Acts of Faith

Acts of Faith

The Crossroads of the Identity Crisis

HASIB HUSSAlN, LEFT HAND hanging slightly out of the pocket of his jeans, shuffles into the Luton railway station just before 7:30 a.m. on July 7, 2005, wearing an indifferent expression on his face and a pack on his back. Three young men accompany him. They all wear indifferent expressions. They all wear packs on their backs. But it is not water bottles and summer novels that they carry. Instead, each pack contains a carefully mixed concoction of hair bleach, food preservatives, and heating chemicals.

Hasib Hussain’s pack is the last to blow. It detonates at 9:47 a.m. on a double-decker bus near Tavistock Square, peeling the top off and killing Hasib and thirteen others. Hasib was eighteen years old.

An hour earlier, at the Russell Square Tube station a few blocks away, Germaine Lindsay detonated his pack. Germaine was nineteen years old.

The other two blasts occurred within seconds of the Russell Square explosion. Mohammad Sidique Khan sat on Circle Line train 216. Seconds after it left Edgware Road, traveling west to Paddington, the explosives on his back tore apart his car like a can opener and impacted an oncoming eastbound train. Mohammad was thirty.

On the other side of central London, in the heavily Muslim East End, ShehzadTanweer blew himself up on a westbound Circle Line train leaving Liverpool Street station for Aldgate. Seven people plus the bomber were killed. Shehzad was twenty-two.

Shahara Islam was the first of the dead to be buried ….. I cannot help but imagine her smiling at her murderer, the tall and endearingly awkward Hasib Hussain, when he climbed aboard weighed down by the death in his backpack. . . .

The world lives in London, and when bombs go off, it dies there…

Terry McDermott opens Perfect Soldiers, his book on the September 11 hijackers, with the image of Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader of the group, padding around his Hamburg, Germany, apartment in blue flip-flops. “We want our monsters to be outsized, monstrous,” writes McDermott. “We expect them to be somehow equal to their crimes.” But the world is a peculiar place, and McDermott, after conducting the definitive study into the lives of the nineteen hijackers, was forced to conclude, “The men of September 11 were, regrettably, I think, fairly ordinary men.”

So were the men of July 7, 2005. “Suspects’ Neighbors Say There Was No Hint of Evil” was the title of the story in the New York Times. Shehzad Tanweer, the twenty-two-year-old Aldgate bomber, loved Elvis Presley’s version of Eddy Arnold’s song “Make the World Go Away.” Shehzad worked in his father’s successful fish and chips shop and drove around town in the family’s red Mercedes. Friends described him as infinitely likable, more apt to talk about sports and cars than anything else. . .

Mohammad Sidique Khan was a learning mentor at Hillside Primary School. He was universally appreciated by parents, students, and faculty for his commitment to assisting the newly immigrated children with everything from school lessons to athletics . . . Germaine Lindsay was described as one of the cool kids in school – smart, funny, and always smiling. Born in Jamaica, he converted to Islam at age fifteen. Germaine married a white British Muslim convert, and the two had a baby together. Neither his mother nor his wife could believe that he had become a suicide bomber. His mother remembered Germaine mourning the victims of September 11, and his wife would not accept that Germaine had left her and their baby behind.

Hasib Hussain was the youngest, the shyest, the least remarkable, the most impressionable. He went to primary school a block from his home, and he loved kicking a plastic soccer ball down the street where he lived. It was his mother’s call to the police, reporting that Hasib had not returned home from his trip to London with friends and was not answering his cell phone, that broke the bombing case open.

Tall and lanky, Hasib Hussain tried hard to fade into the background at Matthew Murray High School, but the white toughs picked on him anyway. The sermons at the local mosque rarely addressed this reality. His parents’ advice was to pray more and do better in school. He started running with a group of Pakistani Muslims who fought back, a crowd that provided him with support and identity but was estranged from the pious Muslim community of his household and mosque. Scared that their son was losing his way, his parents sent him abroad, thinking that religious influence from the Muslim world would straighten him out.

