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Made in Britain

Jul. 31, 2005

Made in Britain
A fatal failure to identify with this nation or the country of their parents turns young Muslims to Islamic extremism, writes Aatish Taseer
It is not hard to imagine what the Leeds suburb of Beeston was like before it became known that three of London’s Tube bombers worked or lived there. For someone like me — a Punjabi with parents from each side of the India-Pakistan border — the streets here reveal a pre-partition mixture of Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs.

Men in shalwar kurta (traditional dress from the subcontinent) stand on street corners chatting as if in a bazaar in Lahore. They oppose Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, they “hate” America, they might even think the West has united in a fight against Muslims; but these are not the faces of extremism. Their involvement in 7/7 is a generational one: they have raised the young men who are the genus most susceptible to Islamic extremism in this country — the second- generation British Pakistanis.

One appears next to his father on a street corner. Unlike his father there is nothing about his appearance that indicates he is a Punjabi Muslim. An Arabisation has occurred: he is wearing long Arab robes and keeps a beard cut to Islamic specification. I ask him why he is dressed that way.

“It’s my traditional dress,” he says in English.

“Isn’t your father in traditional dress?” I ask.

“Yes, but this is Islamic dress,” he clarifies. His father looks embarrassed. A man standing next to me jokes of how he complained to his neighbour that his son never did any work and the neighbour said: “You think that’s bad, mine’s grown a beard and become a bloody maulvi (priest).”

As a half-Indian, half-Pakistani with British citizenship, I have observed the gulf between what it means to be British Pakistani and British Indian. To be Indian is to come from a safe, ancient country and, more recently, from an emerging power. In contrast, to be Pakistani is to begin with a depleted idea of nationhood. In the almost 58 years that Pakistan has been a country, it has been a dangerous, violent place defined by hatred of the other — India. Its national image has been tarnished.

For young British Muslims, if Pakistan was not the place to look for an identity, being second-generation British was less inspiring. While their parents were pioneers, leaving Pakistan in search of economic opportunities, the second generation’s experience has been one of drudgery and confusion.

The owner of a convenience store on Stratford Street in Beeston, who knew the bombers, said: “They were born and raised here, we did the work and these kids grew up and they haven’t had a day’s worry. They’re bored, they don’t do any work, they have no sense of honour or belonging.”

While their parents’ generation was consumed with the challenge of building a life from scratch in Britain, they had far more time to consider and eventually doubt its purpose.

When our Tube bombers were growing up, any notion that an idea of Britishness should be imposed on minorities was seen as offensive. Unlike in America, where minorities wear their acquired national identity with great pride, Britons were having a hard time believing in Britishness.

If you denigrate your culture you face the risk of your newer arrivals looking for one elsewhere. So far afield in this case that for many second-generation British Pakistanis the desert culture of the Arabs held more appeal than either British or subcontinental culture. Three times removed from a durable sense of identity, the energised extra-national world view of radical Islam became one available identity for second-generation Pakistanis. The few who took it did so with the convert’s zeal.

The older generation of Beeston is mystified as to where some of their children found this identity. By all accounts it was not in the mosque. I met Maulana Munir of the Stratford Street mosque which, according to some newspapers, was attended by the London bombers. A small, soft-spoken man, he said he had never known them.

“This younger generation,” he said, “are owners of their own will. They come when they like, they don’t when they don’t like. The mosque is not responsible for these people.”

Hassan Butt, the young British Pakistani who was a spokesman for the extremist group Al-Muhajiroun and active in recruiting people to fight in Afghanistan, embodies this journey from frustration and rootlessness to radical Islam. What he found has made him an ardent supporter of “martyrdom actions” and he is a martyr aspirant himself.

The world Butt describes before he was approached, at the age of 17, by members of the Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir, was one in which “hot-headedness” was leading people around him “down a path of destruction” involving drugs, crime and prostitution. It was a world out of order, lacking prescriptive force of any kind. Islam reinstated a social equilibrium in his life.

The radicalised version of Islam that Butt found filled the vacuum that the absence of national identity had left. He was no longer part of the condition he described when he said: “The majority who I know of Pakistani descent are really fed up with the British way of life, British standards. They are even fed up with the Pakistani culture and traditions that are un-Islamic.”

The resulting antipathy for nationhood was immense. He parted ways with Omar Sheikh Bakri and Al-Muhajiroun because they supported the Islamic idea of a “covenant of security”, by which Muslims in Britain are forbidden from any type of military action in Britain. The principle behind the covenant is that if a country plays host to you, it is un-Islamic to strike against it.

While Butt believed that military action against Britain would be unwise for the practical reason that it would jeopardise the protection that Londonistan was offering radical Muslims, he could not tolerate the position that it was un-Islamic.

“Especially now,” he told me. “With Afghanistan gone, the Muslims don’t really have a place where they can come back to, regroup and have time to think and relax without the authorities breathing down their necks.”

He felt that the covenant did not apply to British Muslims as they were born here and did not enter by any choice of their own into a pact: “I am not in favour of military action in Britain, but if somebody did do it who was British, I would not have any trouble with it. Islamically it would be my duty to support and praise their action.”

So great was Butt’s antipathy for nationhood that even the fact of his British citizenship was an encumbrance rather than a privilege. “My allegiance is to Allah,” he said, “his sharia, his way of life. Whatever he dictates as good is good, whatever he dictates as bad is bad.”

These diktats are not simply a matter of private belief, they pave the way for a new extra-national identity with political ambitions. Hizbut Tahrir made no secret of the fact that its goal was the re- establishment of the caliphate, or a central Islamic order in Muslim countries. For Butt, however, this was not enough. Once he had accepted Islam into his life, his ambition for it was limitless.

“Fourteen hundred years ago,” he told me, “you had a small city state in Medina and within 10 years of the prophet it spread to Egypt and all the way into Persia. I don’t see why the rest of the world, the White House, 10 Downing Street, shouldn’t come under the banner of Islam.”

I was reminded of Butt’s cold hatred for Britain when a colleague of mine said that in her conversations with members of Beeston’s younger generation barely a week after the London bombings they were saying, “Well, what is the difference between Al-Qaeda and MI5 anyway?” and “It’s sad that people have died, but what about the ones who died in Iraq?”

There it was again, the great extra-national sentiment where no nation matters save the Islamic nation and its Arab culture.

What worried me when I went to Beeston and met some of its youth was that although they formed a small section even of Pakistani society, they were so susceptible to the advances of groups such as Hizbut Tahrir.

A shopkeeper cited a government-funded youth centre as a place where “something underground was going on”. He meant the Hamara youth centre, which the Beeston bombers attended. With Butt’s story in my head, the format was familiar. The first meetings of angry youth with almost definitely an outside organisation, the extra-national glue of Islam to bind the group together, the ever-expanding sense of grievance inflamed with propaganda, the inevitable decision to act. It could happen to youth anywhere, but the risk is greatest where the national identity is eroded, the challenges of life unrewarding and the doctrine all encompassing.

The kids I met in Beeston were not in the mood to ask questions. Their rage came first. They bandied around words such as Iraq and Palestine, but were often badly informed and felt no kinship with other non-Muslim Britons who were also angry about these issues. It suited them better to think of it as a unified attack on Islam linking unconnected conflicts ranging from Kashmir to Palestine. The version of Islam they had found did not allow for much questioning.

In a climate where so many aspects of identity have been thrown into doubt, those who find radical Islam must be relieved that it leaves so few of them room for questions; it is part of its completeness. When I asked Butt about a moderate view of Islam, he said triumphantly: “You’ve hit the nail on its head. If somebody believes that it’s the incontestable word of Allah, how can he then take a moderate view?”

Radical Islam is a global phenomenon drawing recruits from all varieties of desperate conditions and last week’s events have shown Somali and Eritrean communities to be vulnerable to its appeal, too. However, British second-generation Pakistanis, because of their sheer numbers and singular estrangement, are most vulnerable. They have been hardest hit by the great population changes of the past 50 years and the alienation that came with them.

They have rallied behind a banner and created a fantastic sense of grievance. As long as it exists they can channel all their anger and frustration into it. When they are done chasing absurd dreams of restored caliphates, there is always martyrdom.

“For me there is nothing bigger,” said Butt, “if somebody goes out there militarily and fights for the sake of Allah and kills for the sake of Allah and is killed for the sake of Allah — nothing bigger any Muslim can do.” In Beeston I met many with his makings: small, uprooted lives after bigger things.