Obsessive Compulsive 2.0

I’m not really sure about this Web 2.0 malarkey. I’ve just deleted my Facebook account again. Last time it was because I imagined a fantastical conspiracy in which key investors were databasing our identities for unspeakable ends. I can’t remember how the account came to be resurrected, but somehow I delved back in and rebuilt my global empire of friends. I found old classmates, connected with the Turkish relations and found myself sought by people who knew me from somewhere, or who were a friend of a friend, or who were just trying their luck.

But as of two nights ago, my Facebook account is no more (well technically, it will be no more in 14 days time; in the meantime I can change my mind and pretend this never happened). This time the reason was closer to home. Learning of another marriage on the rocks in which Facebook had played at least a part, I found myself heeding the alarm bells going off within. If this could happen to folk likes these—far better believers that I—it could clearly happen to me.

Although Facebook for me was just a glorified address book—as I shunned the invitations and applications that appeared on the dashboard when I logged in once a week—the analogy that sprang to mind was that of the marketplace. Now I can understand why sitting in such a setting without purpose is discouraged. ‘The nafs that walk the street,’ as a friend said recently, oblivious to the fallen relationships, ‘are the same nafs that surf the net.’ The face in a crowd that appears much more beautiful than that of your beloved is no different to the virtual contact who appears far more interesting than them.

In the past when my wife recounted yet another article describing a family torn apart by a blossoming relationship across the keyboards on Facebook, I felt able to dismiss it, pointing out that these things have always occurred, that it’s only the technology that’s changing. Why single out Facebook, I would ask? It was a valid argument, but it missed the point. She would condemn any forum where people were losing their senses and falling headlong into sin. But media accounts always carry a different weight to those of people you know. It is scary, to be perfectly honest, to realise that real relationships, real families, real spouses and real children are indeed reaping the consequences of our abandonment of the sunnah when we venture online.

I have enough experience of my own to learn that the Internet can be an addictive drug. There is something rather unsettling in the routine that sees one repeatedly checking back to an old favourite to see if it’s live again at last, even though it’s become perfectly apparent that we’re stuck with visual commentary for the rest of eternity. Such a habit is, of course, the least of the problem. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is rather more intrusive.

The weeks I spent offline, bringing the garden under control, were physically exhausting, but emotionally liberating. The world offline—for me—brings a peace to my heart (but often aches to my back, knees and arms). My return online soon has me spinning back into old, irritating ways. It is my curse.

And it is the curse of others too. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is taking over people’s lives, as they forget a multitude of sunnahs—the gaze of our eyes, the company we keep, our use of words, sitting alone (albeit with the intervention of fibre-optic cables) with those haram to us, and this list goes on.

‘What has happened to Tim?’ asks a friend. ‘Why such extremes, so suddenly?’

Is it an extreme, or is it the dawning of reality? Today ‘extreme’ is where Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 led two friends, but tomorrow I may change my mind. Today I am thinking out loud. Tomorrow I may make the hard choices.

A role model

Aslam, the servant of Umar Ibn AlKhattab, narrated that one night he went out with Umar Ibn AlKhattab until they reached a place with harsh terrain, where they saw a fire. Umar told Aslam that these people had been forced by the night to set camp and decided to go to them. There they found a woman with children and a pot on the fire; the children were crying.

Umar said, “Assalamu alykum, O People of light” —for he did not want to say people of fire—and she replied, “Walykum assalam.”

He asked if they could come closer, to which she replied, “Come closer or leave.”

So Umar went closer and asked what they were up to. She said that the night and cold had brought them there. He asked what was the matter with the children, for they were crying, and she replied that it was their hunger. Umar asked, “What’s on the fire?”

She said it was water, to distract them with until they would fall sleep. Then she said, “Allah is between us and Umar.”

Hearing this, Umar cried and went back in a hurry to the state’s food store, took some wheat and meat, and said, “O Aslam put it on my back.”

Aslam said, “I’ll carry it for you, O prince of the believers.”

But Umar replied, “Will you carry my burden on the day of judgment?”

So Umar carried it on his back until they reached the woman. There he put some of the wheat and meat in the pot and kept blowing on the fire while smoke was penetrating his beard. Once the food was ready, he served the children and they ate until they were full, while the woman kept doing dua for him not knowing who he was. And he remained there until the children slept. He then left and ordered provisions for them.