A cousin observed that Hasib returned not only more devout but also more political and strident in his views. Hasib began spending more time with Mohammad Sidique Khan. Khan had recently rejected Leeds’ mosques for practicing what he claimed was a diluted and false form of Islam and had become part of the inner circle at the Iqra Learning Center.

When radical Muslims traveled through Leeds to spread their message of proper Muslim behavior plus hatred for the West, they held their meetings at the Iqra Learning Center. In addition to traditional Islamic literature like the Qur’an, the Hadith, and books on Muslim law, the store carried materials on Western conspiracy theories against Islam. Part of the collection included DVDs showing scenes of Muslims being maimed and murdered in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Chechnya juxtaposed against President George Bush saying the word “crusade.” . . . First came the proper way to do Muslim prayers, then the lectures about injustice against Muslims around the world, and next the DVDs. “You could see how it could turn someone to raw hate … I know it was propaganda and was made to make you feel this way. But what about young guys who see this material as a call to do something?”

That is exactly what Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad wants. He helped establish Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose mission is to reestablish the Islamic caliphate. In its study circles, Hizb recruits learn that Muslim identity is necessarily opposed to the West . . . Sheikh Omar left Hizb, or was asked to leave, after he stated that British prime minister John Major should be assassinated and beheaded for his role in the Gulf War of 1990-1991.

Unable to preach violence through Hizb, Sheikh Omar went on to organize a radical Muslim youth organization that he called Al-Muhajiroun in the early 1990s. He used this platform to preach sermons and post web messages calling young British Muslims to wage jihad against the West in Iraq, Israel, and Chechnya. He referred to the September 11 hijackers as the Magnificent 19.

Sheikh Omar is a master institution builder and youth organizer. He understands precisely what buttons to push to harden a young Muslim’s fluid religious identity into a terrorist commitment. The itinerant Muslim preachers who inspired the radical study circle at the Iqra Learning Center and the locals who organized it likely learned their trade through Sheikh Omar’s networks.

How did awkward, shy Hasib Hussain become a suicide bomber? Sheikh Omar’s people got to him before we did.

In my life, religious violence has always existed in the gray area between reality and imagination. In November 1999, I left late for an appointment at a waterfront café in Cape Town, South Africa. As I approached, I started noticing glass shards strewn around, and then I heard the wailing sirens. “What’s going on?” I asked a cop. “A bomb went off at a pizza parlor,” he responded. It was next door to the café where I was supposed to meet a friend.

An eerie feeling crept over me as I stared at the faces of the London bombers, especially the three who traced their history back to the subcontinent. Their travails in school, their relationships with their parents, their indifference to Islam as adolescents followed by an intense reengagement-it all felt familiar. I sensed a flicker of recognition from a deep place. A piece of their story was a part of me.

I can imagine going to Hasib Hussain’s home for dinner. I would have sat with Hasib’s father in the living room after dinner, drinking Indian masala tea – sweet with sugar, spicy with cinnamon, fragrant with cardamom. We would have made the obligatory comments about global politics, wondering when India and Pakistan would finally work out the issue of Kashmir. Perhaps his father, his Muslim solidarity flaring for an instant, would have told me how angry he was at America for ignoring the plight of the Palestinians for so long and for believing that you can bomb countries into democracy. Then he would have hurriedly said, “But I love the American people. It is the government that does all the bombing.”

Inevitably, we would have settled on the subject of life in the West. He would have shaken his head and said that England is hard. You can make a living, yes, but the culture is a stranger to you, and then it takes your son and makes him a stranger, too. Then his voice would have fallen a little, and he would have confessed the problems that Hasib had had at school-the falling grades, the truancy, the fights. Where was the famed education and social mobility of the West? And then he would have spoken about how sending Hasib abroad had straightened him out. He now wore a Muslim cap and prayed regularly, and he no longer went around with those boys who, rumor had it, were into alcohol and worse things.

