Our armchair jihadists

An interesting look inside London, England’s  Muslim sub-culture.

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Times Online, April 12-2009

After being shot, Sami Yousafzai fled Pakistan for London, thinking he was escaping Islamic extremism. He was shocked by the menacing support for the Taliban he found here

I still don’t know who wanted me dead. I’d been sitting in my car one day last November, not far from my house in the northwest Pakistan city of Peshawar, when a group of strangers walked up. One of them pointed a pistol through my window.

I remember that he wore a turban and shalwar kameez – the tunic and baggy pants common in the area – and that he had a long beard, dyed red with henna.

He shot me in the chest, hand and arm and then fled with his friends.

Miraculously, none of the bullets hit any arteries or vital organs. As soon as a doctor had patched me up, I booked a flight to London, where I planned to lie low for a while to rest and seek further medical help for a bullet that was lodged in my arm.

But more than that, I just wanted to be somewhere calm and safe, far from AK-toting gunmen, the suicide bombers and the daily, random violence of Pakistan’s borderlands.

My sense of relief at being in London didn’t last long. In one of the city’s many south Asian neighbourhoods I saw a tall young Afghan who reminded me of my would-be assassin, striding down the street like a bad dream. He, too, had a long beard and wore a shalwar kameez plus a big, loose turban of white silk.

Anyone dressed like that in Islam-abad would immediately have been picked up for questioning by the police. I had flown halfway across the world to get away from killers who resembled this young Londoner. I stared after him until he was gone from view.

But as the days passed I spotted him again and again. He stood out even in a neighbourhood full of Asians dressed in traditional garb. The locals had a nickname for him: “Talib Jan”. It’s a friendly Afghan slang term for a Taliban member, rather like GI Joe for Americans.

The crowded, run-down terraced houses in this area and others like it have become home to hundreds of Afghans who arrived in England as fugitives from the Taliban’s brutality. Nevertheless, most of Jan’s neighbours spoke of him tolerantly or even approvingly.

In fact, during my three-month stay in England I met a surprising number of Muslims who shared Jan’s fascination with the Taliban. The older generation had little love for the extremists. But among some younger men, frustrated and marginalised in British society, I discovered a fury that was depressingly familiar.

Many immigrants were blatant, vocal and unquestioning in their support for what they imagined to be “jihad”. Few seemed troubled by the brutality that had characterised the reign of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, or by his banning of music or of education for girls.

Indeed, many looked back on Omar’s rule as a kind of Islamic utopia and eagerly snapped up the Islamist leaflets handed out after Friday prayers at various mosques.

I introduced myself to Jan at one of those mosques and complimented him on his taste in clothes: that’s how people dress back home in Afghanistan, I said. (I was born in northern Afghanistan; my family fled to Pakistan in 1979 to escape the Soviet invasion.)

Despite his fierce appearance, Jan turned out to be friendly and outgoing. He listened with interest to my story, but mostly he talked about himself, his Islamist views, his fierce support for the Taliban and his contempt for the Brits and Americans fighting them.

His vehemence surprised me. Now 23 years old, Jan had been born in eastern Afghanistan and attended a madrasah in Pakistan. The Taliban were still ruling Afghanistan when his parents paid a people-smuggler to sneak him to England at 14.

There he applied for political asylum, claiming the Taliban had persecuted him and his family. Now, of course, he’s a legal resident yet openly cheers for his supposed oppressors to defeat troops from his adopted homeland. The irony seems lost on him.

In London he prowls the streets as a one-man, self-appointed morality patrol. He castigates any young Muslim couples whom he sees holding hands in public and he criticises acquaintances for shaping their beards into what he disapprovingly calls a “French cut” that frames the mouth.

His diatribes can be frightening. Several young men told me they were afraid Jan had friends who could create problems for them or their relatives in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Some feared they might be disowned if Jan got word to their families about their “immoral” lives in London.

At a neighbourhood restaurant one day, I noticed that my waiter looked miserable. Khalil, a clean-shaven, broad-shouldered young Afghan who wears a gold ring in one earlobe, told me that he’d been dumped a few days earlier by his girlfriend, a beautiful young Englishwoman.

They’d been out walking when Talib Jan marched up and began denouncing Khalil, threatening to let his family back in Afghanistan know that their son was having a forbidden affair.

The girl was frightened by Jan, but more than that, she was furious at Khalil for lying to her: he had told her he was Turkish. She told him they were through.

Now Khalil worries that same routine will be repeated with every girl he meets. He’s also convinced that Jan knows how to find his family in Afghanistan and can make big trouble for him there.

“I wanted to marry that girl, but now I have no hope,” he told me. “My family lives in the insecure countryside. If I go back and the Taliban know I have an English girlfriend, they will behead me.”

I asked if he thought Jan was a member of the Taliban. “No,” Khalil answered. “He is not with the militias, but he is a big headache for every Afghan who knows him.”

As far as I can tell, Jan is an armchair jihadist. Certainly I saw no sign that he had direct ties to the Taliban, or that anyone was paying him to proselytise. On the contrary, he works hard to support himself with business deals – such as buying and selling used cars.