Who said we were pacifists?

Who said Muslims were pacifists? I have never heard a Muslim say such a thing. In fact, the only religious community I have encountered personally who take an anti-war stance are the Quakers. My father is now an Anglican priest, but his passionate faith did not prevent us from spending our childhood climbing all over tanks, artillery and fighter planes at military museums and air shows. My practising Christian neighbour used to design guided missile systems for the RAF. I seem to recall that the vicar that oversaw my Confirmation used to fly the Lightning (I may be mistaken here).

The fact that I was brought up in a Christian household did not prevent me from receiving a toy sub-machine gun for my seventh or eighth birthday, it had no impact on the choice of the SAS Handbook as a Christmas present for me one year, or stop us boys from each adopting a fighter plane: my eldest brother had the Tornado, my middle brother the Phantom, while I the Harrier Jump Jet, and still I would probably champion it if a top-trumps discussion on fighter planes were ever to occur.

Today there is a discussion occurring online in which it is claimed that there are Muslims that can be compared to Zen Buddhists, who deny that Islam has anything to say about warfare. This is peculiar, because I have never encountered such people or such arguments. I have never read a book concerning the sira—even those intended for children—that has not touched upon the battles that occurred in the Hijra years. The charge seems to be being levelled particularly at those who call themselves Sufis, but this too seems peculiar to me, for in my reading of Islamic history Sufis have always featured prominently as those who would go to war when the battle cry was heard.

What I have encountered, however, are the many Muslims that point out that war is limited in Islam by the shariah: that we don’t just adopt the norms of modern warfare because everyone else is doing it, that we don’t accept the concept of total war, that we consider the idea of collateral damage illegitimate. Yes, I have heard all of this, for sure. And what is wrong with this? It is called adherence to the sunnah.

Yes, I have heard Muslims condemning terrorism. Are such Muslims pacifists? No, they are people who are familiar with the sunnah and shariah: people who appreciate that indiscriminate killing and vigilantism are prohibited in Islam. People who respect the Prophetic guidance passed down to them, which places boundaries on what is halal and haram.

Sure, there are non-Muslims who demand that Muslims deny that their religion has anything to say about war, like that mocking website, Religion of Peace, which all the same permits its contributors to support Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. Sure, there are powers that demand the disarmament of Muslim nations, despite their own frightening arsenals of nuclear weapons and stealth technology. Sure, there are those that demand that Muslims should forever turn the other cheek like the Christians of the first century of their era.

I have never, ever heard a Muslim say such things, however. Sure, plenty of Muslims have claimed that Islam means Peace, but that’s not quite the same thing as saying that Islam has nothing to say about warfare. Even the Qur’an presents that duality: ‘Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God.’

To take a Muslim’s condemnation of indiscriminate, unlawful violence and twist it into a parting from the sunnah is pure mockery. I won’t be apologetic that Islam pronounces on warfare and sets out rules of engagement, but I also won’t stand for those who demand that we blindly support the actions of Muslims wherever they are involved in conflict. That is not pacifism. It is recognition that warfare is a serious matter that is viewed entirely seriously by our deen.

In Defence of Civilisation

I have before me a copy of The Telegraph—it isn’t mine; my grandmother left it with us after her visit today—and there is a photograph and a headline on the front that occupy me. I keep on returning to the dining table to sit hunched over it, studying the photograph and the words that accompany it.

The strap line above the photograph reads ‘Hamas Leader killed as bombs destroy home’, but the picture immediately below tells its own story. In the background we see three buildings severely damaged: not destroyed, but still no longer habitable. And then there is the rubble strewn land where Nizar Rayan’s house is said to have stood. But looking at the buildings in the background, it seems clear to me that this space once accommodated—by my estimation—at least a dozen similar buildings.

And so there we have it: in its pursuit of one man the Israeli air force not only chose to hold his seven innocent children responsible for the decisions of their father, killing them along with his wife and relatives, but it also chose to blow to pieces the homes of fifteen of his neighbours.

And what is a home? It is not just the place where we rest our heads. A home contains furniture, clothes, books, photographs, memories. A home contains treasured possessions, things of sentimental worth. The jewellery that a husband bought his beloved. The toys that a mother bought to put smiles on the faces of her children. I consider my own home a part of me: it is my abode of peace, my sanctuary, the container for much that I am. A home is more than bricks and mortar.

