Race, Islam and terrorism
I met a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo at a university function at the end of the summer term. In the middle of our conversation on the state of Africa, he reminded me that there were ``many well-educated white males engaged in acts of terror.’’
He was not referring to suicide bombers but to middle-class corporate executives who fund warlords and low-rank politicians in exchange for access to precious minerals. Their act of terror was to be party to the ethnic cleansing, rape, abduction and murder conducted. Introducing the subject of “race’’ into the analysis of any area of social conflict can enlighten or obscure the real causes of distress. The Jamaican origins of Jermaine Lindsay, one of the July 7 suicide bombers, has prompted some to ask why a disproportionate number of black males are attracted to extremism. Intriguingly there was less of a clamour over the ethnicity of Richard Reid, the notorious “shoe bomber’’, who had a white mother and a black father. In the case of David Copeland, the white, racist, homophobic nail-bomber, there was no analysis of a potential relationship between ethnicity, extremism and terror.
Black men converting to Islam should be placed within the religious context of their communities, where religion still matters. African-Caribbean men and women continue to turn out in large numbers for religious activities. But Islam is able to do what the black church cannot - attract black men.
I have spent most of my working life in conversation with African-Caribbean converts to Islam. Two relationships stand out. I have an ongoing dialogue with an artist who converted in the mid-90s. His first visit to a predominantly African-American mosque was life-changing. Hundreds of smartly dressed black men full of self-belief, black pride, purpose and respect immediately became role models.
This is still the case today. Many black men, including Reid and Lindsay, were impressed by Islam’s African-centred preaching and positive association with blackness. After all, one of the most powerful icons of the 20th century, Malcolm X, made the journey from Christianity to Islam in search of black redemption.
I have a nephew who recently converted while serving a prison sentence. Spending an inordinate amount of time alone in his cell, he took to reading the Bible and the Qur’an to pass the time. Intrigued by the notion that Islam was the last testament, God’s final revelation, he pursued his interest by attending lessons with the imam assigned to the prison chaplaincy. Convinced, he became a devotee.
Most African-Caribbean men converting to Islam do so because it is a religion with a capacity to give their lives hope and meaning. There will always be a few captivated by extremist versions of Islam that exploit the continued disaffection and marginalisation of working-class black youth. After all, with as little potential for social mobility as their migrant grandparents, it is difficult to sell them Tony Blair’s New Labour dream of living in a meritocratic “stakeholder’’ British society.
As is the case with the white middle-class corporate executives, there will always be a small number of impressionable converts, from the poorest communities, who are lured on to the paths of unrighteousness.