Sunday, July 31, 2005

Whate makes clean-cut young men explode? 

Mohammad Sidique Khan was never on the corner, a detail friends offer as a compliment. In a neighborhood where many young South Asian men had lost their way, or foundered into drug dealing, Mr. Khan's peers admired his focus on family, work, working out, and Islam.
And you thought that getting into drugs is the worst that could happen? Khan, of course, was the oldest one of the London four who blew themselves up, killing over 50 others, of July 7. "The New York Times" continues (registration required):
Mr. Khan, Mr. Tanweer and Mr. Hussain were part of a larger clique of young British-raised South Asian men in Beeston, a neighborhood of Leeds, who turned their backs on what they came to see as a decadent, demoralizing Western culture. Instead, the group embraced an Islam whose practice was often far more fundamentalist than their fathers', and always more political, focused passionately on Muslim suffering at Western hands.

In many ways, the transformation has had positive elements: the men live healthier and more constructive lives than many of their peers here, Asian or white, who have fallen prey to drugs, alcohol or petty crime.
And in other ways, the transformation has had negative elements - and the rest is now history. Amy Waldman then tries to find out what had made such healthy and clean-cut men explode: "Many here see answers in the sense of injustice at events both at home and abroad that is far more widespread among Muslims than many Westerners recognize; in the rigid and deeply political form of Islam that increasing numbers of educated European Muslims are gravitating to; in the difficulty some children of Muslim immigrants in Europe have had in finding their place or direction."

It's that last factor that particularly interests me - just why are the second-generation migrants from (in this case) Muslim countries less assimilated than their parents? The parents came to Great Britain in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, at the time when racism was far more prevalent and diversity was not celebrated the way it is today. More often than not they came with little or nothing, to live in a very alien society on the other side of the world. Yet terrorism was not their response to the realities and challenges of new life. Why? As Fareed Zakaria writes, "they did not become murderers; they started fish-and-chips shops."

The parents, quite simply, were far too busy making a decent life for themselves - and for their children - to think about politics. The children's flirtation with radicalism and terrorism is a function of two factors - time and opportunity. Thanks to their parents' hard work, they have reasonably comfortable lives, hence no pressure to try to make it in order to keep their heads above water. They can afford to drift aimlessly or engage in professional pursuits that are far less time consuming than running a small family business. Either way, there's plenty more time on one's hands, should one choose to feel alienated, oppressed or angry.

The overwhelming majority of young Muslim men, of course, don't become terrorist in those circumstances. Only a handful do, with more perhaps being quietly sympathetic to the actions, or at least to the sentiments behind the actions, of their more daring peers. Should we blame parents? Did they spoil their children, and fail to instill them the values of hard work and drive to succeed? Or didn't they perhaps pay their children enough attention, too busy trying to make it in the adopted country? Ironic, since all that hard work was ultimately for the kids - so they wouldn't have to face the same pressures, and go through the same travails to have a decent life.

It is the same sorts of questions that ordinary, decent, hard-working parents - migrant or not - always ask themselves when their progeny goes off the rails, whether it is into the world of substance abuse and addiction, violence and crime, or some other sort of rebellion. This is usually a private tragedy and regret of an individual family, with little resonance beyond the closest circle of kin. This time, however, the shockwaves rock the whole society. The difference is a sick ideology that preys of young minds and fosters resentment and hatred.

See also a related discussion at Normblog.


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