I was teaching in class on September the 11th, 2001, as the news began filtering through. Brother Mansoor, our Head Teacher and Sheikh Omar were standing in the corridor talking anxiously. I knew from their expressions something was wrong.
“Haven’t you heard?”
“An airliner has crashed into a building in New York.”
“Was it an accident?”
“The news is still coming through.”
“It’s two planes!” said Sister Saeeda, hurrying along the corridor. “And a third into the Pentagon!”
“Ya Allah, Ya Allah!” said Sheikh Omar.
Mansoor, himself a New Yorker, looked distraught.
“They’re saying Osama Bin Laden is behind it.”
“Oh no! Please God, don’t let this be Muslims.” Teacher Naseema joined us. I could hear the whistle in the playground and the children lining up.
“Shall we say anything?”
“No, not yet.”
I went back to class and tried to get on with the lesson as normal, but it’s amazing how quickly the children had got wind of something.
“Teacher?” said one little boy. “Tariq said there’s been a big car crash in America; is that true?”
“I’ve no idea. I haven’t seen the news. Let’s just concentrate on our work, shall we?”
A colleague popped her head in the door of my classroom. Her eyes wide open – more news: thousands dead, a fourth plane, Muslims blamed, suicide attack.
When school finished I just wanted to go home, but I rushed to the office instead. Mansoor was on the phone.
“We’ve contacted parents to collect children promptly and go straight home.”
“What’s the latest?”
“Two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre, one plane has hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane has crashed into fields in Pennsylvania, probably heading for the White House.”
Sister Neelam came hurrying in.
“Did you hear about the phone calls Hassan?”
“What phone calls?”
“Anonymous threats. Police are outside at the moment, keeping a low profile.”
“We better stay until all the children are safely home!”
Mansoor put the phone down.
“I’m sure it was just some idiots. But we can’t take any chances.”
“Any more news? How’s your family Mansoor? Have you been able to phone them?”
“No way to get through at the moment.”
“What shall we do tomorrow?”
“Perhaps we should think about closing the school.”
“Doesn’t that send the wrong message? Why let some idiots affect us?”
“True, but the children’s safety is our priority. The situation is unpredictable.”
Neelam and I went to stand by the gates as parents swiftly came and went. I never saw the playground clear so fast.
“Mansoor, I better take the children home!”
“Of course, Hassan. I’ll phone tonight.”
I dashed across the playground towards the car park, pulling my two children by the hand.
“What’s wrong, Baba?” asked Fairooza, my daughter.
“Nothing, darling. I just want to get home quickly.”
As I got to the gates I saw one of our mums walking past. She was an English convert.
“Have you heard the good news brother?”
“What good news?”
“The Muslims have struck America!” she smiled broadly and clenched her fist as though she had just scored a goal.
“Yes, Mashallah! The Muslims have struck at the heart of the Infidels!”
Her smiling face made me feel sick. I felt like slapping it. But I didn’t. I just got in the car and drove home. There was an eerie silence in the streets. The moment I got home I switched the TV on. I think I sat there the whole evening, just watching the planes crash into the World Trade Centre over and over again. As I stared at the twin towers crumbling and falling I had a strange feeling of synchronicity – the sort of feeling you get when you’re in a really foul mood and it starts to thunder outside. It was a scary feeling, but at the same time clarifying. I understood why these men believed it was right to fly those planes into the twin towers. I understood their crude dichotomy of believers and infidels, and the fact that I understood it frightened me. I thought about Sheikh Fadil, Abu Hammam and the goal scoring mother. I began to reflect on my search for meaning and truth, how I had felt when I first became a practicing Muslim, on the threshold to a higher understanding of God and spiritual enlightenment. I realized that somewhere along the way I had been led astray. Obsessed by form and ritual, worried whether my soap contained pig fat or the food I just bought contained E numbers. Without noticing, I had been diverted, inch by inch, until I was now so far removed from my search for God, I had completely lost Him. The very things that had led me to Islam, my heart and mind, now seemed to be locked away in a little box, as though I was afraid of them, afraid to think for myself, afraid to step outside a life of imitation and conformity to a set of rules that I hoped would bring me salvation. Was slavish submission truly God’s ultimate concern for mankind? Was entry to heaven simply a mechanical process that did not involve the heart and mind, but only blind obedience – as the Qur’an says, “We hear and we obey.”
