Victoria Clark: The scientific face behind terror

We shouldn't be surprised that Abdulla could have been a doctor

Share
Related Topics

Why are we so surprised to find that the two men hell-bent on killing themselves and as many innocent bystanders as they could in London and Glasgow airport last summer – Bilal Abdulla, sentenced to life imprisonment yesterday, and Kafeel Ahmed, who died of wounds sustained during the attacks – were an NHS doctor and a PhD student of engineering who met in Cambridge?

We were kidding ourselves if we ever allowed ourselves to believe that Islamist fundamentalist activism was confined to the marginalised, unemployed members of our Muslim community. One look at the backgrounds of the al-Qa'ida leadership and the masterminds of 9/11 should have been enough to dispel any illusion that al-Qa'ida is just a toxic by-product of ignorance, irrationality and poverty.

Higher education, above all in science and technology, has proved an excellent incubator of violent Islamic fundamentalism. Osama bin Laden himself briefly and reluctantly studied for an economics degree, but his second in command, the Egyptian who is often billed as the real brains, boasts an MA in surgery.

As early as 1981 this Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri was blithely compromising his Hippocratic oath by using his clinic as a terrorists' arms depot. A Yemeni Islamist leader whom the US has labelled a "specially designated global terrorist" for his alleged involvement in fund-raising for al-Qa'ida, is a revered and altruistic scientist in his homeland; Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani claims to have found cures for Aids, diabetes and two types of hepatitis.

Mohammad Atta, one of the pilots who attacked the World Trade Centre, was studying urban planning at Hamburg Technical University, "a skilled but not creative draughtsman" by one account. The Kuwaiti who masterminded the 9/11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, had a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina.

A link can be made between an exclusively scientific education and religious fundamentalism of any kind, as I discovered recently while researching American Christian fundamentalism. Such Christians – "the Armageddon crowd", as they are popularly known – were reading their Bibles as they would computer manuals, in expectation of finding exactly the same quality of factual information. No allowances were being made for the political context in which the text was written, and nor was there any understanding of the uses of metaphor, symbolism, poetry or propaganda.

In her book The Battle for God (2000), the religious historian Karen Armstrong accounts for this phenomenon. She identifies a failure to differentiate between two modes, between the "mythos" and the "logos" – between the language and uses of poetry, and those of a medical student's text book, for example – as lying at the root of every religious fundamentalist's error.

It seems to me that behind this cardinal error lies not stupidity, material disadvantage or lack of education, but a deep yearning for control. If the American Christians I met expect their literal reading of Bible prophecy to make them feel securely in-the-know about the future, the likes of Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed dream of wielding as much power to change the world as they do to heal a patient or design a machine.

The author's 'Allies for Armageddon: A History of Christian Zionism' is published by Yale

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend