New Internationalist

On the street

Issue 370

Shaista Aziz examines what’s inciting young Western Muslims.

I’m a 28-year-old Muslim woman, educated, professional and part of mainstream British society. In 2002, I packed my bags and headed for the occupied Palestinian territories to participate in jihad. I was motivated by my strong belief in Islam and anger and despair at the continuing human rights violations inflicted upon the Palestinians.

I spent time in the refugee camps of Balata and Jenin in the West Bank and the sprawling slums of Khan Younis and Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Hoping that my presence as a British national would help patients pass through Israeli checkpoints, I accompanied ambulance drivers and paramedics. I worked with Palestinian women who had set up income-generating projects in refugee camps.

My jihad – my personal journey to learn more about the struggle of my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters – enabled me to have direct contact with Palestinian and Israeli activists working towards establishing a just peace for both sets of people, and also brought me closer to my faith.

It’s the duty of every Muslim to engage in jihad. The word literally means ‘struggle’ and is very rarely used correctly by the Western media who believe it only means ‘holy war’.

There are two levels of jihad: the greater jihad is what every Muslim should be striving for – the quest to follow through with their faith in all aspects of their daily lives and the ongoing internal struggle to become a stronger Muslim, a more compassionate and kinder human. The lesser jihad is the duty of all Muslims to protect one’s religion and people, and if needs be take up arms to do so.

It was the same strong belief in Islam that motivated two other British Muslims to travel to Israel in April last year and engage in what they perceived as their jihad. Omar Sharif, 27 and Asif Hanif, 21 were recruited by the armed Palestinian group Hamas to travel to Tel-Aviv where it is believed they assembled bombs that they later strapped to their torsos. Hanif detonated his bomb outside a busy bar in the city, killing himself and three others and injuring 65. Sharif’s bomb failed to detonate and he fled from the scene. His body was found 12 days later in the sea off the Israeli coast.

Earlier this year Hamas released a video showing the two young men holding rifles and dressed in combat gear. This was the first time that Hamas had used foreigners to carry out an attack inside Israel. The group claims there are many more Muslims born and bred in the West, waiting to carry out similar attacks. But what makes them so inclined?

Jamal (not his real name) is a British Pakistani in his early twenties. He arrived in England seven years ago from Pakistan to marry a distant cousin. Jamal found himself drifting into drink and drugs. ‘I was lost. I was out all the time going from one nightclub to another and drinking all the time. I knew that I was moving away from Islam and I began to hate myself.’ Jamal’s marriage to his cousin was called off, he was thrown out of the extended family home. ‘I moved to London where I found a job in a fast-food place and made some friends. Most of them were practising Muslims who attended the mosque and led clean lives like my friends back home. I felt happier and safer around them and gave up drinking and smoking weed.’ He eventually married an English convert to Islam and settled down in East London.

In November 2000 Jamal and three friends travelled to Kashmir to learn how to use firearms and ‘to operate on the battlefield’. Jamal was in Kashmir for two months. He explains it thus: ‘My religion teaches me to defend myself and my family; it’s my duty as a Muslim to defend my brothers and sisters around the world from injustice and aggression, and I’m ready and willing to do that anytime I am called by Allah to do so.’

To Jamal the terrorist attacks in Madrid, Istanbul, New York and Bali cannot be seen as ‘a Jihadi’ act. ‘The prophet Muhammed set very clear guidelines for Muslims when it comes to warfare and I don’t believe that these bombings followed those clear guidelines.’ He does, however, believe that its foreign policy towards Muslim states and peoples made an attack on the US almost inevitable.

Islam prohibits the killing of anyone who hasn’t actually engaged in warfare. So why are some Muslims carrying out terrorist acts against ordinary civilians?

Some commentators believe that young Muslims are being brainwashed by radical clerics preaching hatred and death to the West. While I think this may be true in some cases, a combination of other factors is making Muslims from all backgrounds feel marginalized, leading some to adopt extreme viewpoints. Muslims feel that they are being disproportionately targeted by police using ‘stop and search’ powers and anti-terrorism legislation. British Home Office figures show that in 2002-03 there were 32,100 searches overall under the Terrorism Act, up 21, 900 on the previous year and 30,000 more than in 1999-2000. When arrests are made newspaper headlines describe those detained as ‘Islamist terrorist suspects’. The majority of these are released without charge, but the same newspapers devote little or no space to setting the record straight.

Unemployment rates among Muslims are higher than any other ethnic community in Britain. Pakistanis and Bengalis are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than white people according to a Labour Force Survey. Ghettos are forming of disengaged youngsters who feel they have very little reason to feel British: the scars of racism and Islamaphobia run deep.

My friends and I feel increasingly isolated and uncomfortable living in the country of our birth. Simple things get you down: suspicious looks whilst travelling on the underground, constant questioning about your way of life; the niggling doubt that you didn’t get that job because of your hijab. This may be irrational but it’s the first time that I have ever felt that I am being discriminated against as a Muslim.

When we hear the testimonies of Muslims incarcerated in the US camp in Guantanamo, see degrading photographs of our Iraqi brothers stripped naked and hooded in US-run prisons and hear about fellow Muslims imprisoned without trial in Britain it becomes clear that the so-called ‘war on terror’ is a war against Muslims and Islam.

In the Middle East I saw how extreme violence and hatred breed more extreme violence and hatred. Recently I met a woman in London whose husband was dragged out of their home by police, held in custody for a week before being released without charge. She miscarried shortly after his arrest.

It’s not just in Iraq that Tony Blair has to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Muslims – he needs to start closer to home.

Shaista Aziz is a freelance journalist who has worked for both the BBC and Al Jazeera.

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