The Independent newspaper in England has published a very interesting article, telling the stories of a number of Islamic militants and former 'terrorists' (by some definitions, anyway) who have since renounced their extremist views and are trying to rebuild their lives. I highly recommend it to those seeking to understand how certain individuals can be manipulated and 'brainwashed' (for want of a better word) into becoming militants. Here's a brief extract. Do note the last sentence - evidence of a change of heart if ever I've heard one!
Usama is a big, broad bear of a man in a black blazer and wire-rimmed glasses. He greets me with a hefty handshake; he has a rolled-up newspaper under his arm. He takes me upstairs to a pale-green prayer room. This building was once a factory, then a cinema; now, with Saudi money, it is a Wahabi mosque. Men are kneeling silently towards Mecca, rising and bending in reverential waves. "On Fridays, there are Islamists who stand outside and warn worshippers that their prayers won't count if they are led by me," he says as we squat in the corner, "because I'm supposedly an apostate. A fake imam." He looks away. "I get phone calls late at night. Threats. It's painful. You see, I was like them once."
And so Usama begins to tell me his story. He arrived in Tottenham in North London in the mid- 1970s, when he was five years old. His Pakistani father was sent here by the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs, which aims to spread its puritan desert strain of Islam to every nation. His family led a locked-down life, trying to adhere to Saudi principles in a semi-detached house in the English suburbs. "We weren't allowed music or TV or any contact with the opposite sex," he says. "We were very sheltered. I didn't go out a great deal." By the age of 10, he had memorised every word of the Koran in its original Arabic.
He had a strong sense of the Britain beyond his walls – the Britain where I was growing up – as a hostile, violent place. "You have to understand – it was the time of the Tottenham riots. It felt violent in the streets," he says. "I got used to expecting white people to use the Paki word. We used to have a fear of skinheads the whole time."
But Usama was offered a scholarship to the heart of the English elite – the City of London Boys' School, where he could practice cricket at Lord's. He bonded with the Jews at the school as outsiders and supporters of Tottenham Hotspur football team. He still speaks like the public schoolboy he was – in long, confident sentences.
Some berobed men are staring at us, so he takes me down to the mosque's office. "At that time, being a Muslim meant being an Islamist. It was taken for granted," he says. So when he was 13, he joined an Islamic fundamentalist organisation called Jimas. At big sociable conferences every weekend, they were told: you don't feel at home in Britain, but you can't go "home" to a country you have never visited. So we have a third identity for you – a pan-national Islamism that knows no boundaries and can envelop you entirely.
It sounds familiar. This is the identity I hear shouted by young Islamists throughout the East End: I might sound like you, but I am nothing like you. I am Other. I belong elsewhere – in a place that does not yet exist, but that I will create, with my fists and my fury.
Jimas told their members they were part of a persecuted billion, being blown up and locked down across the world. "It was a bit like a gang," he says. "And we had a strong sense of being under siege. It was all a conspiracy against Islam, and we were the guardians of Islam. That's how we saw ourselves ... A lot of my friends would wear the army boots, and carry knives." I realise now that for a nebbish intellectual boy, it must have felt intoxicating to be told he was part of a military movement that would inevitably conquer history.
. . .
At the centre of this vision was the need to rebuild the caliphate – the Islamic state under sharia law persisted from the time of Mohamed until 1924. "It was a very dreamy, romantic idea," he says. "If anybody asked questions about how it would work, we would just say – the people that will make it happen will be so saintly, they will make the right decisions." It was the old promise of the revolutionary down the ages: there would be a single revolutionary heave in which all political conflict would dissolve forever, and a conflict-free paradise would be born.
. . .
People come in and out of the mosque office, and Usama lowers his voice a little. He says that as he was persuading young men to go and kill, he noticed something disconcerting: the Afghan mujahedin he had fought for were not building a paradise on earth after all. Instead, they were merrily slaying each other. "This great, glorious Islamic revolution – it didn't happen, at all ... they just killed each other."
As he watched the news of the Luxor massacre in Egypt or Hamas suicide-bombings of pizzerias in Tel Aviv, "It just became more and more difficult to justify that." He found himself thinking about the Jewish friends he had made at school. "They were just like me – human beings. And we had a lot in common. The dietary laws, and the identity issues, and the fear of racism." As he heard the growing Islamist chants at demonstrations – "The Jews are the enemy of God," they yelled – something, he says, began to sag inside him.
The stifled language Usama is using to describe his past reminds me of a recovering alcoholic trying to piece together his fragmented memories and understand who he was. When he talks about anti-Semitism, he is clearly ashamed; he giggles almost randomly, looks away, and looks back at me with a puckered, disgusted look.
We have talked enough; we arrange to meet again. The second time I see him, in a café, he seems more guarded, as if he revealed too much. He shifts the conversation onto theology – the area where, I discover, every ex-jihadi feels happiest. He says the 7/7 bombings detonated a theological bomb in his mind: "How could this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia."
Once the foundation stone of literalism was broken, he had to remake the concepts that had led him to Islamism one-by-one. "Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad." He signed up to the pacifist Movement for the Abolition of War. He redefined martyrdom as anybody who died in an honourable cause. "There were martyrs on 9/11," he says. "They were the firefighters – not the hijackers."
There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.