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Acting Alone

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‘When a Muslim land is attacked,’ Roshonara Choudhry told the police, ‘it becomes obligatory on every man, woman, and child and even slave to go out and fight and defend the land.’ Iraq had been attacked; Choudhry, under the influence of Anwar Awlaki’s teachings, believed it was her religious duty to do away with Stephen Timms MP. But why Timms? the police wondered. ‘I’m just one person and I did what I could,’ Choudhry said.

The police accepted this explanation. What they found harder to accept, however, was her insistence that she had acted alone. They asked her who she went to with questions or for advice. ‘I don’t ask anyone,’ she replied. ‘There’s no one to ask.’ Instead, she had downloaded ‘over a hundred hours’ of Awlaki’s lectures. She also watched a lot of conversion narratives on YouTube. ‘I thought their life stories were interesting,’ she said.

As a student at Abu Noor, a mosque academy in Damascus, I took part in videos of this kind. Students from every country spoke of the prophet and his message of peace. The films were made in an ornate salle de réception beneath the prayer hall. We were incredibly solemn, even frightened before the cameras. People spoke of love, of the happiness that Islam brings, of the sacrifices one makes for God, and of the serenity that follows.

For many of my fellow Westerners at Abu Noor, the school itself was a disappointment. The teachers shaved. The Chechen students didn’t pay attention in class, or gave smart-alecky answers, or didn’t bother turning up. Our school administrators demanded cash payment up front for every course. My fellow students resented that Syrian middlemen, dressed as accountants, had decided to use the revelations of the final prophet as a money-making scheme.

Because the school wasn’t much, we spent a lot of our time in the internet café beneath the mosque, looking for something better. The Chechens and Dagestanis were our guides in this. They showed us where to find videos of martyrs dying in sun-dappled Caucasian forests, and where we could see Germans singing that ‘das Leben nach’em Todt.’ We watched mujahideen performing aerial flips in wooded vales. Their comrades in arms applauded and smiled. Their generals rewarded them with special copies of the Koran.

Here was the contact with the spiritual realm we were missing in class. Here also were the purpose-driven lives, the incredible beards, the spiritual teachers.

I watched a lot of the videos with a 22-year-old friend from the tajweed (Koranic pronunciation) class. He had been a pot smoker back in Dortmund –a keefer, as he put it – but had recently given up marijuana in favour of the Straight Path of God. There wasn’t a thing in Damascus that interested him – not the state-controlled Islam we were being taught in school, not the cement-and-car-exhaust neighbourhood we lived in, and certainly not the classes, in which he wasn’t doing very well anyway. He was, however, interested in a video one of our Chechen classmates showed us. It depicted the Chechen’s cousin not long after he’d suffered a mortal wound in the Chechen hills. ‘Is he not smiling?’ my German friend asked when he showed me the video for the first time. The Chechen fighter was being lowered into his grave on YouTube. ‘He’s smiling because he’s entering paradise,’ my friend whispered.

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