As I thought about the Muslims who had flown those planes I knew it was a type of insanity, an insanity brought about by the sincerest form of faith and the purest from of devotion.
School was closed on Wednesday, but it was back to normal on Thursday – although normal is not the right word. Everyone was in shock. There were reports of racial attacks: a brick had been thrown through a window, some of our children had been subjected to physical and verbal abuse and the school had received threatening emails.
We decided to start the day with a whole school assembly and address the issue.
“The attacks that took place on Tuesday in the United States are completely against the teachings of Islam!” said Sheikh Omar.
“It goes against the clear command of Allah, who says;”
“Whoever kills one innocent person it is as though he has killed the whole of humanity!”
The children were more subdued than usual.
“Don’t take any notice of those who blame you for what happened,” said Sheikh Omar, “It’s not your fault. Remember what the Qur’an says when foolish people say bad things. ‘Say; Peace! and walk on by.’”
“These attacks are completely against Islam!” I heard this many times over the next few weeks, months and years. They were repeated every time an attack or atrocity was committed in the name of Islam. But I began to feel very uneasy about this statement. If these attacks are completely against Islam why are these people doing it? Don’t they know their own religion? Hasn’t anyone pointed out the terrible mistake they’re making? In the staff room the discussions invariably turned to conspiracy theories.
“The Jews did it!”
“Ask yourself who benefits from this? Bin Laden or the Jews?”
“Bin Laden had nothing to do with it”
“Bin Laden is a CIA agent.”
“It’s America’s fault for supporting Israel.”
“The CIA did it!”
“The Jews and the CIA did it!”
One claim which passed around as solid fact was that 4000 Israelis did not turn up to the World Trade Centre on the day of the bombing. It was presented as proof that Israel was behind the attacks. Rather like Chinese Whispers, this particular myth was modified to 4000 ‘Jews’ rather than ‘Israelis’, as someone along the line must have realised it was highly unlikely that 4000 Israelis worked in the World Trade Centre. Everyone I knew lapped it up unquestioningly. No one wanted to look at the facts. There were five Israeli deaths and around 400 Jewish deaths. A total of 2,071 occupants of the World Trade Centre died. That means 19% of those who died were Jewish. Since the Jewish population in New York is around 12% and for the US as a whole just over 1%, the proportion of Jews who died is, if anything, higher than one might expect. But Muslims continue to pass around the ‘fact’ that 4000 Jews stayed away from work, as proof that ‘they’ had prior knowledge.
The average Muslim’s love of conspiracy theories is not confined to Jews. Wild theories about anything and anyone abound. One theory is that April Fool’s Day is the day Christians massacred Muslims. I was once passed a circular at a gathering in Leicester, stating that playing April Fool pranks were Haram. It read;
“Many of us celebrate what is known as April Fool or, if it is translated literally, the “Trick of April”. But how much do we know of the bitter secret behind this day? When the Muslims ruled Spain, approximately one thousand years ago, they were a force that could not be destroyed. The Christians wished they could wipe Islam from the face of the earth… They tried numerous times and never succeeded. After that, the Kuffar (infidels) sent their spies to Spain to study and find out the secret of the Muslims’ strength. They discovered that adhering to Taqwa (Piety/God-fearing) was the reason. When the Christians discovered the secret of the Muslims’ strength, they started to think of strategies to break it. On this basis they began to send wine and cigars to Spain for free.
This tactic produced results, and the faith of the Muslims began to weaken, especially among the young generation. The result of that was that the western Catholic Christians subdued the whole of Spain and put an end to the Muslim rule of that land which had lasted for more than 800 years. The last stronghold of the Muslims, in Grenada, fell on April 1st, hence they considered this to be the “Trick of April.” From that year until the present, they celebrate this day and consider the Muslims to be fools.”
Clearly the temptation of free wine and cigars was too much for the pious Muslims to bear. I asked the brother who gave me the handout what the evidence was for this. He said it came to him from ‘good authority,’ but did not clarify exactly what that was and appeared angry that I should even ask. Other conspiracies include the “The Simpsons” cartoons, which aims to corrupt young people and poisoning the water supply in Muslim countries with aphrodisiacs to make young men and women sexually promiscuous.
Amongst the most hilarious conspiracy theories is the hidden message in the Coca-Cola logo, which when held upside down to a mirror, spells the Arabic words “La Muhammad, La Makka” (There is no Muhammad and no Mecca), or a Nike sports shoe that has Allah written on the sole. No one has yet explained to me what the Coca-Cola or Nike companies hoped to achieve by these dastardly plots or why they should want to suffer a huge drop in sales by insulting Muslims. One friend offered the explanation that Coca-Cola and Nike are owned by Jews. He didn’t feel the need to expand any further. Perhaps they hoped that were enough Muslims to drink from bottles with the message ‘there is no Makkah and no Muhammad’, it might make Makkah and Muhammad disappear, and if enough people were to wear the Nike shoes in question and walk on Allah, it might kill Him. (Fortunately Muslims uncovered these plots before such terrible things could happen.) This conspiracy mentality is so interwoven into the very fabric of the way Muslims think, that they cannot see how ridiculous it makes them look. But it is no trivial matter, because it justifies prejudices and feelings of being the victim which in turn justifies hatred and bigotry towards the perceived perpetrators as well as diverting Muslims from any serious introspection.
While it frustrated me that most Muslims refused to accept that there was a problem within ourselves, it was the extremists that concerned me most. When I heard about the attacks in America, I remembered how Sheikh Faisal had unashamedly encouraged Muslims to do exactly this sort of thing. I realised how wrong I was to dismiss him and his kind as ineffectual lunatics. Faisal was still giving his sermons at Willesden and elsewhere. I felt I had to do something. I had a responsibility to the impressionable minds he was filling full of hatred and violence. I decided to seek advice from Sheikh Ahmad. I found his answer inspiring. He quoted the saying of the Prophet;
“Help your brother when he is wronging others or being wronged.”
The people asked ‘Oh Prophet of God, we can help him if he is being wronged, but how can we help him when he is wronging others?”
The prophet replied ‘Stop him!’”
Although I did not know it at the time, but amongst Sheikh Faisal’s followers was Jermain Lindsey, one of the July 7th London bombers. He must have sat, just as I had done, listening to Sheikh Faisal exhorting Muslims to “Kill the Kuffar”, and that is exactly what he did. He killed twenty-six Kuffar sitting on an underground train between Kings Cross and Russell Square in London. Others who sat there listening to Faisal’s sermons include Zacarias Moussaoui, implicated in the 9/11 plot, and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, who had tried to blow up an American Airlines plane. Both had faithfully attempted to follow Faisal’s advice to “Kill the Kuffar.” I did eventually write a letter to both Brent Council and the Police about Faisal’s speeches. However, he was allowed to continue speaking for a year and, if the press are to be believed, was only picked up by a chance finding of tapes of his hate speeches in the boot of a car belonging to a terrorist suspect.
When Faisal was finally arrested he claimed he had been sent to the UK to preach by Sheikh Rajhi, a Saudi Sheikh and a member of Al-Rabwa Office for Islamic Da’wa and Guidance in Riyadh. No doubt Sheikh Rajhi and all the moderate Saudi Salafis would strenuously deny they are responsible for Faisal’s violent views, but it is yet more proof – if proof were needed – that the Salafi creed forms the basis of the Jihadi ideology. Sheikh Faisal claimed that he was only saying what the Qur’an and the Prophet said and that if he were put on trail then so too would be Islam. The prospect of Islam being on trial in a British court intrigued me, and I was eager to hear the arguments for and against the religion of Islam being the source of Faisal’s hate speeches. However the judge side-stepped that potentially explosive issue, saying;
“The defendant’s claim to be to be able to justify any utterance of his with reference to the Koran or the Hadith… may well have a relevance to your consideration of his intention in saying what he did, but it does not of itself afford him a defence in law… that the use of those words in the circumstances he spoke them are proved to be contrary to the law of this country and thus an offence, no more or less than a similar citation from anyone else’s holy book including the Bible would be.”
