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

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup