Ed Husain, author of a memoir The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, explains the dynamic which turns Muslims with Western technical educations so frequently into terrorists.
Right from the very top of the terrorist hierarchy, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri downward(Bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy); the soldiers of extremism have all traveled a similar path: past membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, a secular education, rejection of mainstream Muslims, a hatred for the West and ultimately taking up arms against peoples and governments.
The rank-and-file of Islamist organizations, the precursors to terrorism, are filled with activists with a technical education. The instructor of my first secret cell in Hizb ut-Tahrir in London was a town planner; my second cell-leader was a medical doctor. Even today, medical doctors manage the British arm of Hizb ut-Tahrir-a global Islamist political party working for the re-establishment of an Islamic caliphate: doctors Nasim Ghani, Abdul Wahid, and Nazreen Nawaz. Globally, the central leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir is a Jordan-based engineer, Abu Rishta. The story of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is similar. When Islamists graduate to jihadist terrorism the profile is equally chilling.
Osama bin Laden ran a construction company in Saudi Arabia and later, the Sudan. His deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a Cairo-trained paediatrician. The mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, is a mechanical engineer who studied at North Carolina University. The lead hijacker, Mohammed Atta, was a student of urban planning in Hamburg.
In the Arab world, the parental and social pressures on young people to pursue medical and engineering careers only compounds the misery of creative young minds, forced to study subjects under duress. Thousands of undergraduates seek greater meaning in life, an experience beyond the mundane necessities of medicine, and a purpose that occupies their free time. Islamist networks neatly slot into this void.
As a teacher at the University of Damascus in Syria, I listened to the frustrations of my students who yearned to study subjects that interested them: literature, philosophy, theology, history, or art. But becoming a doctor was the only way to please their parents, attain high social status and in many cases escape the Arab world and live in the West. Sadly, often that “escape” radicalizes young Arabs.
When in Britain, for example, they become misfits among English cultural exclusivity and develop their own socio-religious networks. Suddenly there appears a need to display their being excessively Muslim: beards grow longer, trousers shorter, music condemned, confrontational politics advocated and the company of women shirked. The terror suspects arrested in Britain all manifested these traits. This turning to Wahhabi Islam, an austere form of Saudi religiosity, combined with political Islamism, has proven to be a lethal cocktail. What we call ‘Al Qaeda’ is only one manifestation of that mindset.
In the past, Muslims did not pronounce on religious matters without the endorsement of trained theologians, the ulama. The ulama were the bastion of religious knowledge that operated in an informal yet consensual method of intellectual plurality, interpretational elasticity, and maintained a centuries-old chain of transmission of sacred knowledge, known as the ijaza. Before modern-day terrorists turned to destroying buildings and killing innocents, they violently rejected this millennium-old Muslim tradition of learning. …
Just as their bombing techniques are amateur and desperate, often destined to failure, so is their reading of scripture and warped justification for suicide bombings and killing humans. They approach the Qu’ran as though it were an engineering manual, with instructions for right and wrong conduct. Literalism and ignorance dominates their readings. This flaw is deepened by the haughty mindset of the engineer or medical doctor that academic achievement, a place at a university, now qualifies him to approach ancient scripture without the guidance of the ulama. To the Islamist engineer, centuries of context, nuance, history, grammar, lexicon, scholarship, and tradition are all lost and redundant. The do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude to religious texts, fostered by doctors and engineers of secular colleges, produces desperate, angry suicide bombers devoid of spiritual guidance.