Escape to extremism

Print edition : October 27, 2001

Why do bright young Muslim immigrants in Europe find in religious fundamentalism an outlet for their energy and talents?

AYESHA MOUSSAOUI fumbles for words in her large suburban house near Toulouse. "I cannot understand how it began or why it ever happened," she says over and over again. 'It' refers to her son Zacarias' drift and final plunge into extreme Islamic fundamentalist politics, which eventually led him to terrorism.

Ayesha's 33-year old son Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested in the United States on August 11 for violating immigration laws and carrying false documents. He has since been identified as a terrorist linked to the September 11 attacks. Moussaoui had trained in terrorist camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Investigators say that he had tried to enrol for flying lessons in Minnesota and Oklahoma. The mug shots released by the Sheriff's office in Serburne county, Minneapolis, show a stocky individual with a goatee and shaved head. There is a steely, almost fatalistic look in his eyes.

A demonstration outside the Pakistan Embassy in London.-GAMMA

And yet his mother was not particularly surprised when her daughter called a few days after the September 11 attacks to say that she had seen "Zac's mug shot on television". Over the past 10 years Ayesha, a Frenchwoman of Moroccan origin, has received occasional visits from the DST, the French counter-espionage service, asking questions about Zacarias' visits home and his many trips abroad - such as whether she knew his friends, where he had slept the week before and whether he had called, sent letters or made contact in any way.

Ayesha gave the investigators the photographs of Zac in her possession, begging them not to release them to the media as that would bring dishonour upon her head and the family she had nurtured in the face of incredible social odds and financial and emotional hardships.

Ayesha herself is not a practising Muslim. "My own children call me a lost case," she smiles. Married at 14 and divorced at 24, she brought up her four children alone. Taking evening courses, she slowly climbed the professional ladder to become a middle-level executive at France Telecom. Zac, she says, was the youngest, the cutest and the most loving and intelligent of the four. A photograph on her mantlepiece shows a young man wearing a university cap and gown. In the mid-1990s Zac obtained a doctorate in management from London University.

But looking back, feeling her way through the labyrinthine byways of memory, Ayesha can put her finger on when exactly Zac began his slow descent to extremism. She says that Zac was a model student, almost always at the top of his class. But when he reached class ten, his professors decided he should be sent for vocational training to become a plumber rather than to the Lycee for a classical education that could lead him to one of France's elite schools for engineering, management, law or administration.

"We heard them talking amongst themselves and one of his professors said: "A diploma in plumbing, that's already pretty good for an Arab." I saw Zac's face. No emotion escaped it and I know now that that is when the seeds of hatred were first sown. He realised that his Arab identity would always go against him. In this society he would always be kept outside the magic circle, never be wholly accepted," she recalls.

Zac and his brother Abd Samad remained excellent students but never became an integral part of French society. Then, Ayesha said, " Zac left for London where he felt he was more free, where his Arab identity, where France's colonial relationship with the countries of the Maghreb, did not prove a barrier. His French accent was appreciated."

It was at this time that the brothers came into contact with Wahabite philosophy and were seduced by it. "They even had a falling out because each accused the other of not being a good enough Muslim. They looked down on me because I had no belief and they left," their mother says.

Ayesha remembers that Zac came home one last time, in 1997. "He wanted to ask me for forgiveness. He was a changed person, praying five times a day, sporting a beard and he took issue with the youngsters at the local mosque whom he accused of laxism. I haven't seen him since."

ZACARIAS MOUSSAOUI'S case is not an isolated one. Investigators have been looking into the terrorists' past and their movements and contacts in the years preceding the attacks. All the terrorists lived in Europe for considerable periods of time. They have all been described as discreet, quiet young men without turbulent pasts. What is it that makes educated young professionals like Zacarias Moussaoui go over the edge into fanaticism and fundamentalism?

Maria Perez is a psychologist who has worked with "problem children of mainly immigrant parents" in schools that fall in what is known as the ZEP or 'educational priority zone'. She says that many children who come from immigrant homes have a feeling of inferiority and inadequacy, of falling between two cultural stools, that prompts them to seek a more definite cultural identity and sense of belonging.

