By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
28 November 2009
Jimi Hendrix's Eazy Rider reached its crescendo as I pulled into the driveway of the house I shared with my parents. So I held the cassette in both hands and squeezed until the plastic snapped. In that instant, the broken tape seemed like a symbol. I was turning my back on a life of not being serious about my faith... Over time, I came to believe that listening to music was a transgression that believers should avoid... And if God believes it’s wrong to pet a dog or shake hands with a woman, who am I to argue? If you have one view, and God has another, wouldn't you change your mind rather than expecting God to change His?
As I drove from the lake back toward my house, listening to a favourite mixed tape I had made in college, I carefully considered the theological implications. I had loved music since I was a kid. Sometimes I'd find myself thinking in music, associating particularly strong emotions with certain songs, associating different parts of town with other songs. I had a favourite nook near the top of the park where, when I wanted to be alone, I could sit on a large rock by the babbling creek. It reminded me of Fleetwood Mac's Seven Wonders.
But I was grappling with whether there was an Islamic imperative to remove music from my life. I thought of my colleagues' stern lectures about the sinful nature of music, but it was deeper than that. Beyond what anybody might think, there was my relationship with Allah. Was music haram, or prohibited by Islamic law? I thought of Muhammad bin Jamil Zino's book, Islamic Guidelines for Individual and Social Reform, and the wealth of evidence he provided for why music is spiritually harmful. I could not deny the power of some of the ahadith he quoted.
Jimi Hendrix's Eazy Rider reached its crescendo as I pulled into the driveway of the house I shared with my parents. So I held the tape in both hands and squeezed until the plastic snapped. In that instant, the broken tape seemed like a symbol. I was turning my back on a life of not being serious about my faith. I was careening down a new road, and didn't know where it would lead me. But I knew that my ideas about religion were becoming very different.
In the wake of US army Maj Nidal Hasan's shooting rampage at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, American commentators are asking questions about the process by which people adopt militant Islamic beliefs. The information that has emerged, after all, strongly suggests that Hasan was motivated by jihadist ideology.
Beyond reports that Hasan shouted "Allahu Akbar!" before opening fire, he told a colleague at Fort Hood that he thought Muslims should rise up against "aggressors" like America. Hasan exchanged 18 or 19 e-mails with extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a known al-Qaeda supporter, and a fellow Muslim officer told Britain's Telegraph that Hasan's eyes "lit up" when discussing his respect for Awlaki's teachings. A Fort Hood officer who had converted to Islam, and who prayed with Hasan the morning of the attack, concluded "with great sadness" that Hasan "was motivated by religious radicalism".
Over the past few years, I have concentrated on researching counter-terrorism issues particularly with regard to "home-grown terrorists" : men and women who, after being raised in the West, felt compelled to illegally support the jihadi cause.
A decade ago, I too was a radical Islamist, a full-fledged member of the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHIF), an international Wahhabi charity headquartered in Saudi Arabia with countless ties to the global jihadi movement. Between 2002 and 2004, the US named 13 branches of AHIF global terrorist entities. They were involved in funding the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; another AHIF official allegedly deployed a Bangladeshi national - who was arrested in India in early 1999 carrying four pounds of explosives and five detonators - to conduct surveillance on US consulates in India in preparation for an attack. AHIF was allegedly connected not only to al-Qaeda, but also to groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, Lashkare-Taiba and Hamas.
I personally subscribed to some of the extreme views held by those within the jihadi movement. My involvement with radical Islam was not as deep as that of some others who have told their stories in recent years, nor did I take the additional step of breaking the law. But a decade ago I reluctantly came to conclude that my faith was in conflict with the society where I had been born and raised, and prayed for the mujahideen in Chechnya.
I had converted to Islam in college, following a period of intense illness that almost killed me. I found Islam, feeling it answered many of my spiritual questions , and practiced a moderate and progressive version of the faith. It was by chance that I ended up at Al Haramain; the charity had established its US headquarters in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon, and I was encouraged to apply for a job after I attended the Friday jummah prayers there in the summer of 1998.
During my time at Al Haramain, I progressed from holding liberal ideas about Islam to conservatism and ultimately to militancy. This by no means shows that militant Islam is the sole or best practice of the faith, but it is important to understand how militants are able to draw young Muslims into their orbit.
The peer pressure was not just related to the ideas that I held. There were also rules pertaining to virtually every aspect of our lives, many of which involved limbs. I could eat using only my right hand. I could never pet a dog or shake hands with a woman. Over time, I came to believe in all of this and more. I believed that listening to music was a transgression that believers should avoid.
Moreover, one frequently overlooked aspect of jihadist ideology is that it has considerable persuasive force. Often commentators assume that the Jihadi movement is composed of the poorly educated, the broke, and the hopeless; many have stated that Osama bin Laden's interpretation of Islam is a transparent distortion.
