<preform>Faith & Reason: My friend the suicide bomber was a gentle Sufi mystic</preform>

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The Independent Online

This week, Muslims around the world will be celebrating Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed. As a child I remember its being a day of happiness and of, literally, singing for joy. As an adult it has become a sacred occasion; a time to celebrate being Muslim and to thank God for the Messenger who delivered the message of Islam. Every year, like many others, I meet up with friends and family at the local mosque to join in the celebrations. But, this year, things will be different. The local mosque is no longer just a place of worship. It is the place where my husband last met his friend Asif Mohammed Hanif, the young man from Hounslow who is thought to be responsible for the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

This week, Muslims around the world will be celebrating Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed. As a child I remember its being a day of happiness and of, literally, singing for joy. As an adult it has become a sacred occasion; a time to celebrate being Muslim and to thank God for the Messenger who delivered the message of Islam. Every year, like many others, I meet up with friends and family at the local mosque to join in the celebrations. But, this year, things will be different. The local mosque is no longer just a place of worship. It is the place where my husband last met his friend Asif Mohammed Hanif, the young man from Hounslow who is thought to be responsible for the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

That meeting was nearly six months ago, but it seems like just yesterday. It was New Year's Eve, and the mosque had arranged a spiritual gathering based on the tradition of Mawlid, to provide an alternative for those who preferred not to be popping corks at the stroke of midnight. There, a group of Muslims, including Asif Hanif and many of my friends, spent the night in remembrance of God and his Messenger. It was a mystical night of prayer and recitation that attracted those seeking a sense of inner peace and spiritual nourishment through the meditative practices of the Sufi tradition.

This was the tradition with which, as far as all the evidence shows, Asif Hanif was associated. In both his religious inclination and his personal disposition, Asif was inclined to gentleness. As far as character analysis and religious motivation reveals, there was no evidence to indicate that Asif could one day become attracted to violence. For me, this very fact is evidence that suicide bombers are of no particular type or grouping. They are, quite simply, reacting in an outrageous way to an outrageous situation.

The act of suicide bombing as we understand it now does not have its roots in religion but in political movements such as that of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, most of whose members are Hindus, who have historically carried out far more suicide attacks than any Muslims or Palestinians. The search for the Islamic roots of this 21st-century phenomenon is therefore senseless, as is the attempt to understand it in a purely strategic manner. The question "What leads an ordinary British Muslim to go to the Middle East and blow himself and others up?" cannot be answered outside the Palestinian context.

British Muslims, when compared to their Palestinian brethren, live in relative luxury. As British passport-holders they also have the rare privilege of being allowed access to the holy places of pilgrimage in Palestine. But, once there, the reality of the Middle-East conflict hits home. I myself have yet to meet a single individual who has visited Palestine and been less than horrified at the treatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Having witnessed the severity of these atrocities, Muslims feel that their moral conscience, let alone their Islamic one, does not allow them to sit idle. They feel obliged to do anything they can to support the Palestinians who have only pebbles and their own lives to throw at the might of the Israeli army. When viewed in this context it becomes more conceivable that it was only a matter of time before a British Muslim who could not live with his conscience would decide to die with it.

And yet much of the British Muslim community leadership, it seems, is in complete denial about this reality. They continue to see suicide bombing as a kind of cult that attracts psychologically unstable individuals, disaffected youth or those brainwashed with distorted notions of Islamic martyrdom. The claim that anyone who can understand or condone suicide bombing belongs to a loony Muslim fringe group is simply not true. Regardless of their religious beliefs there are many who regard suicide bombers as martyrs. Even those who do not condone their action ought to be able to see the reasons for this veneration. When these individuals attack others, they, unlike the Israeli soldiers, do not emerge unscathed. Rather, they are willing to fight for their cause, without the security of a state army behind them, and even when the outcome is certain death.

Perhaps this description does not fit in with modern secular notions of heroism but this is a matter of personal conscience rather than social norm. The motivation of suicide bombers is not that different from that of say, Westerners who volunteer to become human shields in regions of conflict. Take for example Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist who worked for a non-violent organisation in Palestine. She was bulldozed in Rafah by an Israeli tank because she refused to allow the Israelis to demolish the house of a Palestinian doctor. She knew that she was putting her life in danger, and yet she chose to do so because she believed in the cause. Rachel was driven by her personal conscience, and that is not something confined to Muslims.

Palestine is clearly not just a Muslim issue and, by extension, suicide bombing can not be defined as a Muslim reaction. Perhaps the world will finally realise that only when such an action is instigated by a non-Muslim. With three Westerners shot or killed by the Israelis in recent days such a reaction might be nearer than many people imagine.

Shagufta Yaqub is editor of 'Q-News', the magazine for young British Muslims

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