Diary

Sameer Rahim

The evening after the 7 July bombings the Tube train I was waiting to catch home slid to a halt leaving me exactly halfway between the front door of one carriage and the end door of another. On that nervous Friday there were plenty of seats free in both carriages. As I began moving to my left, a large, dark-skinned man with a thick black beard, clutching a rucksack in his arms, stepped through the door to my right. I paused in mid-step; then turned, followed him and sat down opposite him.

The man seemed to be around thirty, although the beard made it hard to tell. Brown sandals exposed the wide spaces between his toes; he was wearing a blue salvaar, which hung loosely as he stretched his arms along the ventilator beneath the window, and a small white skull-cap. The man glanced at me and I looked away. Two stops later he got off the train, and as I watched him walk off down the platform I felt a shameful sense of relief. It was only then I began to realise that my own intent behaviour was attracting some odd looks from the other passengers.

The last time I wore a blue salvaar and a white skull-cap, it was July 1990 and I was hanging round the lobby of a Baghdad hotel. I was nine years old and keen to practise some of the Arabic phrases I had learned during a family tour of Iraq’s Shia mausoleums. I introduced myself to the concierge, who smiled at me from under his thick black moustache, and asked me where I came from. ‘Ana Min London,’ I replied proudly, while mentally rehearsing the correct form for telling him my age. Instead of asking it, however, he laughed and said in English: ‘No, you are not from London. You are from Pakistan.’ I informed him haughtily that I was British, born and bred. ‘No, no. How can you be from London when you dress like a Pakistani?’ ‘Look at my passport – you’ll see it’s one from Britain,’ I answered desperately. But the man continued smiling indulgently. Unable to think of anything to say, I turned round and sauntered away with my hands behind my back.

A week later my father and I walked through the streets of Baghdad as exuberant soldiers sang celebratory chants and fired volleys into the air. At first we thought Saddam Hussein had been overthrown in a military coup; instead it turned out that Iraqi troops had captured Kuwait City. Within a few days the airports and borders had been closed. On 2 August, the British government voted in favour of UN Resolution 660, which condemned the invasion of Kuwait ‘as a breach of international peace and security’.

Hours later uniformed men confiscated our passports and told us we would be moved to another hotel as ‘guests of the president’. We learned later that the media had called us ‘human shield hostages’; apparently we were positioned beside military bases to deter any bombing by coalition forces.

Three weeks into our confinement, it was decided to attempt to secure our release by appealing to any Islamic solidarity Saddam might have, or like to be seen to have. My mother was advised to prepare my salvaar and skull-cap, and I was told to rehearse a passage from the Qu’ran which stresses the quality of mercy. Iraqi television often showed small boys reciting from the Qu’ran in the presence of a grinning Saddam, who would pat their heads and pull their cheeks like any embarrassing Arab uncle. But I never got to be one of those boys. A week later women and children were allowed home. My father was kept for another month, until his release was negotiated by Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens. He and three other Muslim men made up the first group of British detainees to be freed. It was said at the time that British Muslims were given preference because of their faith. More likely Saddam took the view that in negotiation you give up your least valuable assets first.

The children of migrants are used to the everyday ironies associated with not belonging fully to either culture. (My experience in Iraq was exceptional in its starkness.) Once it was discovered, however, that the men who carried out the 7 July bombings had been born and raised in this country, British Muslims knew that some would be questioning where their loyalties really lie.

Not long after the bombings, I was in north-west London, visiting two close friends of mine, Shabbir and Ahmed, brothers in their mid-twenties who share a bedroom in their family home. Shabbir had just finished his regular cycle training at a nearby track. Ahmed was held up at the mosque. ‘Just a couple of hours speed work this evening,’ Shabbir said, ‘nothing much really.’ When he isn’t working for an insurance company, Shabbir trains for and competes in velodrome time trials; his ambition is to be selected for the British Olympic team in 2008.

When Ahmed arrived he apologised for being late. ‘It was completely disorganised,’ he said, scratching his beard irritably. ‘It’s a Pakistani mosque – you know that.’ (I didn’t.) ‘Some people might say it’s typical for Pakistanis to be completely disorganised,’ he said, smiling mischievously. All three of us are East African Indians who were born in Britain. Ahmed explained that the meeting had been about setting up a Sunday madressa for young Shia Muslims. He had been asked to volunteer as a teacher, but had some problems with the proposed curriculum. ‘They just want to take Ayatollah Sistani’s book of jurisprudence and go through every single clause and sub-clause in order. That would be really boring. They need to make it more lively, more exciting. Maybe stir it up with some politics, something controversial.’

Shabbir had been shocked by the London attacks. ‘On the day after we won the Olympics and everything – it was nasty.’ Ahmed was unsurprised. ‘I go on all these Islamic chatrooms and there are some crazy people out there. They’ve got names like “number1jihadist” or “al-qaidakiller” and they praise Allah when British hostages are beheaded in Iraq.’ But what could transform anonymous bragging into murderous behaviour? Shabbir felt that poverty and alienation might have made the bombers more susceptible to extremist ideology, but his brother disagreed. ‘That’s just an excuse people make for them,’ he said. ‘Those people weren’t actually poor – one of them was a teacher.’