The newspaper article does not say what happened to his neighbours. If they survived, clearly all they have left is their body and soul, for the bricks and mortar have been pulverised and their every possession destroyed. If they are alive, they will have only the clothes on their backs.

The loss of innocent life is regrettable say the spokesmen for the state of Israel, but what are such words worth when the missiles fired at ‘identified targets’ are powerful enough to pulverise an entire street? Our politicians—who only a matter of weeks ago rightly condemned the atrocities in Mumbai absolutely—express ‘worry’ about the situation. A dozen houses flattened in a split second and you tell us you are worried?

A couple of nights ago I read an article by Melanie Phillips in The Spectator which sought to condemn her one-time ally, Mr Ed Hussein, for his part in protesting about the massacre of innocents. Mr Hussein, she argued, was still the Islamist through and through, misrepresenting the actions of Israel to suit his own agenda. The article was only partly about that infamous author however: it was really about the innocence and righteousness of Israel in responding to its terrorist neighbours, and the bulk of the comments that followed the article were congratulatory in their tone, praising Ms Phillips for speaking the truth, for consistently standing up in defence of Western Civilisation.

She and they are entitled to their opinions, but to me the arguments resembled those of the very people they claim to loathe. Responding to Mr Hussein’s claim that innocents were being massacred, Ms Phillips wrote, ‘The vast majority of Gazans who have been killed were Hamas terrorists. According to today’s UN figures, 364 have been killed of whom only 62 were civilians.’ Ignoring for a moment that police officers have been included in the non-civilian category, is ‘only’ an appropriate word to describe the tragic deaths of innocents? The death toll of the bombings in London on 7 July 2005 was 12 less than this number, but I have no difficulty describing it as a massacre. Fifteen people died in the Columbine High School shooting, and we still call it a massacre. What an odious defence.

What is it that these people do not get? The protests against this conflict are not a defence of Hamas. It is a protest against the killing of innocents, against firing heavy explosives into densely populated residential areas. Oh yes, Britain dare not complain after conceiving Operation Gomorrah. Germany would be a hypocrite after the Blitzkrieg. And what could the United States say after the Manhattan Project? Nations may stumble, but the ordinary man and woman knows that it is wrong. And so this is their cry.

Repeating ad nauseam that Hamas is to blame misses the point entirely. Ms Phillips may claim that ‘Israel has been targeting only the Hamas infrastructure and its terror-masters,’ but she ignores completely the power of the weapons they are using: weapons which are capable of pulverising a dozen houses into a pile of rubble within minutes, which cannot target with the precision she believes they have because their power is just too great.

We the people—not the leaders of our nations—protest because we see with our own eyes children’s lives cut short. Can you justify the death of one child? I can’t.

But in the comments that followed that article, people were indeed doing just that, arguing that it was just an unfortunate consequence of the battle with the terrorists. Thus the respectable readers have themselves become the very people they claim to loathe, no different from another group of people that is indifferent to human life. There are no surgical operations here—in the old European world amputation was the answer to many an ailment when directed infection control was all that was required—for collateral damage is not just tolerated, but justified too.

Some people may defend Hamas, claiming that by their actions they are fighting a resistance against Israeli occupation, but I cannot. The argument is often made that the Palestinians do not have F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, cruise missiles and tanks, and that if they did they would fight a traditional war of army versus army; because the only weapons they have are the meagre resources around them, striking against the military is like David fighting Goliath. I would not necessarily reject that thesis, but still I lack sympathy for the organisation we know as Hamas.

What options do the Palestinians then have to resist occupation, to break the wall and fight the blockade? I’m afraid I do not have an answer. I am not a strategist and I have no skills in international relations, so I cannot provide an educated commentary on the actions of Hamas. I can only return to my very simple interpretation of my faith: to those ideas that the civilian is not to be attacked in war, that we do not destroy their homes or cut their fruit trees down. If our jurists sought to condemn the use of suicide bombing in 1994, why should the passage of 15 years now make it halal?

I may well be mistaken in my simple faith, and of course it is easy to be an idealist as an outside observer with little intimate knowledge of the facts on the ground—and indeed as one who has never had to live all my years under a humiliating occupation—but I would be a liar if at this time of passion and emotion I denied that my gut reaction to the practice of firing hundreds of missiles indiscriminately at civilians in a nation with vastly superior weapons each day was that it not only flies in the face of our Prophetic guidance, but also makes no sense at all. But again I speak as a simpleton, one unversed in strategy.