The only problem was that Hasib didn’t want to go to the local mosque anymore. His new friends had started praying at the Iqra Learning Center. Now, when he made offhand comments about the plight of Muslims elsewhere, Hasib grew furious and spit out angry words about the West and the importance of returning Islam to power. Hasib’s father would have asked me, a few years older than Hasib and also a second-generation South Asian Muslim in the West, if I understood what his son was going through.

I would have swallowed hard.

I know his son’s anger in a dangerous way. I remember feigning illness so I could stay home from school as a teenager, afraid to tell my mother the truth: that a group of white kids in gym class had taken to cornering me in the locker room, tearing off my shorts, and hitting me with wet towels, all the while shouting “sand nigger” and “curry maker.”

My parents, as loving as they were, simply could not relate to my reality. My mother was convinced that if I would only raise my math grade, the other kids would respect me. “Say your tasbih,” she would add, referring to the Muslim prayer beads. It made me feel worse to tell her what happened in school, so I stopped.

My father had always been knowledgeable about world affairs but never active in them. He is a profoundly decent man with a strong personal spirituality, but he was never a ritualistic Muslim, and certainly not one inclined to side with his coreligionists over the country he felt indebted to. But when my father felt that a part of his identity was under fire, however secondary it might have been in his overall makeup under normal circumstances, that part flared and rose to the surface and began dominating his personality.

Looking back, I see flashes of the ingredients that prepared the ground for Hasib Hussain’s suicide mission in my own life . . .

Like Hasib, I took a step down the path of adolescent risk taking. Unable to find my place in junior high, I started hanging out with kids who pushed their way to the back of the bus, smoked cigarettes across the street from school, stole wine coolers from their parents’ refrigerators, and bragged loudly about touching their girlfriends’ breasts, while the girls in question giggled within earshot.

Like Hasib, I needed a course correction. Perhaps in another place and time, I would have followed a Mohammad Sidique Khan into the back room of an Iqra Learning Center . . . Maybe I would have sought his discipline and approval and discovered my identity in the imagined community of the global jihad.
How does one ordinary young person’s commitment to a religion turn into a suicide mission and another ordinary young person’s commitment to that same faith become an organization devoted to pluralism? The answer, I believe, lies in the influences young people have, the programs and people who shape their religious identities.

Religious totalitarians like Sheikh Omar are exceptionally perceptive about the crisis facing second-generation immigrant Muslims in the West. They know that the identity we get from [our parents] feels irrelevant, that it is impossible to be a 1950s-era Pakistani or Egyptian or Moroccan Muslim in twenty-first-century Chicago or London or Madrid.

In many cases, our parents built bubbles for themselves when they moved to the West-little worlds where they could eat familiar food, speak their own language, and follow the old ways. And because they re-created a little piece of Karachi in Manchester, England, or a part of Bombay in Boston, Massachusetts, they assumed that their children would remain within the cocoon. But we second- and thirdgeneration Muslims cannot separate ourselves from the societies we live in. Raised in pious Muslim homes, occasionally participating in the permissive aspects of Western culture, many of us come to believe that our two worlds, the two sides of ourselves, are necessarily antagonistic. This experience of “two-ness” is exacerbated by the deep burn of racism.

As we grow older and seek a unified Muslim way of being, it is too often Muslim extremists who meet us at the crossroads of our identity crisis.

Where are the Muslim leaders who understand this complex challenge, who are helping young people develop a coherent, relevant Muslim identity in the West?

