From The Garden of Wild Ideas:
Some Dangerous Thoughts on Asymmetry

Feb '07 by David Dienstag

At night it begins. The inmates yell from one cell to another across an empty common area. The punks are the loudest, bragging about their guns, women and hoods. It can go on till 3 AM breakfast. The DC thugs call themselves "the realest niggahs" They take pride in the DC murder rate. The Muslims generally stay silent.

Islam in the DC jail is here to stay. Qutb and Maududi would be proud. A self-sustaining idea has blown into the cells like dandelion seed, growing and flowering in the cracks, hateful concrete and forgotten rust. Islam can be worn like a fashion or believed in devoutly. Generally, the longer the sentence, the more earnest the believer. Many will not keep the faith quite so strictly when they leave jail but they will always identify themselves as Muslims when they look in the mirror. Islam has given them dignity and self-respect in a jail that is deliberately designed to take it away. Most of them will never forget it even if they had no idea of what dignity or self-respect was before they got here.

Because they were sustained by Islam in so trying a place, they will likely turn to Islam in future crisis. Each believer will tend to get out of Islam something that reflects what they put into it. When they get out, will they withdraw into themselves? Or will they reach out into their communities? Or will they become hateful Jihadis? As far as I can tell, it's a mixed bag. But there are no big dreams here, no visions to tap into. Not yet. There are only isolated Imams, struggling to cope with the spiritual needs of men who society deliberately wants to forget.

Yet there is a powerful sense that hangs in the air that these are primal conditions for revolution. There is much dissatisfaction, class and race tension here. There is also an, as yet, undefined Islam. But three vital ingredients are missing for revolutionary Islam to bloom. Sufficient pressure, spark and leadership.

A fundamental force that binds the community together is outside pressure. A sense of mutual defense kicks in and infighting ceases. Osama, after 9/11, is on videotape asking, "How many brothers are volunteering in the mosques?" Few people understand the importance of that grainy video clip. Understandably, they can't get past the horror in seeing Bin Laden's delight as he describes how he thought one tower would topple into the other on that awful day. But another revealing moment is in Bin Laden's earnest interest in how many came to the mosques around the world to join his Jihadis. Jihadism feeds on adversity based a sense of being wounded or abused. Striking back has a powerful magnetic attraction to the disenfranchised. For Osama, that was an important reason for the World Trade Center attacks. It was striking back for virtually anyone who feels they are a victim of "the system" or capitalism or whatever. The World Trade Center attack was a spark heard round the world responding to the pressure caused by the "evils" of the West, capitalism and infidels all rolled up in one glass and steel package.

One corner of the common area of a DC Jail cell block serves as a mosque. They call it "masjid" after the Arabic word. In some cases, they teach themselves Arabic which is no small feat from inside the DC jail in lock down. They are motivated. Many are angry. The Imam struggles to bring the voice of compassionate Islam to the prayers and conversations he presides over. But always, there is some brother who says something like: "Did you know that 30 minutes before 9/11, all the Jews in the World Trade Center were given phone calls warning them about the attack?" The mosque floor blooms blank stares from ghetto kids in the congregation who absorb the comment and say nothing.

I have seen this kind of phenomenon before. Peshawar, Pakistan was like this in the late 1980s. Arab "volunteers" wandered around the city preaching to any one they could corner and making claims about the Jews and the U.S. being behind all sorts of monstrous things. These were not from the mouths of any Imam. This came from the ground up. Jihadis had a favorite documentary that they liked to show, "This Is America". It painted the entire U.S. as one big avenue of vices. The nature of this phenomenon is not understood by American leadership. It is like an incendiary fungus that grows on Islam waiting for some smart revolutionary to pass through and toss a few matches.

After prayers, a member of the congregation tells a little story. It begins with, "When I was in the 82nd Airborne..." (I wish I had a dime for every man who falsely claims to have been some kind of a high speed soldier. If America really had them in the army, there would have been enough troops to win in Iraq and have enough left over to fight off an invasion of superior beings from Mars.) The story continues, "We were in Afghanistan in the 1980s, before all of this..." The story meanders through a lot of words that are meant to convey a patina of experience that cannot really exist as there were no units of the American Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That is when the Soviets were there. That would have been a world war that also never happened. But the kind of inadequate personality that tells these yarns will undoubtedly find its way into radical Islam looking for meaning and significance. These kind of personalities tend to be easily manipulated and easily brainwashed. Radical mosques in London are full of them. They are waiting to be called upon. It can happen here as well.