In truth, I do not know a lot about Hamas. When I was an undergraduate 10 years ago the Palestinian Society at my university organised a lecture on the conflict which included a discussion on the role of Hamas. Some students claimed that Hamas was being funded by the Israelis to undermine the PLO, while others claimed that they were actually a popular social movement that spent 90% of its income on hospitals, schools and welfare, and just happened to have a military wing as well.

I don’t have enough information about Hamas to make an informed decision about them, but can I honestly deny my feelings about the deaths of over 600 people, women and children included, that it is claimed were killed during the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah over the past year? That’s far more than were killed during the Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in March 2002, for which Hamas claimed responsibility. When I read on Christmas Day that 27 bakeries out of a total of 47 in Gaza City have been shut down completely due to a lack of cooking gas and wheat, and that the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees had had to halt food distribution to 750,000 refugees because their stocks of wheat flour had run out, I couldn’t help the obvious questions that bubbled into my mind. Rockets versus bread.

When we protest about what is happening in Gaza today, it is a protest for humanity. It is not a defence of the actions of the group the Israelis claim to be fighting. It is a plea for a people already suffering from an 18-month blockade—the majority of whom are without adequate water, electricity or gas—to be allowed to live their lives in dignity. To be allowed to live, to have a right to their home, without the fear that it will be blown to pieces because Israel has identified a neighbour as a Hamas target.

Ms Phillips tells us:

‘The issue of Israel sits at the very apex of the fight to defend civilisation. Those who wish to destroy western civilisation need to destroy the Jews, whose moral precepts formed its foundation stones … Unless people in the west understand that Israel’s fight is their own fight, they will be on the wrong side of the war to defend not just the west but civilisation in general.’

But here I sit, with my grandmother’s copy of The Telegraph spread out before me and there’s that photograph that haunts me. Is this the defence of civilisation? A dozen homes destroyed for the sake of one man, his children executed for their father’s crimes? What kind of civilisation is this?

Shall I remind Ms Phillips of some of those moral precepts that formed the foundation stones of the civilisation she cherishes so? Let us delve into the Beatitudes:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

Eight lessons to live by. That, Ms Phillips, is civilisation.

The Office Eccentric

My current colleagues at work do not know that I am a Muslim, but they have concluded that I am an eccentric. There is something not quite right about me, they think, pondering on all the strange things I have let slip over the past year working with them. I do not own a television and have been caught sighing as the running commentary on I’m a Celebrity and Big Brother picks up in the office. I do not read The Sun and I once rather foolishly read out a comment I saw on my computer screen that said, ‘Those who read tabloids deserve to be lied to.’ I do not drink alcohol, I am young-but-married and I haven’t put a Christmas Tree up.

Today I came across a poster in the office featuring a picture of William Shakespear. Underneath it somebody had written my name. It has been there for ages apparently, and my manager laughed: actually they were calling me Shakespear since before I even started. I can’t claim to have been mortally offended at being named after England’s greatest playwrite, but I was slightly surprised. It is my peculiar beard apparently. Another nickname they have for me, I learned today, is Oliver Cromwell. I am sniggering at that one even now.

I really enjoy my job and so I have had fun as the last twelve months have passed by. I haven’t really minded the odd dig about my eccentricities. There is a running joke about me that my house is made out of things other people would throw away because I once made a stand for my monitor out of the polystyrene packaging from a new computer. My colleagues think I come from another age because I buy my fruit and veg from the market instead of Tesco. Well, in all honesty, I don’t mind being the office jester if it makes people smile.

Two things over the past couple of weeks, however, have slightly dampened my humour: Christmas and meeting up with old friends. Christmas because answering all the questions about my participation in the festivities remind me that my role as office odd-ball is a bit of a lie. And meeting up with old friends because I noticed that I was distant from them spiritually and intellectually; my mind seems to have become dull.

The drawbacks of keeping my faith private, as is the Englishman’s way, have hit me all of a sudden. At some point last week a colleague asked me if I had put a Christmas Tree up yet and if I intended to. Well obviously I could not lie. I hadn’t, I didn’t and, in all honesty, I hadn’t even realised it was two weeks until Christmas. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before I had a new nickname in the office. Scrooge they call me now.