I often found him in a little shop that sells mobile phones and watches. A crowd of young bearded men hang out there: more armchair jihadists.

The shop’s 35-year-old owner, a Pakistani from Peshawar, loves to show them the latest Taliban videos on his mobile phone, featuring beheadings of alleged antiTaliban “spies” and ambushes of US forces.

When asked if he was worried the authorities might discover his collection of videos, he told me: “If our Taliban brothers can stand up to B-52 bombing and modern US war technology, it would be cowardly of me to be afraid to watch and share their heroic actions.”

The shopkeeper disturbed me: he is relatively well educated and a former banker, yet makes no secret of his Islamist leanings. Giving change, he avoids touching a woman’s hand.

He also claims that in his days as a radical religious student in Peshawar in the mid1990s, he and a group of friends murdered several prostitutes in what he calls a “moral cleansing drive”. (This may or may not be true.) He warned me about speaking against the Taliban, even in London: people’s loved ones at home could get hurt, he said darkly.

Jan, too, is always glad to pull out his Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone and share videos of Taliban training camps and coalition convoys hit by IEDs. He even has Taliban ringtones – fire-and-brimstone sermons and Koranic recitals from jihadist mullahs. If you want copies, he’ll transfer them to your phone or point you to the right website.

“I’m winning converts to a holy cause every day,” he says. As for the police, Jan says he’s never had problems with them. They seem to regard him as a deeply religious man, he says, or at least as a harmless eccentric.

In fact, Jan embodies a powerful need among many young Muslims in Britain to preserve a sense of identity in a foreign land.

One 50-year-old engineer told me he worries constantly about his four children – particularly his two sons, aged 19 and 20. They seem addicted to internet porn, he says, but what scares him even more is the amount of time they spend on jihadist websites. He worries as well about extremist operatives who hang out at local mosques, trying to recruit young people to the Taliban cause.

The appeal of extremism is especially strong for immigrants fed up with hard times and bigotry.

In Birmingham I met an unemployed man from Kandahar who said he’d just lost his job and feared he wouldn’t be able to feed his family.

“If I get hit by a car or bus one day crossing the street, who will look after my family?” he asked. “It would be better for me to go and fight and die with the Taliban. Then at least I could see paradise.”

One 35-year-old British Muslim, an office worker, told me he was infuriated by widespread discrimination. He hadn’t had a promotion in 10 years, he said, and he believes this is because he’s an ardent Muslim who has a long beard and never joins his colleagues at the pub.

“This kind of behaviour is what makes Muslims extremist,” he said.

Jan himself says most Britons look on him with “love and kindness”, but others occasionally stare at him with “hate” and won’t sit next to him on the train.

Most of these young men, even Jan, will probably never give up their lives in Britain to join the jihad in Afghanistan. But something of that far-off fight, some tinge of blood and chaos and hatred, has certainly seeped into the streets of London.

Alokozai, 27, arrived in the city a year ago after an arduous trip via the Afghans’ underground network. He used to be an interpreter/fixer for British troops in Kandahar. The pay was excellent by Afghan standards – some $1,600 a month – but then the death threats began. His family’s lives would be worthless unless he left his job, the anonymous letters warned.

He quit. In Britain he applied for political asylum, thinking he had finally escaped the Taliban’s wrath. Then the phone woke him one night at 3am. “Death angels will soon clutch at your throat,” an Afghan voice warned. “Remember, we have Islamic brothers in the UK. Your family should not rest easy in Kandahar, either.”

He says he could only listen to the voice, too scared to say anything himself.

Now Alokozai worries all the time. Too many Afghans in London sympathise with the Taliban, he says. He thinks many recent asylum seekers, especially those from southern Afghanistan, have ties to the Taliban and remain under the sway of extremist ideas. “They will create trouble for Britain in the near future,” he predicts.

Equally disturbing to him are the thoroughly assimilated Muslims, who also treat him like a traitor to his religion. When they find out he worked for British forces in Afghanistan, they ask him: “How many houses did you bomb?” And: “How many innocents did you kill?”

“These people are as narrow-minded and have as much hate in their eyes as the Taliban do in Afghanistan,” he says. “I cannot understand how these Afghans and Pakistanis can wear western clothes, dance and drink and then condemn me and see the Taliban as their heroes.”

Neither can I. On a train one day I met Owais, a 27-year-old Pakistani from Kashmir, who began praising the Taliban and talking seriously of going to live in Afghanistan after Mullah Omar returned to power.

“My fervent wish is that, next winter, we may be able to breathe freely in the restored Islamic state of Afghanistan,” he declared in Urdu.

Here you can breathe freely, too, I told him.

At this point his travelling companion butted in. “No, only in a true Islamic state can we be free,” said Ishaq, a 25-year-old Afghan immigrant who was wearing a long white tunic over his jeans. “The West is destroying the spirit, soul and values of Islam. Muslims should avoid contact with the West.”

As I go home to my family, I too wonder and worry about such men. There is too much of Peshawar in them – and in London.

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