What Makes a Young Person Embrace Death and Murder? Former Jihadists Speak Out
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But the converse was – they stressed – also true. When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War: "How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?" asks Hadiya.
Britain's foreign policy also helped tug them towards Islamism in another way. Once these teenagers decided to go looking for a harder, tougher Islamist identity, they found a well-oiled state machine waiting to feed it. Usman Raja says: "Saudi literature is everywhere in Britain, and it's free. When I started exploring my Muslim identity, when I was looking for something more, all the books were Saudi. In the bookshops, in the libraries. All of them. Back when I was fighting, I could go and get a car, open the boot up, and get it filled up with free literature from the Saudis, saying exactly what I believed. Who can compete with that?"
He says the Saudi message is particularly comforting to disorientated young Muslims in the West. "It tells you – you're in this state of sin. But the sin doesn't belong to you, it's not your fault – it's Western society's fault. It isn't your fault that you're sinning, because the girl had the miniskirt on. It wasn't you. It's not your fault that you're drug dealing. The music, your peers, the people around you – it's their fault."
Just as their journeys into the jihad were strikingly similar, so were their journeys out. All of them said doubt began to seep in because they couldn't shake certain basic realities from their minds. The first and plainest was that ordinary Westerners were not the evil, Muslim-hating cardboard kaffir presented by the Wahabis. Usman, for one, finally stopped wanting to be a suicide bomber because of the kindness of an old white man.
Usman's mother had moved in next door to an elderly man called Tony, who was known in the neighbourhood as a spiteful, nasty grump. One day, Usman was teaching his little brother to box in the garden when he noticed the old man watching him from across the fence. "I used to box when I was in the Navy," he said. He started to give them tips and before long, he was building a boxing ring in their shed.
Tony died not long before 9/11, and Usman was sent to help clear out his belongings. In Tony's closet, he found a present wrapped and ready for his little brother's birthday: a pair of boxing gloves. "And I thought – that is humanity right there. That's an aspect of the divine that's in every human being. How can I want to kill people like him? How can I call him kaffir?"
Many of the ex-Islamists discovered they couldn't ignore the fact that whenever Islamists won a military victory, they didn't build a paradise, but hell.
At the same time, they began to balk at the mechanistic nature of Wahabism. Usman says he had become a "papier-mâché Muslim", defining his faith entirely by his actions, while being empty inside. "Wahabis are great at painting themselves [an Islamic] green on the outside, but when it comes to that internal aspect, it's not there. You pray five times a day, but why? Because God's told you to pray five times a day. You pay your charity – why? Because God's told you to pay your charity. This God of yours is telling you a lot. And why does he tell you to do that? Because if you don't do it, you'll end up in a fire. It's all based on being frightened. There's nothing to nourish you."