People such as Dr. Umar Abd-Allah, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Professors Sherman Jackson and Amina McCloud in the United States are the exceptions. They understand that the American project and the continuity of Muslim identity are symbiotic, not opposed to each other. They are some of the leading intellectuals in contemporary Islam, and they spend an enormous amount of time running seminars for Muslim college students and retreats for young Muslim leaders. One of their counterparts in Britain, Zaki Badawi (who died in January 2006), spent a lifetime trying to address the challenge of nurturing Muslim identity in the West but knew only too well that the type of leadership he exemplified was all too rare in Britain. When Tony Blair asked him and a group of other senior Muslim leaders why radicals such as Sheikh Omar were so effective with young people, Badawi said, “The young people who believe in him, we do not have access to them.” The truth is, not enough Muslim leaders are trying.

A young Muslim who worked at a corner shop in Leeds expressed the same frustration from his perspective: “The older generations and the younger ones just don’t talk like you think they should. Extremists don’t walk into mosques and say ‘Excuse me, would you like to join me in blowing up London?’ It just doesn’t work that way.” What he meant was that extremists take the time and energy to build strong relationships with young Muslims, while too many members of the established older generation don’t even try to connect.

Reading this, I could not help but think of a funeral I had attended for the mother of a twenty-year-old Muslim friend. Sohail was sleeping when a neighbor knocked on the door and said that his mother, an active woman in her fifties, was lying on the front lawn. She had had a heart attack while shoveling snow off the driveway. [The imam’s] sermon at the burial consisted of this statement: “This woman was a good Muslim and taught Qur’an and Hadith to her children. You must follow her example and teach Islam to your children.” Not a word of comfort about the spiritual meaning of death and the afterlife in Islam. Only a short, cold command. During the most difficult time in Sohail’s life, his religious leader failed him. If Sohail ever had a question about faith, the absolute last person he would seek out is this man.

I was lucky. My free fall was stopped by the YMCA. Since my mother had started working, I had been in afterschool care and summer camp at the B. R. Ryall YMCA in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the suburb of Chicago where I was raised. Kids who wouldn’t talk to me in school befriended me at the Y. One day, when my parents were especially late picking my brother and me up, I decided to walk home. I never stopped to think that I didn’t have a key. I was on the roof of my house removing my bedroom window when I heard frantic shouting from the driveway. It was my father and several of the Y staff. They had been driving around Glen Ellyn for the past hour looking for me. My dad was furious. He explained that my impulsiveness had worried and inconvenienced a lot of people. I was a little scared going to camp the next day. But Sheila, one of the camp counselors, rubbed my head and said, “I tired my feet out looking for you, kiddo. Man, I’m glad we found you. You’re one of my favorites here, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” I almost jumped into her arms.

As I grew older, my camp counselors encouraged me to join the Leaders Club, a YMCA group for teenagers that focused on volunteering as a key to leadership development. If Y camp was where I first discovered I could be liked, the Central Region Leaders School is where I first recognized I could create and contribute. People were always asking me to take charge of something. Staff members sought my advice on how to deal with troubled participants. I was asked to give nominating speeches for people running for president of Leaders School and was elected to the council one year myself.

The YMCA’s secret is simple; it stems from a genuine love of young people. The conventional wisdom is that young people are scrambling for their place in the world. It’s not a place young people need so much as a role, an opportunity to be powerful, a chance to shape their world. And so the YMCA nudges them in the direction of leadership) – fourteen-year-olds in charge of ten-year-olds at camp, college students coaching high school basketball teams.

At Leaders School, we sang a song called “Pass It On.” It uses the metaphor of fire to speak about the sharing of religious faith. I would sing it around the house for weeks after Leaders School was over. In one of the moments when my father was feeling especially righteous about his “Muslimness,” I overheard him expressing concern to my mother that the YMCA, which was after all the Young Men’s Christian Association, was teaching us Christian songs. “Do you think they are trying to teach Christianity to our kids?” he asked, the tone of his voice a kind of auditory chest thumping.

“I hope so,” my mother responded. “I hope they teach the kids Jewish and Hindu songs, too. That’s the kind of Muslims we want our kids to be.”

In that offhand reply, overheard when I was a teenager, my mother guessed the arc of my life.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on