From The Garden of Wild
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
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.