‘There is a problem with the Islam they’re taught,’ Ahmed said. ‘Many verses in the Qu’ran are taken out of context and used to justify their behaviour. For example the “sword verse” in chapter nine, verse five.’ He quoted the line in Arabic and then translated. ‘It reads: “Wherever you find the unbelievers, kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them,” which sounds harsh; but these “unbelievers” had a non-aggression treaty with the Holy Prophet which they broke. The previous verse says to “fulfil your agreement with them to the end of their term” if they don’t break the rules.’ Ahmed switched on his computer and showed me a website he was designing that would explain it all. ‘It’s going to be an introduction to Islam, for Muslims and non-Muslims. Look.’ He pointed to a banner which popped up on the screen in Arabic before dissolving into English. ‘Chapter 2, verse 256: “There is no compulsion in religion.”’

At this point Shabbir changed the subject. He started enthusing about Lance Armstrong and produced a copy of his autobiography, It’s Not about the Bike, reading out his favourite passages. They were all to do with the resolute determination needed to get you through tough times.

The brothers’ parents joined us and we watched the evening news together. Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was at a mosque saying that ‘only communities can stop terrorism.’ Their mother pointed to the Muslim cleric standing behind him. ‘Look at what’s on his head,’ she said giggling, ‘it’s too shiny!’ The cleric had worn his best red hat, which sparkled garishly under the television lights. Her husband was not amused. ‘These fanatics are making us all oppressed,’ he said. ‘Now the whites will start to come after us.’ Like many of the older generation, he viewed the attack mainly in terms of its repercussions. ‘A policeman came to Friday prayers this afternoon and said they would protect us – but when we call them they never arrive on time, so what can we do?’

By now the sun had almost set and it was time for evening prayers. Ahmed was the first to start rolling up his sleeves in readiness for the ritual washing. As we rose his mother said: ‘Why does Allah allow these things to happen? Where’s Allah to help us now?’ Ahmed replied quickly: ‘In the Qu’ran it says we will experience suffering and hardship till the end, we must all remember that.’ She did not look satisfied with her son’s answer and replied by asking him in Gujarati if he had remembered to tidy his room. Ahmed replied irritably that he had been too busy working on his website.

Two days later I was on a plane to Dubai for a family wedding. I was sitting next to a computer programmer from Birmingham in his mid-thirties who was on his way to visit some Pakistani relatives. His name was Khalid. He had flown many times but confessed he was still terrified, ‘but only during take-off and landing’. As the plane rose into the air he shut his eyes and anxiously counted off prayers on the segments of his fingers. ‘Thanks to Allah, forgive me Allah,’ he repeated until London had disappeared beneath the clouds.

Once we were safely airborne Khalid spoke with little prompting. ‘If it was crazy people from North Africa, it wouldn’t have been so bad,’ he said in a low, urgent voice. ‘If they spoke Arabic and frothed at the mouth we could have said they’re nothing to do with us – you know they’re the “other”. And if the only time they saw British people was as soldiers, as oppressors, then you could understand how they could do it. But these guys saw British people every day, one of them was a special needs teacher – that makes it more difficult to understand.’ A portly businessman sitting to my right turned to look at us briefly.

I leaned closer to Khalid and asked if he thought we had a responsibility to root out extremists. ‘But extremists have been kicked out of all the central mosques,’ he whispered, ‘so why are we always expected to apologise? Maybe as British Muslims we have a responsibility to say sorry. It’s our taxes and our soldiers killing innocent Muslims in Iraq – we could apologise for that.’ Don’t we have a leadership crisis in the Muslim community though? Khalid sighed. ‘You’re Shia aren’t you?’ I nodded. ‘You have your ayatollahs, but with Sunnis it’s different. It’s not like Catholicism with a pope and a Church. You have your core text and you’re basically left to get on with it.’ When the stewardess came round with the trolley, Khalid asked for a glass of wine. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘some of us have quite liberal interpretations.’

An hour later the plane was dark and quiet; the businessman was snoozing. ‘There is a problem with good governance in Muslim societies,’ Khalid said. ‘Look at Saudi or Syria or Egypt or Pakistan – all run by dictators, nearly all pro-Western.’ So how can we turn those countries into democracies? ‘It’s about creating a space for a civil society,’ he replied, ‘not having elections nobody votes in because they don’t matter. You’ve got to give people a chance to express themselves. If you have all this pressure building up then you’re going to get an explosion. Look at Hizb ut-Tahrir.’

Hizb ut-Tahrir (‘Party of Liberation’) aims to bring the Muslim world back to its ‘previous might and glory’ under a single caliph. Although I doubt it has more than a thousand members, the London-based group is highly influential on a number of university campuses. Officially it condemns terrorism, but it is expert in exploiting a sense of Muslim victimhood. I was once handed one of its leaflets which listed six sites of Muslim oppression: Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq, Bosnia and Lebanon. These disparate political conflicts were summed up in one simple argument: non-Muslim infidels and Muslim hypocrites have formed a deadly conspiracy to undermine the Ummah.