The social science literature on radicalisation undermines these claims. The work of scholars such as Marc Sageman and Alan Krueger shows that terrorists are neither poorly educated nor economically deprived. Nor would peer pressure alone have been sufficient to make me embrace religious extremism.
Over time, I came to see religion as far deeper than that. If God exists, who is a better barometer of morality? If God believes it wrong to shake hands with a woman, who am I to argue?
It is in this context that a legalistic practice of religion makes sense. But if believers need religious guidance on eating and clothing, it is far more important that they understand God's will on issues like warfare and the proper relationship between religion and state.
For me, that framework for understanding the world opened the door to extremism. I remember reading an essay by Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, 'The Call to Jihad in the Qur’an’, which was included as an appendix in many of the Qur'anic translations that Al Haramain distributed.
Tracing the Qur'an's view on "the fighting" chronologically, bin Humaid argues that it was forbidden during the early part of Muhammad's prophethood, then made permissible under certain circumstances (against those who fought the Muslims or unjustly expelled them from their homes).
I found this essay persuasive. It provided a logical framework for determining between conflicting Qur'anic verses, and concisely summarised the progression of the revelations that Muhammad received.
At the time, I didn't like that conclusion. It conflicted with my own moral inclinations, but what did that matter? If you have one view, and God has another, wouldn't you change your mind rather than expecting God to change His?
I spent the better part of a year working for Al Haramain. Because my time was short, the damage I could cause while working there was limited. I did help in the distribution of Al Haramain's literature, including working on its prison dawah program. The books we distributed promoted intolerance of other religions, and other sects within Islam; they held that secular authority was illegitimate, and that "Islamic rule" was the only solution to the world's ills.
In addition to the 'Call to Jihad' essay, the translation of the Qur'an we distributed featured a footnote explaining: "By Jihad Islam is established, Allah's Word is made superior, â€¦ and His religion (Islam) is propagated." In contrast, if jihad is abandoned, "the Muslims fall into an inferior position; their honour is lost, their lands are stolen, their rule and authority vanish."
I spent a total of about three years as a Muslim, during two of which I either struggled with or subscribed to an extreme understanding of Islam. Though extremism had an ineluctable pull, my moral impulses rebelled at the same time.
Unhappy with where I had ended up religiously, I spent one long summer trying to reconstruct my theological views. I came to understand how far I had travelled from my old Westernized and modern understanding of religion: I had progressed from seeing religion as a way of approaching God that feels right to seeing it as something based on very real, revealed truth.
One step that I came to question was my initial embrace of Islam itself. The religion had felt comfortable to me when I converted, but was my acceptance of it based on truth, or based on what had comported with my conception of God at the time? Eventually I moved away from Islamic radicalism, and indeed from Islam altogether.
This is not to say that I returned to a Westernised, modern understanding of religion. Muslim extremists are not alone in rejecting religion-as-philosophy as being too shallow and inauthentic theologically.
Like Communism before it, the jihadi movement poses a utopian solution to contemporary problems. The ills confronting the world today are very real, including wars, famine, social injustice, resource shortages, and ecological challenges that could dramatically change life throughout the globe. But those who feel the utopian futures they wish to usher in justify their own violence and brutality have done an enormous amount of damage over the past century. Moving away from the seductive hold of utopian thought was also important to my own deradicalisation.
The jihadi movement is part of the tradition that justifies brutality in the name of ushering in a promised utopia, a fact that has not been lost on other Muslims. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, a nominally non-governmental institute that receives significant backing from Jordan's monarchy, recently published a volume entitled Jihad and the Islamic Law of War that (among other things) attempts to refute the religious views of bin Laden and his ilk. The document compares his thinking to Vladimir Lenin's statement, "You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs," and insists that Islam does not countenance utopian ideology. "When one can justify any act in the name of a worldly utopia," it warns, "then one has passed into pure utilitarianism."
Certainly, my experiences with radicalisation are not the only way people are drawn to Islamic extremism; nor, contrary to the charity's claims, is Al Haramain's way of understanding Islam the only way to practice the faith.
My experiences with jihadism have provided me a useful lens for understanding people within the movement. And I have spoken to a large number of other converts to Islam who were drawn to extremes within the faith in a similar way.
My experiences also showed me the persuasive force that the pernicious ideology of jihadism can have, something that people trying to combat it would be remiss in failing to understand. Indeed, understanding how jihadism can be persuasive, even seductive, is one of the keys to preventing future Fort Hoods.
The author is vice-president of research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. His time working for
Al Haramain Islamic Foundation is documented in his book, My Year Inside Radical Islam
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi