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How in a Little British Town Jihad Found Young Converts
NY Times ^ | 24 Apr 02 | Amy Waldman

Posted on 04/24/2002 7:11:11 AM PDT by white trash redneck

How in a Little British Town Jihad Found Young Converts


TIPTON, England — The young men lived within a few blocks of one another in a Muslim pocket in this small town near Birmingham. They were out of school and often on the streets, in the occasional fight, sometime smokers of marijuana. They were, in the slang of the British Midlands, "dossers" — slackers, layabouts.

So when they renounced the street for Islam, gave up their bad habits for prayer, their parents — immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh — were pleased. Neighbors were bemused: the drifters had found faith.

Last fall, four young men announced that they were leaving for Pakistan — for a computer course, a holiday, an arranged marriage — then disappeared. Their families had no word until January, when the Foreign Office called. Three of them — Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Ruhal Ahmed — had been captured with the Taliban in Afghanistan and taken to Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The fourth, Munir Ali, believed to have accompanied them into Afghanistan, is missing.

No one knows precisely what drove them to Afghanistan — whether they went to take up arms or offer aid. What is clear is that in Tipton, as across Britain, the seeds were there: a Muslim generation uncertain of its identity and prospects, angry at the treatment of Muslims the world over, and prey to recruitment, by individual journeymen and potent imagery, to militant Islam.

The "Tipton Taliban" were just four young men in a corner of one small town in England. But their story is a window into the psychic journey being taken in immigrant communities across Western Europe as young Muslims are swept up by an orthodox, and often politicized, form of Islam far removed from the "Friday Prayers" version of their elders.

Some of the youths are stagnant or unemployed, others breezily successful. Either way, in a poignant kink in the immigrant arc, they have often deemed immaterial all the material comforts their parents emigrated for.

Today, the Taliban are fallen and Al Qaeda is, at least temporarily, in some disarray. The world's attention has shifted to another group of angry young Muslims — the Palestinians battling Israel. Still, here in Britain, what one jihad champion calls the "nexus of politics and religion and frustration" remains unbroken. If anything, it has been fortified by events in the Middle East.

These young men were ripe for being swept up. They lived a small-town ennui that could make trouble attractive because at least it made them feel alive. Asif Iqbal, 20, was hyper and excitable. He liked to test the limits. He had left school at 16, run with a wild crowd for a while, and blown a chance at college.

He lived with both his Pakistani-born parents but often seemed on his own. His father, 68 and retired, was busy with leisure pursuits. His mother was uneducated and mentally a bit unwell. "He had no one to give him advice," a friend said.

He worked the night shift at an office postal service and spent most of his free time in the street, other than a Sunday afternoon soccer game. In 1999, he and a friend, also now in Camp X-Ray, had fought with other Asian youths in a nearby town, hurting one so badly he was left scarred.

A Refuge for Muslim Activists

When he turned toward Islam, then, Asif Iqbal did not do so in half-measures. What began as a mild curiosity soon became aggressive, even confrontational.

His path was already a well-trodden one. Britain has during the last two decades become a refuge unmatched in Europe for Muslim activists, scholars and clerics fleeing repressive governments in the Arab world or North Africa, and thus a center of Islamist influence.

Richard Reid, who tried to detonate a shoe-bomb on a trans-Atlantic flight, came to radical Islam at London's mosques; so did Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Djamel Beghal, accused of plotting an attack on the American Embassy in Paris, sought spiritual tutelage there. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, who is on trial in Pakistan accused of the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, grew up in Britain, the child of prosperous Pakistani parents.

In all, no one knows how many of the newly radicalized have actually taken the journey from Britain to jihad. But over the last decade, members of the jihad movement say, hundreds have gone for training or fighting in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. A document found by New York Times reporters at a Kabul house used by the Islamic militant group Harkat ul-Mujahedeen lists nine trainees, identified by code name, from Britain.

Since Sept. 11, the presence of so many radicals, and a number of tantalizing, if ambiguous, terrorist links, have prompted other European nations to accuse Britain of being soft on terrorism.

Stung by the criticism and fearful that Britain will become a target for supporting America's war on terror, the government is using tough, even draconian, new laws to crack down on extremism. It is also trying to better understand why young men like Mr. Iqbal turn to militancy.

The young men of Tipton are out of British hands, for now. Whether they will be tried here or in America, or simply go free, is unclear. For now, they pass their days in sunbaked cages in Camp X-Ray, far from the Midlands drizzle.

At Ease in Neither Land

Their families and friends have mostly put forward the same defense: the boys were too Westernized for fundamentalism to creep in. They were irreligious; they had to be prodded to mosque. They drank. They smoked. They went clubbing and chased girls.

Asif Iqbal preferred snooker and soccer to politics, his father told one newspaper. Shafiq Rasul's brothers said he wore Armani, as if that alone was impregnable armor against extremism.

It is a disorienting image: Muslim immigrant parents defending their children on grounds of decadence.

But it hints at the forces pulling at this immigrant second generation, the first to be British raised. Their parents had brought their home country to their host country and so lived comfortably in both. Their sons seemed at ease in neither.

Aziz ul-Hak, 22, was Asif Iqbal's best friend, and if, like most people here, he isn't terribly forthcoming about what happened, he is willing to talk a bit about his own "stressful" in-between life.

He speaks Bengali with his father and Birmingham English with his mates. His uniform is Nikes and a baseball cap, his wife a Bangladeshi his father picked. He does not feel particularly British, but in Bangladesh that's all he feels — a rich Briton ripe for ripping off.

His father came from Bangladesh in 1963, part of a great migration of former imperial subjects from the Indian subcontinent invited to toil in Britain's factories. Many came here to the West Midlands, creating in Victoria Park Estate in Tipton a community that feels like a sari beneath a drab, gray English coat.

In Truth, a Place Apart

It is just six or so streets of linked plain prewar houses in neat uninterrupted rows. But behind the doors, the South Asian village culture survives, in the handmade chapatis, the parentally arranged marriages and the mildly intoxicating Bangladeshi leaf stored in a basket by the register at the Pakeeza grocery store.

All this has made for the appearance of quirky cultural fusion. Pep's Park Lane Chippy serves curry sauce as well as fish and chips. Bollywood and Hollywood share space at the video store. Young Muslims study at the Roman Catholic school.

But, in truth, the Park Estate is a place apart, a lace-curtained ghetto surrounded by the whites who make up 86 percent of Tipton's 50,000 residents. Around Tipton, young Asian men who wear Moschino jeans and gold earrings in one ear also hear themselves referred to as "Pakis."

It cannot help that the entire economic basis of this world has fallen away. The factories are mostly closed now. Aziz ul-Hak thinks himself lucky to work at a food shop, since in Tipton many young Muslims do not work at all. More graduate to prison than university.

"The main thing with our teenagers is a drug problem, not a religious problem," says Bashrhan Khan, 34.

Similar social strains among young South Asians prompted riots in some British towns last summer. Tipton's afflictions have been milder, but jarring nonetheless. A few years ago, gangs of young whites came through the Park Estate yanking off Muslim women's head scarfs.

The Pull Between Cultures

The Asians settled the score, sometimes violently, but felt personally betrayed by onetime schoolmates. Two years ago, the right-wing British National Party, whose Web site now features a "Campaign Against Islam," won 24 percent of the vote in a local election.

This was the circumscribed stage on which the young men who disappeared were playing out their lives. They had left school at 16 and were living at home, two on the same street.

Ruhal Ahmed, 20, was a takeaway worker and skilled kickboxer who felt the pull between cultures more acutely than most. A Bengali, he had fallen in love with a local Pakistani girl. In Tipton, this was not done. Parents picked partners back home. The Park Estate was too small to be disrupted by love.

Shafiq Rasul, 24, was 6 foot 2 and model-handsome, by his brothers' reckoning. His father had come from India 35 years ago to work in a factory, and died four years ago. The son's purpose seemed less clear: shy Shafiq had dropped out of college or "taken some time off," and was working part time at an electronics store.

Munir Ali, 21, now missing, was also Bengali. Sweet and simple, he had struggled to find work, relying, as many young people here do, on temporary jobs. Before he left, he wasn't working at all.

As he searched for his place, his older sister had found hers — unusual in a culture where women rarely work outside the home. She had won election to the local council, the first Asian woman to do so.

After the news broke about her missing brother, she issued a statement: "We have grown up in Britain in a Western society. All members of our family share and respect British values."

Those values, like freedom of speech and human rights, have drawn Islamic dissidents seeking haven from repression at home. Some have used Britain as a base for influencing their home countries' politics, through writing, lobbying or fund-raising.

But others are steadily kneading the identity crises of Britain's young South Asians, as well as converts like Richard Reid. These purveyors of radicalism single out moderate mosques, prisons and universities. Their foil is the West — its actions, its policies, even the very freedoms they use to malign it.