At the weekend, our elderly Christian neighbour had some advice for me. She said I should have said, ‘No, I’m not getting a Christmas Tree because I’m a Muslim.’ She said she could understand my point about not announcing my faith in ordinary conversation earlier on in my employment—’Hi, I’m Tim and I’m a Muslim’—but she couldn’t understand the need to hide my belief so extensively that I have to pretend to be Scrooge for three weeks of the year. She speaks with some authority, for as a practising Christian she had to exempt herself from the Office Christmas Party throughout her career and thus expose herself to the constant mockery of her peers.

On reflection, I think she was right, but I wonder if the whole Scrooge shenanigans have gone too far already. Possibly, since arriving at work last Wednesday I found that somebody had placed a present on my desk. I thought it was slighly odd, but I proceeded to open it anyway. Inside there was what we would call a Santa Claus hat, except that it was black, and it had the words, ‘Bah Humbug’ emblazened across it. Well I can have a laugh too: this weekend I bought a packet of reindeer droppings (chocolate covered raisins) from Oxfam and sent them back to the sender.

Despite such silliness, there is a serious point here. Every time I downplay my lack of enthusiasm for the great festival before us, I am in fact downplaying my faith. I do not have a Christmas Tree because I do not celebrate Christmas.  Can I not just say this? Well perhaps if my colleagues were Christian they would understand, but for the atheists of the entertainment generation, there is an irritating question that returns: ‘What has religion got to do with it?’ For many, Christmas is merely part of our culture; it has no sacred value. So what could be wrong with celebrating it whether you believe in Christianity or not? In a secular world, nothing at all.

But I am a Muslim and I do not celebrate Christmas because I have not lost sight of the sacred. Christmas is sacred for Christians, regardless of its origins and the views of the early Church Fathers. It is a time of worship and thanksgiving for them, and it has theological resonence. This is why I do not celebrate Christmas, because it is not my festival and it is not of my faith. I am clear on this within and comfortable with my position, so what goes wrong in the office? Why this great pretense, that I am merely a kill-joy, a Dickensian Scrooge? Surely it is hypocrisy.

I often tell myself that I keep my faith to myself because it is the English way, and there is certainly some truth in this. There is nothing the English hate more, we are told, than people wittering on about religion. So my faith is a quiet thing: I hurry down to the mosque to do my prayer at lunchtime, and hide in a disused room for the afternoon prayer, and fast in the month of Ramadan in secret, and inscribe everything else on my heart. Perhaps I am just too English in that regard.

But perhaps there are other things that keep me from sharing my beliefs. Perhaps all those petty comments about Muslims that I have heard in the office over the months indicate that my confession would be unwelcome. Unwelcome because some have clearly conveyed their dislike of Muslims, but also because some would be embarrassed to know that I had been listening to them all along and I never said a thing. That was certainly how my previous manager felt when she outed me in a team meeting two years ago.

Later on in that old job of mine, my manager decided to tell all of my colleagues that I was Muslim. I believe she had good intentions, hoping that social gatherings would be less drink-centred. The consequence, however, was that many of those colleagues stopped talking to me. Perhaps I am after an easy life; perhaps I don’t particularly look forward to a repeat of that scenario all over again.

And so in the office I am Scrooge. Not a principled believer in an alternative faith, but the great eccentric of the office who will not have Turkey on Christmas Day, mulled wine on Christmas Eve or presents around the tree. And at Easter there will be no Chocolate Eggs. And in summer I will turn down the birthday cakes in the office for an entire month, as if I am on a diet. Such pretense, when four short words would suffice: ‘I am a Muslim.’

Meeting up with old friends last week showed me the consequence of all this. My role as court jester has somehow stunted my intellect. I am not a fool actually. I have brains and interests, but somehow I have become the caricature that I have been made. My friends seemed to soar high above me both spiritually and intellectually. And I, somehow, have just dumbed myself down.

I cannot promise

This weekend I intended to tidy my study, which is indisputably the messiest room in our house. Unfortunately, as often happens, I soon found myself side-tracked from the task and absorbed in reading a document that had no obvious place amongst my piles of bills and letters. It turns out it may not have been the most appropriate reading material for a Sunday afternoon, because now imagined images keep flashing before my eyes, causing me to weep.

