Why exactly did the Columbine killers decide to murder in cold blood their school mates? Or what are the motivations in any of the other cases of school shootings? How do kids from a suburban family, with all the trappings of a normal existence decide to become deadly packages of terror? I ask because the biggest question on my mind is why did the Leeds 3 [not 4, as I originally thought] did what they did? They were all British. They were all of Pakistani descent. They were all Muslims. Is it ordained that only in those indices of identities an answer must be found? So, let’s question what it means to be British. Let’s figure out what destructive gene is carried by Pakistanis and let’s identify the virus that is Islam [let me guess, salafi, wahabi, sunni craze?]. My point is not that terrorism is akin to random violence in the school or workplace but that we need to cast a wider glance at the instances of social violence, if we are to try and figure out the Leeds 4. We have to question the assumptions that we are making about the terrorists and their actions. We have to question the narrative that is dominating policy and public.
Let me try this columnist trick of pop-culture philosophy: One movie about terrorism that gives us hints towards understanding the Leeds 4 is 1999’s The Matrix. Its protagonist, Anderson, has a pretty ordinary existence. He lives just below the radar, quietly. He has a disquieting feeling that the majority world-view is somehow off-kilter; that there is something wrong with the world; that he doesn’t really belong. He has heard of this terrorist who preaches some terrible truth. He is curious. Eventually, the terrorist, Morpheus, makes contact with Anderson and offers to tell him the truth. He offers him the red pill which frees his body/mind from the lies around him. He becomes one of the chosen few who have the capacity to see, and fight, the world. What about the innocent people who live in this world? he asks. They cannot be saved, he is told. “That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Business people, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy.” Anderson buys the whole argument. It makes sense to him. He is part of the select few, the cell, the chosen one. He belongs, finally. No one can harass him anymore. He can, and does, kill indiscriminately because everyone is, after all, the enemy.
Jihadists tell a similar narrative. They convince the foot-soldiers that reality is a cryptic illusion and that it is their narrative red pill which unpacks the hidden meaning [and hidden atrocities] in this reality. This jihadist narrative has its pivotal moments – the 1967 war, the Afghanistan struggle, Kashmir, and now, the Iraq War. This narrative is driven by the language of faith and religion but that is almost incidental. This narrative uses two primary techniques of manipulation: shame and helplessness. Shame from subjugation, from moral decadence, from a fall from grace. Helplessness from lack of access to real power, from secrets and groups who control all events. It is a cyclical and highly repetitive narrative that continously stresses the victories of Israel or the US. It proves those feelings of disquiet were right. That the racism had a reason. That the powerlessness came from a source. And it says that the destruction of those responsible – the Zionists and the Imperialists – can only come by annihilation of the self while engaged in a war – an asymmetrical war that targets innocent civilians, who are the enemy. This narrative concerns itself with a particular and peculiar historical past – a specific teleology. The Islam it presents is fundamentally and intentionally flawed. The structures it uses to propogate – madrasas or mosques or communes – are blindingly hierarchical so that no one can ever ask for information not deemed necessary. As to their objectives – they are concrete and designed towards political hegemony. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all equally invalid. Remember, they are all enemies.
Olivier Roy or Nazih Ayubi’s work has consistently pointed out that the jihadists [Roy’s neofundamentalists] come from middle class families and are almost always under the age of 30. They point towards disenfranchisment, sexualization of society, and alienation as pivotal factors in their initial attraction of these young men and women towards the jihadists. The Leeds 4 – “normal” kids all – bought the narrative because maybe they were all susceptible in those ways. Maybe the pitch was made in a local mosque or in a kebab house or on the cricket ground. Maybe they got further training in a madrasa. The question we have to ask is why? Why did they buy that particular narrative? Why not any of the many other narratives that would explain their lives? What are those alternative narratives?
The flip-coin of my question is why isn’t every British Muslim of Pakistani descent in Leeds not a suicide bomber? Obviously because there is no magical seduction in the jihadist narrative. Yet, it remains a challenge for all of us who believe in the liberal ideals to seriously engage with it. It should not be dissmissed as ahistorical or unmodern. The liberal response of secularization or modernization is not only pat and inadequate but wrong. The WH response of Gitmo or Abu Gharib or Fallujah is just more grist for the mill. The jihadist narrative can easily be shown to lack basic structures of truth and logic and built on expoitation – yet, the flashpoints of Palestine or Kashmir still need tangible justice; dictatorships still need unbuttressing. We have to address the selling-pitch points squarely. No way around it. Still, it can be effectively countered by other narratives of Islamic, South Asian or diasporic pasts. But, we have to highlight those narratives – we have to fill the vending machines of history with them. We have to have answers based on justice when asked what is wrong with this world. The “we” is not just the Muslim community but all who construct and consume daily narratives – from No. 10 Downing Street to BBC to Friday Imams. Above all, we cannot dismiss religion – we have to take the believers, and their faith, seriously. How? Later, maybe.