On a Wednesday night in Luton, just north of London, 20 or so brown young men crowd into the Islamic Educational Center to hear the Syrian-born Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad. Sons of Pakistani or Bangladeshi immigrants, most wear Western dress.

"They want to keep calling us Pakis, bloody Arabs, brown Kaffirs," Mr. Bakri says.

He caresses a bushy beard and conjures an imaginary character to dramatize a favorite theme: the futility of assimilation. "Abu Jabar changes his name to Bobby. He changes all his clothes. He dances. He raves with them. They still call him Paki."

Bobby asks, "For God's sake who do I belong to?"

Mr. Bakri answers: "You belong to the Muslim umma, brothers. Come on in."

Mr. Bakri heads Al Muhajiroun, or The Emigrants, which he calls an Islamic ideological party. Some say he is all bombast and bluff, others that he manipulates young men into jihad. Whatever the truth, he indisputably transforms anomic young Muslims into Islamists.

Conjuring Up the Caliphate

His followers see recreating the caliphate — the era of Islam's ascendancy after the death of Muhammad in the eighth century — as the answer to Muslims', and the world's, problems. They often sound like nothing so much as young Marxists of another era.

Islam "will guarantee every single individual the bare necessities of food, clothing, shelter," says Muhammed Ali, a 21-year-old information technology specialist of slight build and febrile mien.

In Britain, as everywhere, Islam has ribboned into countless sects and schools that often spend as much time attacking one another as attracting fresh recruits.

The Birmingham Central Mosque is crowded with young people raised as indifferent Muslims who have now turned to a Taliban-style Islam that provides a way of life as much as a religion. The women cover not just their heads, but their faces; the long-bearded men no longer allow their children to be photographed.

At the same time, many well-educated young Muslims have joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, a movement brought to England in the 1980's by Middle Eastern students. Its followers, who wear Western dress and often work in high-tech jobs, use anti-American propaganda to rally support for a pan-Islamic state.

"Your Muslim brothers are suffering," they whisper to potential recruits.

The goal of the radicals, of whatever stripe, is to make Islam a political force. To do this, they employ a potent mix of vivid imagery, Koranic scholarship, hard facts and soft-boiled conspiracy theories — the Jews attacked the World Trade Center to discredit Osama bin Laden; the C.I.A. did it to give America a way into Central Asia; Mr. bin Laden is an American agent meant to discredit Islam.

All of this is passed along a Muslim information loop, a daisy chain of Web sites and word of mouth., for example, features pictures of Iraqi babies malnourished because of American sanctions or videos of graphic slaughter by and of Muslims in Chechnya.

Imran Khan, 32, who publishes and sells pro-jihad literature, says that jihad recruitment is "more promising in smaller towns than larger towns."

"In smaller towns," he said, "there's nothing happening."

The Tales They Told

In the small town of Tipton, Shafiq Rasul told his family he was going to take a computer course in Pakistan. Asif Iqbal was going to carry out an arranged marriage, and Ruhal Ahmed was going to watch, or going on holiday, or making a religious pilgrimage — no one, anymore, seems sure.

As these stories have fallen away, parents and friends say the young men must have been brainwashed. They describe jihad recruiters and fiery visiting sheiks; Muslim door-to-door preachers and extremist mosques that influenced the young men. None of their theories are provable, but all are plausible.

With three mosques in four square blocks, the Park Estate was ripe for revival. Islam here has been parsed by denomination, language and culture — all the divisions of the subcontinent. That variety well suited the Tipton youths' meanderings through faith.

When they first turned to Islam, over idle talk at a local pool hall, their guides were moderates with mystical leanings. They borrowed tapes of Hamza Yusuf, a moderate American convert who has achieved a mass following in Britain and the United States. Their families immediately noticed a change. Asif's father was happy, he told friends — his son had become a good religious boy.

But, friends say, the boys soon migrated to an Islam of a more puritanical bent. They became judgmental, telling friends that they would see after they died how bad their clubbing and pubbing was.

They became convinced of their rightness. Asif once threw a punch because he could not win a theological argument in front of a group of friends. They argued against citations from classical scholars by saying they could interpret the Koran themselves — they didn't need scholars.

They challenged moderates in town to debate visitors like Sheik Abdullah el-Faisal, a Jamaican-born, Saudi-educated preacher who came to Tipton for two visits. He talked of the obligation to jihad, of Muslims killed in Bosnia.

A World of Conspiracies

Mr. Faisal sketched a world of conspiracies, of cabals of Jews and Freemasons plotting to take over the world. It was more exciting than Bollywood and Hollywood combined. It was real.