I had barely dug into my huge pile of paperwork when I chanced upon a dossier of newspaper clippings from 1997, most of which were photocopied articles from The Observer, The Independent and The Financial Times. Each article related to the brutal massacres that ravaged Algeria that year, whether to the murderous rampages themselves or to the behaviour of the Algerian police.

Looking back to 1997, I was clearly aware of what was happening in a general sense, for I remember writing an article about it for the student magazine, but I am not sure that I was conscious of it. I mean, I am not sure I really appreciated how horrific it was, for my reaction then was not as it is now. I remember looking at it—as a non-Muslim with left-liberal leanings—as the media painting Muslims in a bad light, again. Where my sympathy for the victims was, I do not know.

I don’t know that I can bring myself to summarise what I read, or to pull out extracts to help you to understand. I am not even sure where to start. Won’t the headline from The Guardian on Monday 20 October 1997 suffice? ‘This is where they shot my wife. Here they killed my daughter with an axe’. Or from The Times on 23 October? ‘Algerian terror victims plead for death by bullet’. I am sorry, but I cannot go on, for the tears come flooding back.

At first those massacres were reported as the work of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, but within weeks suspicion had fallen on the police and army instead. In The Observer on 26 October 1997, ‘Robert Moore visits the Triangle of Death but doubts the official line’:

Women had been slashed to death. Infants thrown off balconies. Old men shot, and even pregnant women mutilated. All of it happened. I have never had a glimpse into such brutality and fanaticism.

We were told that those responsible for such crimes were solely the guerrillas of the GIA.

It was finally becoming clearer why the Algerian authorities were facilitating these trips to Sidi Moussa, Benthala, Rais and Larbaa. We were the tools that could be used to show the international community that there is no point negotiating with the militants…

If the public relations had ended there, both sides would have been contented. Shocked but mesmerised journalists would have had their story. And the Algerian government would have seen the GIA described as brutal killers, devoid of ideology…

But instead, witnesses started giving disturbing testimony about the role of the security forces and the behaviour of local militias. It was evident to all of us that many of the most harrowing attacks took place only a short distance from police stations and barracks. We could see that for ourselves.

Local people looked down at their feet when we asked how long it had taken for local troops to intervene. Four hours, some answered. Four hours to move a few hundred yards and engage the GIA? More questions followed, all of which hinted at collusion between the attackers and the security forces…

In the same edition, ‘A deserter in London tells Francoise Sergent of the army’s role in the killings’:

One evening last June his squad went on a mission. ‘They injected us with something, telling us it would makes us strong, so that we would not be afraid. People said it was cocaine.

‘They took us by plane, then by truck. Around three o’clock in the morning we were near a village, about 120 to 130 men. They told all the conscript soldiers to stay on the hillside overlooking the village and not to move, unless we saw a flare fired over the village streets.

‘About 25 enlisted men left in the direction of the village. We saw nothing and stayed without moving. Around 5.30 they came back. They were dirty, with false beards and smelling of musk like the Islamists. They were still wearing army trousers but had civilian T-shirts and really looked like typical Islamists. Some had blood on their trousers and their paratrooper knives were also bloody. They were asked nothing. No one asks anything in the army.’

The unit returned to the barracks in the morning. ‘I learnt that there had been a massacre in the village where they were. We knew it from the police who were nearby. There would have been about 30 dead. We made the connections, but nobody talked about it. We were terrified.’

On 12 January 1998, John Sweeney wrote in The Observer of Algerian policemen who said they had killed for the state:

The ninja – slang for the Algerian junta’s feared Balaclava-clad paramilitary police force – spoke quietly as he gave the details of the October 10 massacre last year.

“We were in a convoy of 16 vehicles, Nissan Jeeps and Peugeot 505s, four ninjas to each car. We left Chateauneuf police station (three miles to the west of the Casbah in central Algiers) at around 1.30am. The journey to the Algiers suburb of Rais Hamido took about 45 minutes. We were armed with Kalashnikovs and 9mm Berettas.

“Close to the target house, we stopped and waited for the special forces of the securite militaire. As soon as they arrived, one of us killed the electricity supply for the area, turning 20 to 30 houses completely dark. Switching off the electricity is one of our jobs,” explained “Robert”, a ninja trooper who fled from Algeria to Britain last month and only spoke to the Observer in the strictest anonymity.

