Why the children of England’s immigrants look to radical Islam for a sense of belonging
Second-generation British Pakistanis, like those who planned the 7/7 London transit bombings, lack “a durable sense of identity,” writes Aatish Taseer in Prospect (August 2005). An Indian-Pakistani-Londoner himself, Taseer explains that the often educated and wealthy young men who are drawn to radical Islam come from a background of cultural dislocation and social detachment. Islam offers them a sense of order, identity, and purpose. Case in point: Hassan Butt, a 25-year-old from Manchester who dreams of dying a martyr in service to a worldwide Islamic religious state. His thoughts and motivations (he spent two years in Pakistan recruiting people to fight the coalition forces in Afghanistan), are captured in a markedly candid interview with Taseer, which is excerpted here. His fury and resolve provide a critical afterword to Utne’s interview (November-December 2005) with the moderate Parvez Ahmed, who sits on the Council on American-Islamic Relations.—The Editors
Hassan Butt: I grew up in a very open-minded family. There are only four of us. My parents never made us pray, never sent us to the mosque, which was very different from your average Pakistani family who would make sure that the child learned something.
Aatish Taseer: So how did you discover Islam, or rediscover it?
HB: Well, being Kashmiri, I’m hotheaded by nature, and so are my brothers. That was leading us down a path of destruction. A lot of the people I grew up among were on drugs, were involved in crime, prostitution, at very young ages. I remember when I came across the first Muslim who talked to me about Islam in a language I understood. He pointed out that I had a lot of anger and frustration that I should direct in a more productive manner. It was from there that I got discussing Islam seriously—even though we were hotheads, me and my brothers always had brains, we weren’t thugs. We were still getting top grades in our exams.
AT: How old were you when you changed?
HB: I was 17 when I really started practicing.
AT: Was it through a mosque?
HB: No. My elder brother was in college. I was still at secondary school. We met some members of Hizb ut-Tahrir inside a masjid (mosque) and got talking. They showed me that beyond the recitation of the Koran, the praying, the fasting, the hajj, Islam is a complete system, a complete way of life.
AT: Tell me about your daily life.
HB: Daily routine would be getting up to pray the fajr without failure, staying awake for as long as I can, for at least an hour, an hour and a half, reciting the Koran, purely in Arabic.
AT: Is your Arabic good?
HB: My Arabic, unfortunately, is not the best and I guess I have my parents to blame for that. . . . As an English- and Urdu-speaking person, I can only see the beauty of Islam from the outside. I believe the Arabic language will give me that key to have access to those things I don’t have access to at the moment. After I learn Arabic, inshallah, I will get myself militarily trained.
AT: You have said that it would be an honor to be called a terrorist. Surely, even in an Islamic context, that can’t be a positive label.
HB: The word irhab is the root word for terror in Islam, and irhabiyun is the word for terrorist. Allah mentions the word in the Koran many times; the one who strikes terror in their hearts is an irhabiyun. If I could have that title Islamically, then I would be more than happy to take it and be proud of it. But unfortunately, I haven’t reached that level yet.
AT: Was it difficult growing up here as a Muslim? Did you sense an anti-Islamic feeling?
HB: The British establishment has always had a hatred towards Islam. I watched that program on the BBC—an undercover report on trainee policemen—and one of the police officers had the honesty to admit what he felt: He said he would kill a Muslim if he could get away with it. And I do believe in my heart of hearts that the majority of British people—the majority being outside of London—would do that if they had the opportunity.
AT: Do many Muslims in Britain feel like you do?
HB: I would say the majority of Muslims in this country care about neither moderate nor radical Islam; they care about living their day-to-day life. But of those people who are practicing, the majority of them hold my views. The difference is that some people come out publicly and others keep quiet. Official figures say there are 3 million Muslims here. [There are in fact 1.6 million.] Out of that number, I would say there are 750,000 who have an interest in Islam and about 80 percent of those were over the moon about 9/11.
HB: The motivation is the pleasure of Allah, first and foremost. We understand that Islam is by its nature beautiful; it is not a backward, medieval-type way of life, as a lot of Westerners believe. In the 15th century, during the Spanish Inquisition, where did the Jews run to? To the Ottoman caliphate, Islam was an inspiration. All true human rights are based on Islam.
AT: Why is there a “Muslim problem” today? Ten or fifteen years ago there wasn’t the sort of movement you see today. What changed?
HB: I don’t agree with you. Ten or fifteen years ago the Muslims had just experienced their first victory of the 20th century, against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The belief that this was due to American support is ridiculous. Muslims, especially from the Middle East, financed the jihad just as much, if not more. This is well documented. With that victory under their belt, the Muslims began to realize that they could control their own political destiny. They woke up. You then had Iraq being attacked, you had Chechnya, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Algeria, you had all these Muslim areas being attacked, and you had Muslims waking up and saying, “Hang on, this isn’t a coincidence.”
AT: Why do you think that is?
HB: Because after the fall of communism, America began to realize that Islam was a threat. Islam is a way of life, a way of life superior to communism and capitalism. Christianity is a mere religion and can’t cater for people’s way of life, but Islam can. With the fall of the Soviet Union, people started turning to Islam as a way of life, whereas America wanted to spread capitalism across the world. That’s why Islam became the enemy.
AT: Do you consider yourself a religious teacher of sorts? Do you speak to people in the community?
HB: I speak to a lot of people in the community. I have a gym in my house where I invite people to come back and exercise, and we have regular study circles at my house.
AT: What sort of people are these?
