Jonathan Raban: Jihad on the high street

It is easy to dismiss the bombers as evil and mad, says Jonathan Raban. But they walk our streets and have more in common with us than we might admit. Acknowledging that, and engaging with their ideas, is the way to defeat them
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The Independent Online

It was a striking fact that the 9/11 hijackers - Mohammed Atta, Hani Hanjour, and co - learned their brand of murderous revolutionism not in the Middle East, where they grew up, but in the West, where they were students. In particular, they congregated in the polyglot suburb of Harburg, south of the river from Hamburg, a place that in its social and economic make-up looks a lot like the shabbier bits of industrial West Yorkshire, or Tulse Hill, or Streatham - that unpicturesque terrain of flats, terraced family housing, betting shops, malodorous hairdressers', ethnic groceries and restaurants, stalled traffic, broken pavements, boarded-up shop fronts, the amiable muddle of gimcrack domestic and commercial architecture dating from the 1880s to the near-present. Nowhere could be more Western in its style of down-at-heel free enterprise. This is the landscape of lax secular capitalism, out of which people - many of them recent immigrants - have quarried their own small communities, where indigent loners can easily find a room to let, the natural habitat of the eccentric sect or coterie. Anything goes. Pluralism reigns. When the ailing newsagent-tobacconist closes down, it might morph overnight into an "adult" video store, a kebab house, a shop selling tropical fish, a £1-an-hour internet café, or the kind of improvised mini-mosque where Atta and his colleagues sat at the feet of their fire-breathing imam. Here's modern democracy, cheap and cheerful: so long as you can pay the rent, you can pretty much do and think as you please. Of the 9/11 attackers, George Bush blandly proclaimed, "They hate us for our freedoms." The modest urban freedoms of, say, Streatham Hill, a favourite stamping ground of mine, since I usually stay two blocks west of it when I'm in London (and was saddened to see it recently come top in a poll to find Britain's worst street), are as essential and basic as any we enjoy.

Yet such freedoms - "the West" in its most everyday and palpable form - have aroused disdain and revulsion in quarters far removed from those usually associated with Salafist jihadis. In 1964, when Sayyid Qutb published Milestones, the primary inspirational book of the jihad movement, he drew as much on the conservative literature of the West as on the teachings of Islamic fundamentalists. Qutb, an Egyptian who achieved "martyrdom" in 1966, when he was executed by President Nasser, began his professional life as a literary scholar and teacher. For his generation of foreign students of English, the great modern poem was T S Eliot's The Waste Land, and the required reading on modern Western culture included such grim jeremiads as Spengler's Decline of the West, Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, and Arnold Toynbee's doorstopping, 10-volume A Study of History. Qutb's disgust with what he called "this rubbish heap of the West" (was he, I wonder, consciously trying to echo Eliot's question, central to The Waste Land, "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?"?) reflected a powerful vein of Western literary thinking. The West was morally bankrupt and degenerate. Mass democracy was in the process of destroying the order on which a healthy civilisation depends. Profane, insolent, chaotic, lost to its own history and culture, the Christian West was rotting from within and going the way of the ruined civilisations of the past, from the Minoans to the Romans. As Eliot wrote, in lines that kept on running through my mind on the morning of 11 September 2001:

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London


Qutb's peculiar genius was to make a combustible link between such a very Western, pessimistic, and apocalyptic vision of the West's decline with the specifically Islamic notion of jahiliyyah - the condition of ignorance, selfishness, depravity and godlessness that existed in Arabia before the saving arrival of the prophet Mohamed. Adroitly collapsing the 20th into the seventh century, he found in modern America (where he spent two lonely years, filled with contempt for what he saw there) the same state of repulsive jahiliyyah from which the Arabs had been rescued by divine revelation in the shape of the Koran. Up to this point, Qutb's thinking remained in tune with that of many Western literary modernists: Eliot and Spengler, one feels, might have relished the jahiliyyah analogy as an interesting Arab response to their work. But to his cross-cultural musings, Qutb added the toxin of a romantic call to arms. Faced with the waste land, or rubbish heap, he called on his readers to destroy it. "Prepare for jihad and become lovers of death." Eliot's poem ends, obscurely, with an invocation of peace from the Upanishads ("Shantih shantih shantih"): Milestones is a declaration of holy warfare. Its first major fruit was the student movement that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran in 1979, and Qutb's ghost hovers all too perceptibly over 9/11 and the Madrid, London, and Sharm el Sheikh bombings. If you search the website of the Iqra bookshop in Leeds (, where Sidique Khan met with his little flock of adherents, you'll find a glowing tribute to Qutb under "Personalities". He and Malcolm X are the only modern Muslims to be so honoured.

The Iqra (Arabic for "read") bookshop, said to be squashed between a kebab place and an electrician's, is probably a relatively innocent part of the London story, but it's interesting that, as in Conrad, bookshops always figure in the lives of revolutionaries, for we're dealing with people who are, or were, intellectuals of a sort: students, or sometime students, with big transforming ideas on their minds. To call them "religious fanatics", "evil", "mad", is a natural consoling reflex, but it evades the fact that they are much more familiar figures than we would like them to be, these secret sharers who were devotees of cricket, football, bodybuilding, were caring teachers, fathers, husbands, who looked as if they were having the time of their lives when they went white-water rafting in Bala only last month. What distinguishes them is that they fell in thrall, as students will, to an intoxicating idea that seemed to explain the world - an idea that has evolved a long way since Qutb's Milestones but which has its roots in that 40-year-old classic of radical Islamism.

It's harder now than it was a few years ago to get into the Islamist mindset because so many websites (like that of Al-Muhajiroun) have either been removed from the net or gone into a cyber-underground where inquisitive outsiders can't reach them. Some remain, like Hizb ut Tahrir ( and, to my mind, the most informative of all, Nida'ul Islam (, a magazine published in Lakemba, a Sydney suburb that appears, from all I can find out about it, to be much like Australia's answer to Streatham Hill.

Nida'ul Islam bills itself as "an intellectual magazine", and so it is: to judge by its writing, it's the work of fluent (probably Australian-born) graduate students who are on at least as easy terms with Western literature and politics as they are with Arabic Koranic scholars. It has featured long interviews with revolutionary heroes (including Osama bin Laden), along with dense situational analyses of the hotspots of the Islamic world, from North Africa around the globe to the Philippines. Browsing through its back issues is an eerie experience because its language, though utterly familiar for the most part, has never been seen in the same publication, let alone on the same page or in the same sentence. Its tirades on the moral degeneracy of the West are part of the banal stock-in-trade of our own far right, while its (sometimes quite astute) assaults on Western imperialism might come straight from the mouths of our own far left. It's as if articles from The Salisbury Review and the Socialist Worker had got inextricably mixed up at the printers'. The religious content - references to the Koran and the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), to shirk (idolatry), kufr (unbelief), deen (religion, or way of life), ummah (community of believers), haram (unlawful) - seems more like the obligatory spicing of the dish than the dish itself, which is a philosophy of revolution, at once Marxist and ultra-reactionary.

Yet it is not incoherent. Its two-pronged hatred of the West, from right and left, is dangerously lucid, and it's not hard to imagine disaffected young men hugging this rhetoric to themselves as if it contained the revelatory secret to the perplexing mystery of the world they live in. Add God to the mixture, a sense of divine approbation, and one can see the seductive power of what Nida'ul Islam calls "the jihad strain". One can also guess at the total bewilderment of most of those young men's elders if they were to read the magazine, whose superior, jargon-scattered, insiderish political tone is impossibly remote from the ordinary practice of Islam, if only because it smacks so off-puttingly of the more questionable benefits of Western higher education.

One consistent theme in all the attacks launched by Islamist revolutionaries is that they have freely availed themselves of Western materials to use against the West. The 9/11 hijackers turned Seattle-built Boeing jetliners into weapons of mass destruction. The London bombers used TATP (nicknamed "mother of Satan") as their explosive - apparently one can buy all its necessary ingredients, such as drain cleaner and bleach, at Tesco, though you'd probably need a BSc in chemistry to successfully assemble it. The same principle applies to their ideas: most are off-the-shelf items from the Western intellectual hypermarket, from their adaptation of the patrician high modernist line on the decadence of the West ito their Frantz Fanon-like advocacy of violence as the answer to colonial oppression. Such ideas alone would lead to nothing much more than groups of students sitting about glumly in cafés, agreeing on the injustice and rottenness of the world, and of course the detonator is a feverish and self-aggrandising kind of religious belief, a raging thirst for martyrdom. A fellow passenger described how one of the 21 July would-be bombers carefully laid his body over his rucksack in order to embrace the blast that would transport him to eternity. That shocking movement, at least, doesn't come out of the West but out of the dark and twisted extremities of Salafism and its glamourisation of death in jihad.