“Our orders were clear. We should guard the surrounding area but not act unless we were given specific orders. The securite militaire went in and came out after a time, maybe two hours, maybe less. After they had gone, we went in to clean the place up. There were about 16 bodies, two families. I saw with my own eyes dead men, women and children, even a baby, all with their throats slit. I cannot tell you what it was like…”

So who is doing the massacres in Algeria?

“It’s us,” said the two ninjas in unison. Their testimony is damning evidence contradicting the official line of the Algerian government – that Islamic activists alone are responsible for the slaughter.

“Robert” and his fellow ninja, “Andrew”, gave detailed evidence of the state’s involvement in a whole range of human rights abuses: massacre by military security death squads, torture of the regime’s opponents, spying, and the murder of difficult journalists and popular entertainers to blacken the name of the Islamic activists in carefully organized psychological warfare.

Surely all of this is gruesome enough, but I have spared you the details reported in the dozens of newspaper articles in that dossier. My stomach turns as I look over them once more. Here is an article in The Independent on Saturday 1 November 1997 about the nightmares of torture—of a torturer. Here an article from The Independent on 31 October about the women who wait for their husbands and sons, even daughters, to come home—the thousands of men and women ‘disappeared’ by the security forces. Here an article detailing how the police forced prisoners to drink acid, how they pulled out their beards and finger nails. There is worse, but I dare not copy those words.

Some of my colleagues enjoy a good horror film at the cinema, which to me is a sign of a sick mind. But what we have witnessed here is not fiction, but reality. What we have witnessed here is all the horror of the worst horror film multiplied a thousand times over. These people existed, had dreams and desires, feelings and thoughts. Like you and I, they had mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. And like you and I, they too could be broken by brutality.

As I read through all of those newspaper clippings when I should have been tidying my room, a thought lodged itself in my mind: I don’t think I could survive such brutality. I don’t think I could survive my nails being ripped from my fingers. I don’t think I could survive such terror perpetrated against my family. I think my mind would die and my sanity leave me, even if my body survived.

I have always condemned terrorism, for I believe it is an abomination in the sight of God. Reflecting on the sunna, I believe Muslims are duty-bound to condemn it wherever it occurs, regardless of the perpetrator or the victim. A study of Islamic Law reveals that there is no place for the targeting of civilians even during a war. I have no room for extremism.

But as I sat reading those newspaper clippings on Sunday, a thought lodged itself firmly in my mind. I cannot promise that if I am ever exposed to violence of that kind I will not resort to extremism. I cannot promise that I will not lose my mind. And I cannot promise that I will survive.

Must we condemn? Yes we must

Two Muslim authors have told us today that we must not condemn the terrorist atrocities carried out in India yesterday: Umar Lee argues that American Muslims should not condemn them and Yusuf Smith that Western Muslims should not. They both argue their case effectively and I can see where they are coming from, but I must confess: when both of their headlines appeared in my blog-reader, I was utterly disgusted. To one of them I responded as follows:

I beg to differ. We should condemn them. We just should not condemn them because others demand us to do so.

We should condemn every single terrorist atrocity until we are blue in the face and until there are none.

This is because our religion teaches us to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. I just don’t care about this “we should not” because of what people think; it’s not about what people think.

It’s about getting the message through to terrorists that this is evil.

If one of you sees something bad he should change it with his hands, and if he cannot do that he should change it with his tongue, and if he cannot do that he should hate it in his heart, and that is the weakest of faith.

Your headline doesn’t sit well with me this evening I’m afraid. I utterly disagree.

Peace.

Someone argues that we do not know who was responsible for it yet. What has that got to do with it? We do not condemn it because we share some innate guilt. We condemn it because it is evil, because it is wrong, regardless of who did it or their reason. When bombs are rained down on a foreign land from a high-altitude bomber I condemn it because it is evil. When a gunman opens fire on civilians I condemn it because it is evil.