One of the newly minted "experts" on terrorism, Peter Bergen, has made numerous television appearances highlighting the notion that Al Qaeda declared war on the U.S. when American soldiers landed on the Arabian peninsula for Desert Storm. Mr. Bergen says this because Osama said it. But I know that Arab volunteers were gunning for the U.S. as far back as the late 1980s. I was there well before Mr. Bergen. I saw and talked to a numerous Arab "volunteers" and Pakistani Jihadis on a more intimate basis than any "terrorism expert" I am aware of. In 1985, while this writer was at the UN lobbying on behalf of the Mujahedin, then fighting the Soviets, I was invited to the Jamaica Queens Mosque by a Hizbi Islami delegate, the very same mosque that was implicated, with the "blind Sheik" and the first World Trade Center bombing. (I declined the invitation.) But I understand Islamist feelings to an extent. The West and the U.S. have not been honest players in the Islamic part of the world from the crusades to the Sykes-Picot agreement to the Balfour declaration to various CIA and European schemes and on and on. That sense of betrayal has long been in the air in the Middle East and has some commonality with significant parts of the black community. By pinning the start date of anti-American radical Islam to the moment when American soldiers hit the sands of Kuwait, Mr. Bergen and his colleagues create a dangerous and simplistic false impression that causes many people in the U.S. to focus on the wrong places to fight the so-called "asymmetric threat". There is an ongoing battle that the U.S. is not showing up for. It is in the realm of ideas and it is being waged in the parking lots and front steps of mosques around the world. In many ways, it is coming from the ground up and not from the top down.

The Jihadis describe Islam as something like being under pressure from the West and particularly the U.S. Osama sees each of his attacks as a spark to ignite a revolutionary blow torch because there are no other options. Many Jihadi targets have a profound symbolic value. The murder of Syed B. Majrooh seemed unnecessary unless understood as symbolic. Majrooh was the very embodiment of a kind, patient Islam. He was the sort of man who sought change through poetry. The Jihadis saw him as a competing vision of Islam and a real threat to their message of hatred. So they murdered him. They were so threatened by his patience and generosity, they had to take him out. It was a public obscenity, made for headlines. It said, "We are the voice of change and anyone else who claims this title for Islam is a tool of the west and will be killed. From this day forward, Islam will not reach out to the West, we are adversaries and violent revolution is our method." The option of dialogue was thus meant to be erased.

Islamic anger and frustration is the pressure and Al Qaeda attacks are just so many matches being tossed at a combustible mixture. Opposing this kind of thing exclusively by means of frontal assault only increases the pressure. That combustible mixture is fermenting in many forgotten corners, nooks and crannies of Western society. The more you throw soldiers, jailers, goons, thugs and enforcers at it, the more virulent it becomes. That is exactly what Jihadis want. They want to pick a fight. They want adversity.

When you take large numbers of black kids and lock them up with no spiritual guidance, no hope of job training or a future within society, you send a very hateful message that burns in. Prosecutors and jailers strut around preening their Marine tough guy image. There is a lock 'em up and throw away the key machismo in enforcement. It is their only answer to problems. This is a playground for Jihadis. This is no mere theory. I have been there. I've seen it. The Jihadis are already there. They are on the floor of the mosques in every cell block whispering the same hateful garbage propaganda as their predecessors did 20 years ago in Peshawar.

I do not intend to be merely a critic or a voyeur like so many journalists and "terrorism experts". I have some ideas. Perhaps a way to oppose revolutionary Islam is to see it through another model. That is an organic or viral model. What if we were to grow a parallel strain of Islam that competes for converts? A frequent criticism of Islam is that it never went through a Reformation. Why not start one? Maybe even start it in the jails.

I dare to wonder if a perfect medium isn't the American black Islamic community. There has long been a steady dissatisfaction with conventional, white dominated Christian religious leadership. Gospel-based churches were an early answer to this. Various movements have come and gone as the African American community probes, experiments and synthesizes new spiritual models to cope with the unique pressures on their community. Islam has long been an alternative. The Nations of Islam already exists as an African-American alternative to traditional Islam. There have even been a few black Americans who went through Jihadi training camps in the 90s. Jihadis reek of rejectionist attitudes that must have seemed attractive. But radical Islam is hard. No drinking, not much in the way of sex and an austere lifestyle that no one really aspires to in this country characterize the Jihadi lifestyle. Additionally no half-serious American black Muslim can pretend that Arab Islam wasn't heavily involved in the slave trade across the African continent.

But among American black people, there has long been a tremendous amount of spiritual experimentation, cross-culturalism, synthesis and a general openness to new ideas as they search for deliverance and new messiahs. I dare to suggest that this is where to grow the new strain. Part Lenin, part Malcolm, part Gandhi, part King, part Hamas. The opportunity exists but who will get to them first? Some smart young Jihadi organizer or something else?

Is it unrealistic to create an entity that experiments with the genetics of revolution? The forces and conditions are there. It is happening like a wild overgrown garden. There is a whiff of revolution in the air. Anger IS an energy. I wonder who will harness it first. The cell block is never quiet.

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