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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: We must learn more about these murderous men

Long is the line of experts on what drives people to terrorism, yet we are none the wiser


Monday, 7 April 2008

I am haunted by the faces of the eight British Muslim men currently on trial at Woolwich Crown Court, accused of plotting to blow up several transatlantic airliners. Prosecutors allege they contemplated the possibility of taking their own wives and children on their once-in-a-lifetime suicide trips. Recorded videos, played to the court, are chillingly solipsistic, callous and self-righteous.

These men will be acquitted or convicted on evidence, the great strength of our system. However, whatever the verdicts, the case just adds to national unease. Most Britons, including most Muslims, reading the allegations will have felt terror. They have seen Islamicist plotters on our pages too often. A number have been convicted, the growing enemy within. Easy it is to hate them. What is more urgent is to find out why young Muslim men turn themselves into weapons of self-destruction.

Long is the line of "experts" on terrorism, and yet we are none the wiser. Individuals and interest groups, government and security chiefs, the police and Muslim "leaders", policy wonks and journalists, novelists and dramatists deliver partial and/or biased explanations with absolute certainty. Bombers are incited to extremism by the frocks of female clubbers, horrible Imams, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, George Bush, multiculturalism, immigration. The US and its allies say that the jihadis are not created by the war in Iraq nor the Palestinian question, while militant Muslims blame the West for their failed states and their depressed communities or distort religious doctrine to defend the indefensible.

Truth is we don't know. I don't know after decades of writing about Muslims in Britain. I am bewildered and intensely worried. Some Muslim men in recent months have written confessionals about how they very nearly went all the way to become suicide bombers and then drew back. These insiders – Ed Husain being the most prominent – have given us important new insights, but again they cannot give us the whole truth.

A new Pakistani film, called Khuda Ke Liye, (For God's Sake) ventures further. It tenderly explores the fortunes of two musically gifted brothers from a perfectly pious yet modern Pakistani family. One brother suddenly severs himself from his music and family and links up with al-Qa'ida; the other goes to music school in Chicago and is arrested and tortured to madness by the US authorities. The parents have their lives and hearts broken by forces they cannot understand. Nobody understands – that is what makes the world so edgy and panicked.

I am not here making a bleeding-heart case for violent anarchists. Those who commit such serious crimes must be punished. But we must build up a body of knowledge about what is driving this phenomenon. Some issues are no longer even considered in this narrative of the man-made bad. Racism, for example, is now excluded from any analysis. Some of the brightest young men in the networks are the angriest, partly a result of Paki-bashing when they were growing up. Patrick French, biographer of V S Naipaul, suggests racism may partly have turned the writer vicious, arrogant and monstrously cruel to his wife and his mistress, both white. The psychological hurt of racism is immense and deep. Did some of the convicted terrorists give up on this country because of the rejection they faced daily?

Then there are their often dysfunctional relationships with their families. We have yet to get good research on the innermost mental and emotional demons that stalk and torment these men. Nor do we have any deep understanding of the theological arguments that persuade dissatisfied Muslim men to opt for ultimate acts of violence. And most shocking of all, when somebody tries to delve deep into these inner landscapes, the state steps in to stop them.

Shiv Malik, the journalist who has written on Muslims who knew the 7/7 bombers, is in the courts fighting for the right to do this vital work. He fights for all of us who do not want to see another blast tearing up our country. He is co-writing a book with Hassan Butt, a radical Islamicist who has recanted partly because he saw how utopians in Pakistan turned into murderous savages. The Counter Terrorism Unit of Manchester police took away Malik's material. He tells me he is "too frightened to write any more. The sources are wary and clamming up. I have a duty to demystify and humanise my enemy, to save lives and our freedoms. This country is a crucible. We can de-radicalise militants through ideas and knowledge."

Macho postures of supremacy and state power stop these roads to redemption. And make us even more unsafe than we believe in these trembling times.

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