Reza Aslan says that the mastermind of the 7/7 British Tube bombers visited Israel-Palestine and became radicalized after his visit. In an excerpt from his new book, Aslan says there must be a resolution to the situation there.
Two years before Mohammed Siddique Khan, the soft-spoken second-generation Pakistani-Briton from West Yorkshire, led three of his friends on a suicide mission that would end in the murder of more than 50 of his fellow British citizens on July 7, 2005, he stood at the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, at one of its 500 or so security checkpoints. In all of the material published about the so-called 7/7 bombers, all of the documents and studies and conferences meant to discover what could have led to the radicalization of those four seemingly benign British youths, Khan’s trip to Israel is rarely, if ever, mentioned. But there can be little doubt that it was the decisive moment in his young life—the pivot in his journey from husband and father and, by all accounts, well-adjusted, well-integrated, well-educated youth worker to radical jihadist bent on mass murder.
There remains today no more potent symbol of injustice in the Muslim imagination than the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Khan’s trip occurred as a last-minute detour on his way back to Britain, after he had completed the hajj pilgrimage with his wife and a couple of close friends. As they crossed into Palestinian territory, Khan witnessed with his own eyes the unbearable weight of degradation carried by a people in no control of their own lives, in no control even of their movements.
As the story was told to me by one of his companions, Khan had passed through the crossing, his British passport a ticket to the front of the line. There he saw an old Palestinian man, a native of this dry patch of land, being manhandled by a nervous young soldier—an Israeli probably no older than the pimply immigration officer who had pulled me aside as I deplaned in Tel Aviv. A second soldier, sweating and timorous and just as young as the first, held a rifle barrel against the old man’s chest. There had been attacks at this crossing in the past: Israelis had died; Jews had died.
The old man lowered his head. He was used to this. He did not speak as the soldier rummaged through his belongings. Khan stood by, also saying nothing. But the old man’s shame burned hot in his cheeks.
Mohammed Siddique Khan was not an Arab. He had not traveled extensively through the Arab world, nor, according to his friends, had he shown much interest in doing so. He had never expressed excessive solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians; this was his first visit to the region. Before this trip, he had not even been considered especially devout.
But in that fateful moment, his identity was altered. He was no longer British. He was no longer Pakistani. His sense of self could not be contained by either nationalist designation. He was simply a Muslim: a member of a fractured, imaginary “nation” locked in an eternal cosmic war with a Jewish “nation” just as imaginary and just as fractured.
On the way back to Beeston, the drab, isolated inner heart of southern Leeds where Khan and his fellow 7/7 bombers lived, the mild-mannered youth worker shocked his companions by suddenly proclaiming his new identity and, with it, his murderous intention.
“They kill us,” he cried out, “so we must kill them!”
His companions were confused. What did he mean? they wondered. Who is us? Who is them?
Two years later, Khan cleared up any confusion in a video testimony left behind before he performed his heinous act: “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world,” he accused the British nation-state—his nation-state. “And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.”
We have all have heard these words, or words like them. They are common in so-called suicide videos, the visual testimonies jihadists often leave behind before embarking on their murderous mission. As a transnational movement, one of jihadism’s greatest challenges is to link together all the disparate identities of its members—regardless of their race, culture, ethnicity, or nationality—under a single collective identity. The easiest way to do this is through what the sociologist William Gamson calls “injustice framing”: Identify a situation as unjust; assign blame for the injustice; propose a solution for dealing with the injustice and those responsible for it; and then, most important, connect that injustice to a larger frame of meaning so as to communicate a uniform message that will resonate with as much of the population as possible.
There remains today no more potent symbol of injustice in the Muslim imagination than the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Particularly in the Arab world, it is hard to find a primary or secondary school where schoolchildren do not learn about the daily misery of boys and girls their own age who, due to circumstances that may be beyond anyone’s control but that nonetheless cry out for culpability, do not share in the most basic rights and privileges that they themselves enjoy. In universities, the plight of the Palestinians is as essential a chapter in the study of Arab history as the Civil War is in American history. In some ways, Palestine has become the sole source of pan-Islamic identity in the Muslim world, the universal symbol that, in the absence of a Caliphate, unites all Muslims, regardless of race, nationality, class, or piety, into a single ummah.
On a recent trip to Iran, I was struck by a pair of giant paintings emblazoned across a highway overpass. The first depicted the now-famous image, broadcast to the world by the BBC in 2000, of a Palestinian man, Jamil ad-Durra, crouched behind a concrete block, trying in vain to shield his small son from a torrent of bullets fired by Israeli soldiers standing nearby, the image frozen in the instant before the boy was shot dead in his father’s arms. The second depicted an even more famous photo: a masked, black-clad Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib, standing barefoot on a box, his arms outstretched as though he were crucified, wires extending from his fingers like electric tendrils.
Under the first painting it read, YESTERDAY PALESTINE; under the second, TODAY IRAQ.
As undeniably dreadful as the plight of the Palestinians may be, for the jihadists, Palestine is a mere abstraction, a symbol whose sole purpose is to draw Muslims to their cause. It is not the Palestinian struggle for statehood that animates most jihadists. As a global ideology, jihadism is totally detached from such nationalist concerns. Jihadist fighters do not travel to Palestine to fight alongside the militants of Hamas (they would not be welcome if they did). Jihadist ideologues have not formulated any specific plans to address the Palestinian situation, save pushing Israel into the sea (a silly and, as even the jihadists themselves admit, hopeless notion). It is true that jihadist leaders such as bin Laden and Zawahiri frequently rail against Israel and the United States for allowing the Palestinians to suffer under Israeli occupation. But such complaints, though legitimate, must be read as part of a much broader catalog of jihadist grievances, some of which are so random, so mind-bogglingly unfocused, that they should be recognized less as grievances per se than as popular causes to rally around.
And yet, if for no other reason than to mute this rallying call, there must be a swift and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Unfortunately, thanks mainly to the political rise across the world of a new and powerful crop of religious zealots— Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—for whom the conflict between Israel and Palestine is not a political problem to be diplomatically resolved but “ground zero in the end-time events,” we are further from achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East than we have ever been. Indeed, according to these cosmic warriors, the armies of Good and Evil are already gathering in the Holy Land in preparation for that final a cosmic battle that everyone everywhere must join.
“We are at war,” Mohammed Siddique Khan concluded in his suicide video, calmly and with the unburdened conscience of a man whose every consideration rests on a cosmic plane. “And I am a soldier.”
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.