It's this explosive combination of potent, essentially Western ideas and fervent supernatural belief, the Milestones formula, which we now confront - not an exotic alien import but a hybrid that can spring up almost anywhere in the tackier quarters of our own cities, whose whole character lies in their mongrel, disorderly heterogeneity, and where everything and everybody tend to get mixed up with everything and everybody else. To the student revolutionist, his home streets are living symbols of the Western decadence he has learned to despise, clear evidence of the truth of the message delivered to him via book, imam or internet. Here - let's call it Streatham Hill - is all the impurity and corruption, the new jahiliyyah, of the degenerate West.

And so it is with the issue of Iraq. Tony Blair is surely right on technical, and somewhat Clintonian, grounds when he insists that British involvement in the US-led occupation is not the "cause" of the London bombings. What Iraq has supplied, to a Qutbist movement that long predates September 2001, is a whopping pretext. Every photograph from Abu Ghraib, every story coming out of Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, every video of children killed in the early stages of the invasion or wedding party under aerial bombardment, gives further flesh to the idea of the West as a brutal imperial oppressor.

That these basic ideas, at least in their non-violent form, are relatively wide-rooted in the British Muslim community at large was illustrated by a YouGov poll commissioned by the Telegraph and published there on 23 July. Although 77 per cent of Muslims questioned thought the 7 July bombings were "not justified at all", 6 per cent thought they were "on balance justified". To the question "Do you personally have any sympathy with the feelings and motives of those who carried out the bombings?" 13 per cent answered, "Yes, a lot", and 11 per cent said "Yes, a little"; 31 per cent agreed with the statement "Western society is decadent and immoral, and Muslims should seek to bring it to an end, but only by non-violent means."

Although violence as the answer to Western decadence is overwhelmingly rejected (just 1 per cent were for it), the broad terms of the Qutbist argument seem to be approved by nearly a third of all Muslims questioned - a much bigger slice than most of us might have expected.

Critical to the self-identity of the terrorist, however good or bad his cause, is the conviction that he's engaged in a just war. In Under Western Eyes, Haldin the assassin (and Conrad makes us believe that his motives are to be admired) says, "Don't make a mistake, Razumov. This is not murder - it is war, war." Repugnant as it may now seem to us, one can hear Sidique Khan saying exactly the same thing. To the jihadis, Iraq has lent a degree of plausibility, largely absent before the invasion, to their concept of just warfare.

At the end of the speech in which he exempts himself from murder, Haldin marvels sadly over how he became a reluctant assassin, driven to the "weary work" of killing: "The Russian soul that lives in all of us ... has a mission, I tell you, or else why should I have been moved to do this - reckless - like a butcher - in the middle of all these innocent people - scattering death - I! I! ... I wouldn't hurt a fly!"

That, too, from all we know about him, might have been said by Khan, the supposed ringleader and "recruiter" of the 7 July gang. One must take seriously the extraordinary testimonial to him, issued after the bombings by Sarah Balfour, the head teacher of Hillside Primary School in Beeston, where Khan had worked as a learning mentor.

"He was great with the children and they all loved him. He did so much for them, helping and supporting them and running extra clubs and activities. Sidique was a real asset to the school and always showed 100 per cent commitment."

The Khan remembered by Balfour would not have hurt a fly (as so many friends and relatives have said of both the 9/11 hijackers and the London bombers). Like Haldin, he appears to have been driven to out-of-character butchery by an ungovernable idea that somehow lodged itself in his otherwise sound heart.

Last week, Tony Blair made an admirable statement: "We are not going to deal with this problem, with the roots as deep as they are, until we confront these people at every single level - and not just their methods but their ideas."

It is a great step forward to acknowledge that the jihadis have ideas, an intellectual framework for their bloody missions, and are not motivated, as the Bush administration stubbornly continues to insist, by a spirit of pure evil for evil's sake. Arguing with people's supernatural delusions is a losing game. But ideas are different. Ideas are negotiable: one can expose their false premises, concede their partial truth, disentangle their conclusions, rob them of their magic by the force of sweet reason. From what we know of the life stories of some of the London bombers, as of Hani Hanjour, the 9/11 hijacker, there's enough evidence to suggest that they would have been grateful, in a Haldin-like way, to have been liberated from the ideas that fatally infected them. With these particular ideas, we ought to be reasonably deft at helping to unravel them, since so many of them are - or were, in their original untwisted form - our own.

Jonathan Raban's 'My Holy War: Dispatches from The Home Front' - a collection of post-September 11 essays - will be published in November