiced upstairs.
They turned, instead, to the more rigid, orthodox Deobandi school of Islam, which also had a mosque in town. The adherents of Deobandism include the Taliban of Afghanistan; they take what they see as a literal approach to the faith. In Britain, as in Pakistan, this school is growing fast – starting seminaries, producing English-speaking preachers and drawing youths away from the more liberal Islam of their parents.
Eventually Mr. Khan and his friends left the Deobandi mosque, too, saying its approach to outreach was too narrow, its focus too apolitical. And the young zealots felt only frustration and contempt for the mosques’ imams, who were often brought from the subcontinent, spoke minimal English, knew nothing of the moral maze young British Muslims face, and abided by an injunction by mosque elders that politics or current events involving Muslims should stay outside the mosque.
A Politicized Islam
For the young, Islam was politics. “There is a lot of hatred” because of Iraq, Kosovo, Kashmir, Mr. Ejaz said. If the mosque makes subjects like that taboo, if their doors are closed, he said, young people are going to go somewhere else.
In Beeston and across Britain, that is exactly what they are doing, which may make Prime Minister Tony Blair’s call for mosques to preach against extremism an exercise in futility.
Educated second-generation Muslims are finding their way to an extreme form of Islam spreading not through mosques but through Islamic bookshops, the Internet and university societies, said Roger Ballard, an anthropologist in Manchester who specializes in Pakistani Muslims in Britain.
The form is called Salafism, taking its name from the term for the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, although its adherents often reject any label. It originated in 19th-century Saudi Arabia, and has helped inspire groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.
The Salafi demand for purity and rejection of any Islam except that of the early years can lead to deep intolerance even for other Muslims like Shiites. Salafis see politics as embedded in the DNA of Islam. They take to heart the injunction that the ummah – the global community of Muslims -is “like one body”: if one part is suffering, the rest will be in pain as well. They believe, therefore, in an obligation to physical jihad, or struggle, under the right conditions.
For educated young European Muslims who learned nothing of their own history in school, Salafism is a natural fit, Mr. Ballard said. It provides unequivocal answers. And, he said, it is largely “do it yourself.”
In Beeston, the young men did do it themselves. After they left the mosques they gravitated to the Iqra Learning Center. There, they were free of their elders and their old ways. They held study circles, debated and produced literature and videos, all with an agenda that was political as much as religious.
Their effort to create an Islamic identity in British Muslims has been fueled by the belief that the West is waging a war – a “crusade,” the word President Bush used in 2001 – against Islam, a notion strengthened by the invasion of Iraq.
This notion recurs in the materials circulated by Islamic bookshops and on the Internet. DVD’s produced and distributed by Iqra juxtapose images from the Crusades with images of war-mutilated Muslims. A cross drips blood over Afghanistan. In one DVD are images of what Mr. McDaid called “mujahedeen,” Muslims fighting in an array of conflicts, but he insisted those images were not on the copies given away.
Under new legislation Britain is weighing against “indirect incitement” to terrorism, such DVD’s could become illegal. That perplexes the young men here. One Briton’s propaganda, they point out, is another’s truth. Bloodshed in places like Iraq is not their invention, Mr. Jaheer said. “How can it be incitement if it’s facts?” he asked.
In his shop, Mr. Hussain, whose Islam his children rejected as too liberal, opens the newspaper to an article about 25,000 civilian dead in Iraq in the past two years.
“People keep asking what was in their heads,” he said quietly.
Mr. Hussain changed worlds by coming to Britain, and now the world he made here has been irrevocably changed by its youth. The government says community leaders should police their communities, mosques their devotees, fathers their sons. Outside, police close-circuit television vans prowl, there to protect the community from possible retaliatory attacks, but also to watch.