The Jihadists Who Have Recanted


The Independent’s Johann Hari goes where others don’t. Read the whole, gripping, brilliant, beautifully written piece, the following exerts are just an introduction.

A wave of young British Islamists who trained to fight – who cheered as their friends bombed this country – have recanted. Now they are using everything they learned on the inside, to stop the jihad.

Seventeen former radical Islamists have “come out” in the past 12 months and have begun to fight back. Would they be able to tell me the reasons that pulled them into jihadism, and out again? Could they be the key to understanding – and defusing – Western jihadism? I have spent three months exploring their world and befriending their leading figures. Their story sprawls from forgotten English seaside towns to the jails of Egypt’s dictatorship and the icy mountains of Afghanistan – and back again.

The first story Johann recounts is that of the well-educated English Jihadist Usama Hassan, who was indoctrinated in Wahabbist Islam and spent the 1990s guiding other Muslims toward Jihad in Afghanistan and Bosnia. But Hassan’s fanaticism began to waver as he witnessed his fellow Jihadists killing one another. The 7/7 bombings in London shook him. The discrepancy between the world he had constructed in his head and the world his eyes and ears saw around him began to lead to the classic moment that many revolutionaries face as they contemplate the horror they have unleashed:

As he watched the news of the Luxor massacre in Egypt or Hamas suicide-bombings of pizzerias in Tel Aviv, “It just became more and more difficult to justify that.” He found himself thinking about the Jewish friends he had made at school. “They were just like me – human beings. And we had a lot in common. The dietary laws, and the identity issues, and the fear of racism.” As he heard the growing Islamist chants at demonstrations – “The Jews are the enemy of God,” they yelled – something, he says, began to sag inside him.

This critical insight from Johann’s piece on Western Jihadists explains how Guantanamo Bay was the biggest victory for Jihadism since 9/11. In fact, Cheney’s war crimes have endangered our civilization more profoundly than 9/11.

Once they had made that leap to identify with the Umma – the global Muslim community – they got angrier the more abusive our foreign policy came. Every one of them said the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: “You’d see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?”

But the converse was – they stressed – also true. When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War: “How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?” asks Hadiya.

Britain’s foreign policy also helped tug them towards Islamism in another way. Once these teenagers decided to go looking for a harder, tougher Islamist identity, they found a well-oiled state machine waiting to feed it. Usman Raja says: “Saudi literature is everywhere in Britain, and it’s free. When I started exploring my Muslim identity, when I was looking for something more, all the books were Saudi. In the bookshops, in the libraries. All of them. Back when I was fighting, I could go and get a car, open the boot up, and get it filled up with free literature from the Saudis, saying exactly what I believed. Who can compete with that?”

He says the Saudi message is particularly comforting to disorientated young Muslims in the West. “It tells you – you’re in this state of sin. But the sin doesn’t belong to you, it’s not your fault – it’s Western society’s fault. It isn’t your fault that you’re sinning, because the girl had the miniskirt on. It wasn’t you. It’s not your fault that you’re drug dealing. The music, your peers, the people around you – it’s their fault.”

This does not mean giving Islamism the slightest quarter; it does not mean avoiding an aggressive and persistent attempt to identify and monitor Jihadist groups and individuals; it does not mean softening a global campaign to find and target and if necessary kill Islamist enemies bent on our destruction. And it does not mean denying the real murderous intent of these people, or their vile anti-Semitism or their religious inspiration. It does mean using our strengths as a Western civilization to defang a corruption of true religious faith:

All of them said doubt began to seep in because they couldn’t shake certain basic realities from their minds. The first and plainest was that ordinary Westerners were not the evil, Muslim-hating cardboard kaffir presented by the Wahabis.

Usman, for one, finally stopped wanting to be a suicide bomber because of the kindness of an old white man.

Usman’s mother had moved in next door to an elderly man called Tony, who was known in the neighbourhood as a spiteful, nasty grump. One day, Usman was teaching his little brother to box in the garden when he noticed the old man watching him from across the fence. “I used to box when I was in the Navy,” he said. He started to give them tips and before long, he was building a boxing ring in their shed.

Tony died not long before 9/11, and Usman was sent to help clear out his belongings. In Tony’s closet, he found a present wrapped and ready for his little brother’s birthday: a pair of boxing gloves. “And I thought – that is humanity right there. That’s an aspect of the divine that’s in every human being. How can I want to kill people like him? How can I call him kaffir?”

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