Maria Perez says: "It is not surprising that many of these young terrorists are from Algeria or the Maghreb. France's immigration policy has been disastrous and we have ended up ghettoising our mainly north African Arab population. The children of the Harkis (Algerians who fought on the French side in Algeria's war of independence) feel their parents betrayed their own countrymen. The French used the Harkis, promised them jobs, passports and a decent life and then shamefully let them down. In a pinch the French tend to admire the FLN ( the Algerian National Liberation Front) combatants who tried to throw off the French colonial yoke and have contempt for those who fought on the side of the coloniser, betraying their origins. So there are two types of young north African immigrants - the children of the Harkis and the children of recent economic migrants. And I am sorry to say that there is a feeling of tremendous alienation amongst both these groups."

Studies show that the French generally look upon young Arabs as petty thieves, trouble-makers, good for nothing drug peddlers or downright fundamentalists. Even though the French newspaper Liberation recently published statistics to show that Islam in France advocates tolerance and favours the peaceful co-existence of religions, the perception of French Muslims as a "source of trouble" persists.

Centuries of Western hegemony, followed by continued dependence upon the West, have left deep scars and resentment that become both easy excuses for social failure and combustible material in Muslim politics. Many Arabs and Muslims believe that if there is an Islamic threat, there has also been a Western threat - of political, economic, religious and cultural imperialism. As a result many in the Muslim world, like their counterparts in the West, opt for easy anti-imperialist slogans and demonising the other side.

Analysing this phenomen, Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, said: "One must note also that these terrorists belong to the energetic and resourceful new professional class rather than the clerical class. Only when political space is provided for their genuine participation can their energies be channelled towards social progress. The need for Muslim communities to address their internal social and political development has become more urgent than ever. Economic development alone is clearly insufficient."

NOTED French writer Guy Sorman said: "The fact that these terrorists were educated people does not make them intellectuals. Several people are mistakenly calling them intellectuals. Most of them were failed and frustrated lumpen elements. Lenin, Stalin or Robespierre who led the French Revolution of 1789 were all failed intellectuals who had a grudge against society. What these terrorists did was an act of vengeance."

Political scientist Sami Zemmini, on the other hand, feels that European countries practise a kind of hypocrisy that contributes to the Arab frustration. He says:

"European countries see themselves as modern, with human rationality as an ordering principle of society. The modern European state sees itself as secular. The philosophical and humanist principle, which lies at the core of this ideal, gives every individual the freedom of religion. But that freedom is not endless or without boundaries. Belief and religion of an individual are tolerated as long as they do not infringe apon the freedom of another. Despite these ethical positions and legal rights, we still witness a prejudicial treatment of Islam in Europe and continuing discrimination against Muslims.

"In Belgium, for example, Muslims still don't get money from the state to organise their religion, young Muslim girls are prohibited from going to school with a headscarf, employers do not wish to engage Muslims when they're "too brown-skinned" or when they wear a scarf. The question we must then address is : Why is there a presumed problem with Islam? How come Jewish and Protestant believers do not encounter the same problems as Muslims? What is it, in European culture, which prevents logical rational thinking towards Islam? It is my thesis that the European identity is based on what I call an "asymmetrical universalism" in which Europe sees itself as the paragon of universality with all its positive avatars (tolerance, human rights and democracy) while, at the same time, denying the Other the right to his Otherness."

Mutual suspicion is born out of the frequently held presumption that the Judaeo-Christian civilisation is based on humanism, civilisation and democracy while Islam is perceived as a barbaric, aggressive and despotic religion. Europe thus becomes equivalent to dynamism and progress while Islamic countries are seen as stagnant and backward.

"Therefore," says Sami Zemmini, "every time there is a social problem emerging in Europe which concerns immigrants, Islam is pinpointed as 'the' problem."

A glaring example of this type of perception was given recently by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who talked about the "superiority of Christian civilisation " in a speech that earned him the wrath of the other world leaders who were then trying to cobble together a coalition against terrorism. Since then his Ministers have compounded the insult by saying Italy's borders should be closed to Muslims. But the same is true of the Wahabites and other 'radical' schools of Islam who continue to portray the industrialised world as one of decadence and debauchery.

These two sets of radical and conflicting messages place immigrant Arab children under tremendous pressure. "It is very difficult," laments Perez, "to fight against the Arab immigrant child's negative self-image. I find often that the most intelligent and sensitive of my students are drawn to extremism. They are too intelligent to fall into the traps of drugs or theft. They are searching for a more noble cause. Unfortunately, religious fanaticism appears to be providing them with what they see as a 'noble exit'."

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