On some of his tapes, he speaks of why Muslims can never have peace with the "filthy Jews," and of Muslims' right to kill a Hindu if they encounter one in the road. In February, those tapes got him arrested and charged with "solicitation to murder," a charge he has said he will answer by showing that everything he said exists in the Koran.

Asif and his friends were briefly taken with Mr. Faisal, but then moved on. They learned about Hizb ut-Tahrir, and attended lectures given by a recruiter for Al Muhajiroun. They argued that the Palestinians' conflict with Israel justified jihad.

Then came Sept. 11. Muslims in Tipton, like those across Britain, were outraged by America's bombing of Afghanistan. Still, that the young men undertook their pilgrimage without parental permission shocked this tradition-bound community almost as much as their going at all.

"They were supposed to ask their mother three times and their father once," one young woman said.

But the literature of jihad has an answer to that. "Join the Caravan," considered a "classic" treatise of the Afghan jihad movement, states, "When Jihad becomes Fard Ain" — an individual obligation — "no permission of parents is required."

All the young men needed was someone to make the argument that jihad had become Fard Ain. In Tipton and beyond, there was no shortage of people to make it.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs; Front Page News; News/Current Events; United Kingdom
KEYWORDS: middleeast
In case anybody had any doubts why the INS needs to get non-citizen Muslims and Arabs out of the US
1 posted on 04/24/2002 7:11:11 AM PDT by white trash redneck
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To: white trash redneck
IPTON, England — The young men lived within a few blocks of one another in a Muslim pocket in this small town near Birmingham. They were out of school and often on the streets, in the occasional fight, sometime smokers of marijuana. They were, in the slang of the British Midlands, "dossers" — slackers, layabouts. So when they renounced the street for Islam, gave up their bad habits for prayer, their parents — immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh — were pleased. Neighbors were bemused: the drifters had found faith.

A classic example of how, when the Christian Faith dies in a country, the people don't believe NOTHING, they believe ANYTHING.

2 posted on 04/24/2002 7:52:35 AM PDT by Arthur McGowan
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To: white trash redneck
Should have stuck to beer, dancing, pool and pot. Less harmful to others..:)
The mosques, instead of encouraging them to build a useful productive life encourage fanatical jihadism.
We have to get serious about the imams we have in AMerica who preach a similar fanaticism..Incitement to violence and hatred of everybody should not be allowed...Imams in the USA should not be allowed to hide behind the cloak of the First Amendment. Not when they advocate killing EVERYBODY.
3 posted on 04/24/2002 8:06:54 AM PDT by swarthyguy
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To: white trash redneck
Note please that these "kids" were nominally Muslim to begin with. They did not convert, they experienced "revival".
4 posted on 04/24/2002 8:41:26 AM PDT by Salman
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To: white trash redneck
Great Britain will one day be called the Islamic Republic of Britain.
5 posted on 04/24/2002 8:42:06 AM PDT by texasbluebell
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To: texasbluebell
I'm living in the UK, and I totally agree. The ones who would fight this process would be deemed 'racist.'
6 posted on 04/24/2002 8:53:17 AM PDT by mmmmmmmm....... donuts
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To: texasbluebell
as will the USA become the Islamic Republic of America
7 posted on 04/24/2002 8:53:47 AM PDT by no need for a name
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To: white trash redneck
"Even Bang-la-desh was once East Pakistan. Why they cahnged it, I can't say..."

The Pakis have been in Britain in large numbers since the 1950s. Too late.

8 posted on 04/24/2002 9:03:57 AM PDT by Clemenza
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To: swarthyguy
Imams in the USA should not be allowed to hide behind the cloak of the First Amendment

They need to be made to disappear...

9 posted on 04/24/2002 9:09:57 AM PDT by MarineDad
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To: white trash redneck; Marine Inspector
When he turned toward Islam, then, Asif Iqbal did not do so in half-measures. What began as a mild curiosity soon became aggressive, even confrontational.

There's that religion of peace and tolerance again.

10 posted on 04/24/2002 9:40:07 AM PDT by PsyOp
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To: no need for a name
Yes, give them 50 years or so at this rate.
11 posted on 04/24/2002 9:47:41 AM PDT by texasbluebell
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To: mmmmmmmm....... donuts
The ones who would fight this process would be deemed 'racist.'

That's where they've got us in the US too. With all the pc stuff we have to deal with, too many people shut up and don't think it through sensibly. They're just so afraid of being called racist. Thanks, libs. We're at this point because of all the nonsense.

12 posted on 04/24/2002 9:50:38 AM PDT by texasbluebell
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