‘Do these guys have any idea what the caliphs actually got up to?’ Khalid asked. ‘They’re living in a fantasy world. There are problems but they need political solutions, not religious ones.’ In a broadcast on Pakistani television later that week, General Pervez Musharraf complained that Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘had the audacity of passing an edict against my life’. He urged a clampdown by the British authorities. A week later the Guardian sacked its trainee journalist Dilpazier Aslam for being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, although it remains (for the moment) a legal political party.

Walking in Dubai is like wading through a hot swimming-pool. My friend Ali and I agreed to meet at the air-conditioned Ibn Battuta Mall. The mall is an enormous mock-up of a 14th-century Arab palace, done up inside to represent the different regions Ibn Battuta explored on his travels. I walked through China, India and Persia before I found our meeting point, an electronic goods store in Andalusia. Five years ago Ali gave up his job as a lawyer in London and went to study Islam in Iran, at the theological college in Qom. The last time I saw him he wore a flowing black cape similar to an academic gown, and a white skull-cap; on that occasion he was giving a sermon in a mosque. Today he was wearing shorts and a shirt.

I asked him if he had expected the London attacks. ‘No,’ he said softly, ‘I was surprised and distressed; it was quite a shock. You see there are certain groups that are preaching terrible measures against the West. But I thought it was all talk, you know, to make themselves feel hard.’ Ali used the occasional colloquialism to express a difficult feeling, but reading Islamic literature in archaic translations had given an odd formality to his phrasing. ‘Britain is, as a matter of fact, one of the easiest places to be a Muslim; it’s much worse in France, or in the US. We can speak freely, teach, pray and they just let us get on with it. There is no excuse for such a thing.’

So what could have motivated the bombers? ‘We are taught to follow blindly what our sheikhs tell us,’ Ali replied. ‘There is not enough questioning – if a guy has a beard and some quotes from the Qu’ran then we take on trust what he says. So charismatic speakers can mislead and misguide these alienated youths to take up arms.’ In Qom, Ali had studied Islamic rules of engagement. ‘There are certain rules of military conduct in wartime, which do not apply in peacetime,’ he said. ‘We are not at war and there is no way you can allow the killing of innocent men, women and children.’ He went on to say that it was incumbent on Muslims to co-operate with the police if they knew of anyone plotting violence. ‘Or,’ he qualified, ‘if they feel they can speak to the person, convince them, they should try and do that.’ He worried that the ‘situation for Muslims’ would become ‘very difficult – the BNP will want to cash in big-time’. I said I felt there hadn’t yet been a serious backlash, other than in some newspapers, although there was a perceptible buzz of unease whenever I got on a train or a bus.

I had been glad to escape the suspicious atmosphere of London for a place considered one of the safest on earth. But on 21 July two British Muslim businessmen from Yorkshire were arrested in a Dubai hotel restaurant and accused of financing the 7 July bomb plot. During interrogation Mohammed Rafiq Siddique and Alam Ghafoor were subject to sleep deprivation, threatened with electric shock torture and told ‘we’ll kill you and feed you to the dogs and there will be no trace of you.’ Ghafoor tried to phone the British Embassy but his interrogators told him it was British intelligence who had tipped them off. After his release Siddique said he thought his name might have been confused with the 7 July bomber Mohammed Sidique Khan.

Ali asked me what I thought about what was going on. I told him that the London bombers had brought a taste of the terror and violence wreaked every day on millions in the Muslim world into the heart of a rich and comfortable capital. Ian McEwan wrote soon after 9/11 that the hijackers did not have the imaginative capacity to empathise with others’ pain. I saw almost the opposite in their frightening ability to carry out an act of suicidal revenge on behalf of people with whom they had no ties other than religion. One of the failed London bombers of 21 July, Hussein Osman, told Italian police that the group motivated themselves by watching footage of grief-stricken Iraqi widows and children. For most of us the distress fades when the news bulletins end; for Osman they fuelled ‘a conviction that it was necessary to give a signal – to do something’. That something was, allegedly, trying to explode a bomb at Shepherd’s Bush Tube station.

‘There is truth to the blowback argument,’ Ali said, ‘but there’s something missing. You could call it moral responsibility.’ The bombers may have been bound together by a conviction they were working ‘in the name of Allah’, but they did not heed the second half of the prayer which Muslims are supposed to say as they begin any significant action: ‘In the name of Allah, the most benevolent, the most merciful’. ‘The repetition of Allah’s names is a way of helping us develop his qualities; if he is merciful, then we must strive to be merciful too.’ When Richard Reid – who later attempted to blow up a plane over the Atlantic – converted to Islam, he changed his name to Abdul Rahim, ‘Servant of Mercy’. ‘In Arabic, Rahim means the most intense form of mercy,’ Ali said, looking at me. ‘We must all start to examine ourselves more closely.’