HB: A lot of them are youth, because I do believe that when Islam is being practiced by youth, Islam will be alive. If it’s practiced by the older generation, it will always remain old, slow.
AT: Given that the Koran is incontestable to the letter, and that it is unique because there is no other religion in which there is a text so pure, handed down from God to man, can there be a moderate Muslim?
HB: No. You’ve hit the nail on the head. If someone believes that it’s the incontestable word of Allah, how can he take a moderate view? We must fight if it is the will of Allah.
AT: Do you see this rise of extremism among British Muslims as rooted in economic disadvantage?
HB: I think that’s a myth, pushed forward by so-called moderate Muslims. If you look at the 19 hijackers on 9/11, which one of them didn’t have a degree? Mohammed Atta was an engineer [he was actually an architect and town planner] at the highest level. These people are not deprived or uneducated; they are the peak of society. Most of the people I sit with are in fact university students; they come from wealthy families. Islam caters for everybody: the economically deprived and the most educated person. Even Osama himself, Sheikh Osama, came from wealth I could never dream of.
AT: Is military action part of the plan?
HB: If someone wants to go into military action, I would encourage them. For me there is nothing bigger if somebody goes out there and kills for the sake of Allah or is killed for the sake of Allah.
AT: Why suicide bombing?
HB: There is a difference between suicide and martyrdom. Suicide is about unhappiness, depression. That’s not what these people are. These people have an urge to be with Allah, to be with the Prophet. They are happy before committing these actions.
AT: What’s the position of the radical Islamic movement in Britain today? Is it growing or declining?
HB: I do believe that support is growing. In the public eye it seems as though only a tiny number of Muslims are making this noise, but the fact is that only a tiny number have the courage to speak out.
AT: What about your future?
HB: I do believe that I’ve got a bigger role to play and when the time comes, I will definitely make my preparations to play that role.
AT: It’s martyrdom, isn’t it?
HB: Absolutely. It’s something that makes me really depressed being stuck in this country because I know I’m so far away from it.
AT: Why have so few of the predicted attacks on the United States and Britain after the Iraq invasion happened?
HB: If someone was to attack Britain, they would be a completely and utterly loose cannon. It would be someone who wasn’t involved in the . . . jihad network. A bomb in Britain would be strategically damaging to Muslims here. Immigration is lax in Britain—you know as well as I that London has more radical Muslims than anywhere in the Muslim world. A bomb would jeopardize everyone’s position. There has got to be a place we can come.
AT: Why not more attacks in America?
HB: America is much more difficult to get into than Britain—it’s so far from the rest of the world.
AT: Are there a disproportionate number of Pakistanis who want to take part in this sort of thing?
HB: In Britain, the majority I know are of Pakistani descent and really are fed up with the British way of life, British standards. They are even fed up with the un-Islamic Pakistani culture and traditions.
AT: And it's not the economic conditions of the Pakistanis that make them well suited?
HB: Not anymore. Most Pakistanis here are well established, they own their own homes, many have gone to university.
AT: What was your university experience like?
HB: Until we got there [Wolverhampton University], there had never been any Islamic activity. There was a group of 15 of us, and we all decided to go to the same university. We recruited another 10 to 15 and came out very explosively. We had Islamic awareness weeks, we demanded a prayer room, washing facilities.
AT: You were expelled. What for?
HB: I was accused of getting Muslims to assault a homosexual student. Now, I don’t hide my views about homosexuality: In Islam it is forbidden. If someone wants to do it privately, that’s fine, but don't come out publicly with it.
AT: Did you like being in Pakistan?
HB: I loved it. I've never had a better two years in my life. I see Pakistan as the only country having the potential to lead the Muslim world out of its disarray.
AT: Why did you come back from Pakistan in 2002?
HB: My role currently is using the Western media to get our message across. I said to one maulana (master) that I really want to go and fight, and he said, “The war has many fronts. We can’t come to Britain. You’re from Britain, you can use the media, you speak their language, you’re an educated person, you have a passport, go there and use it.”
AT: A big question: What's your wish for the global order? How would you like to see it readjusted?
HB: I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. Fourteen hundred years ago you had a small city-state in Medina, and within 10 years of the Prophet, Islam had spread to Egypt and all the way into Persia. I don’t see why the rest of the world, the White House, 10 Downing Street, shouldn’t come under the banner of Islam.
AT: With a lot of killing?
HB: It’s unavoidable.
AT: You’ve spoken about martyrdom for yourself. Would you send your children into it?
HB: My mother is arranging for me to get married. Unlike Pakistani tradition, which doesn’t allow you to speak to the girl beforehand, I’ve made sure that I’ve spoken to the sister, made sure that I’m compatible with her. Obviously, I’m not going to date her or court her.
AT: Have you ever dated?
HB: No, never in my life. It’s one thing I was never really that interested in. I started practicing just about the age most guys started getting interested in girls. But I’ve always said to my mother: I must have someone like-minded, she has to be at least the same or more extreme than me. Do you remember the Moscow theater siege? When you had all those sisters . . . when I saw that, I said to my mother: You have to marry me to someone like that.
AT: So where do you go from here?
HB: First things first: fight to get my passport back. Since leaving al-Muhajiroun I have formed this group, just nine of us, and I’m focusing on them.
AT: Tell me: Why did you agree to this interview?
HB: Unlike other Muslims, I understand the power of the media. For me, the more we can expose ourselves the better. Even though it may be edited and twisted and taken out of context, I still believe that Islam twisted is better than no Islam. Even if ten people criticize me, so long as one agrees with me, my objective is being fulfilled.