The jury convicted Faisal of soliciting murder, and he was sentenced to nine years in prison. But the question of how far Islam itself was responsible for the terrorist attacks wouldn’t go away, and I was beginning to believe more and more that, at the very least, Islam did lend itself rather too easily to extremist interpretation. Soon after 9/11 Bin Laden gave an interview to Al-Jazeera saying;
“The scholars and people of the knowledge amongst them say that if the disbelievers were to kill our children and women, then we should not feel ashamed to do the same to them. Allah says;”
“And if you punish (your enemy), then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted” (16:126)
It would have been easier to dismiss Bin Laden and his group of fanatics were they the only ones who propagated such a hard-line and literalist understanding of Islam, but there were many Muslims who held similar views and justified the September 11th attacks according to Islam. After breaking my fast during Ramadan, a friend and I began discussing the meaning and limits of Jihad.
“Even if Bin Laden is fighting Jihad in defence of oppressed Muslims – as he claims – the Qur’an clearly forbids killing innocent people. God said, ‘He who kills one innocent soul it is as though he has killed the whole of mankind.’ Look how serious it is. How can any true Muslim even think about doing such a thing?”
“Hassan, don’t be like those foolish Muslims who run around saying, ‘The Qur’an says killing innocents is forbidden, therefore these terrorists are going against Islam’ – any scholar will tell you it’s not that simple. Firstly, there’s a difference between the people who worked at the World Trade Centre and the average Joe. These people maintain the economic infrastructure that supports American aggression against Muslims.”
“Does that mean we have the right to murder them? And what about the people on the planes, the firemen and other emergency services – surely you can’t deny they’re innocent?”
“The Prophet was asked about the people in the homes of Mushrikun (Polytheists) when they are attacked at night and their women and children are affected, he said, “They are part of them.” Also Ibn Qudamah, may Allah have mercy on him, said: ‘It is permissible to use Catapult because the Prophet used Catapult on the people of Ta’if.’ The catapult of course does not distinguish between soldier and civilian. It is a sad fact of war, Hassan, that innocents are sometimes killed. All the scholars are agreed that the killing of innocents in such circumstances is permitted, so long as they are not the intended target. The truth is that the US and her allies have killed far more innocents than the so-called terrorists. When Muslims do it, it’s murder; when America does it, it’s called ‘collateral damage.’”
“The actions of the US government don’t concern me; what concerns me is the morality of what I claim to believe in. I cannot accept that it is ever right to make innocent people pay for the crimes of others?”
“The Qur’an says that we can retaliate in the same manner as they attack us. So if they kill our innocents we can do likewise.”
“It doesn’t mean that we can break the rule on killing innocents.”
“Have a look at the evidence presented by Sheikh Shu’aybee.” He handed me little pamphlet. “If someone votes for a Government that is waging war on Muslims, then they are not truly innocent are they? And if they are paying taxes to that government to help it buy guns and bombs that are used to kill innocent Muslims then they are not truly innocent are they?”
“That’s ridiculous! Ordinary people are not responsible for the actions of their government? And we have no choice about taxes.”
“But isn’t that what Democracy is supposed to be about? Government by the people for the people?”
“Well, yes, but that doesn’t make them responsible for decisions they didn’t make. Look, if you start using such a narrow definition of who is innocent then no one is truly innocent. Use your common sense for God’s sake.”
I couldn’t understand how such a devout and pious Muslim, who carried out every religious duty to a fault, could be so confident in beliefs that were so obviously immoral, so obviously wrong. This led me to an even more troubling thought; was I like him? Not in the sense of trying to justify killing innocent people, but what if I was also confident in beliefs that were wrong?
It was a thought I couldn’t bear to think. But the more I tried to push it from my mind the more it haunted me. What if the Qur’an is not the word of God? What if Muhammad is not the prophet of God? And what if Islam is not true? But fear of burning in Hell terrified me and would not allow me to think about the answer rationally.