Someone argues that Muslims have condemned terrorist atrocities repeatedly but nobody pays any attention. What has that got to do with it? We condemn it not because a social commentator tells us to, but because Allah subhana wa ta’ala tells us to: “you enjoin right and you forbid wrong, and you believe in God”. And indeed because our beloved said:

Towards the latter days of indiscriminate violence, be like the first and better of the two sons of Adam who said, ‘If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you; surely I fear God, the Lord of the worlds.’ (from a sahih hadith in Tirmidhi)

Someone argues that we have no influence on people far away who have done this. Who says we have no influence? Do we not have prayers for rain? Do we have influence on the clouds of the sky? Yet we pray and it rains. You may have a neighbour who knows nothing about Islam, who sees this behaviour and believes it is of his religion. Perhaps your condemnation might make him think again.

Have some compassion. It does not matter who the perpetrators are or who the victims are. We condemn terrorism because it is wrong.

Falling

When I moved down to Cambridge in 1995 to work as a software tester for an IT company, I encountered a programmer who said he was quitting IT, heading off to work for the National Trust instead. The new-fangled email system and nascent internet were loading too many pressures on his shoulders and he could not wait to get out, to drive a tractor or something. The world has completely changed since then—in the course of my career I have only known this always-online world—but I can appreciate his sentiments perfectly. I often wish I could just turn off and disconnect. I sometimes think I might survive those old dreams of mine to disappear into the hills to live a subsistence lifestyle.

I mentioned my current feeling about the internet to my colleagues the other day and they all looked at me somewhat stunned. I have just got myself a job as a web application developer. ‘Don’t you think you might have chosen the wrong career path then?’ they asked me. Quite possibly.. I had just told them that I often think about cancelling my broadband internet connection, except that my wife now benefits from it greatly for staying in touch with family and friends overseas. ‘Okay, put it another way,’ I said, ‘I use the internet all the time, and that’s the problem.’ It wastes my time and worse.

I remember that feeling of relief we had after we disposed of our television six years ago. I can imagine such relief returning for me personally if I unplugged from this giant network. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with television: there is good in it as well as bad. The same is true of the internet. I am not condemning it as the ultimate source of evil. I am just saying I could live better without it, I think.

Today my heart is weighing heavy in my chest and I feel like I am burning up inside, and a memory keeps on recurring in my mind’s eye. A few years ago my wife and I holidayed in south Wales. One morning we were driving down hill along a private road. For a split second we freewheeled and I quickly lost control of the car. We hit a sharp rock and ripped one of the front tyres open. I managed to get the car back into gear, slow it down and regain control. But a minute on down the road, just round the bend, came a walker, rambling up the slope. I realised in that instant that I could have killed that man. The past few weeks I have been free wheeling (or free falling) just like that in my life. And now I see that walker, standing in my path. I think this pain in my chest is going to accompany me for a while now. I want to head for the hills and disappear.

The addictive grip of idleness

I have been reflecting quite a lot recently on what Christians refer to as ‘the addictive power of sin’, for I am one of those unfortunate souls that makes mistakes and repents only to repeat them again over and over. Faced with this phenomenon, I believe it is easy to appreciate how many Christians come to conclude that there is no escape from sin except through a dramatic external intervention—even if we believe they are wrong. While we would say that their solution is an illogical extreme, given that we only recognise sin in the light of what God has defined as good and bad, there is no escaping that sense of despair when we constantly replicate the same mistake throughout the years of our lives. Muslims are, of course, reminded of the words of God, that had He created a community that would not sin and err and return in repentance, He would have removed it and replaced it with one that would, for He loves to forgive. Indeed we are reminded of the famous Hadith Qudsi in which we are promised forgiveness, no matter what we have done, so long as we return in repentance:

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.

We are aware of so many words which give us hope, and yet the sense of despair is real, for recurring repentance for oft-repeated errors begins to feel hollow, shallow and half-hearted. It is true that I am not the worst of people, but my criteria for judging myself is not the standard set by the behaviour of others; my errors may well seem insignificant in a world of widespread bloodshed, but the Middle Way is not defined as the path between the shifting extremes of the day. We judge ourselves against a fixed standard. The earliest Christians would have been aware that all was not lost in the face of sin—even the parables recorded in the contemporary Gospel cannon make this clear—but today’s discourse incessantly emphasises the need for a redeeming saviour. When I look at my own response, I see ignorance at its heart. Ignorance feeds despair, for addiction is persuasive. If we convince ourselves that our addiction is incurable—as is the Christian’s theological position, even though we find that many Christians are in fact people of high moral calibre who are clearly not subsumed in sin—a sense of hopelessness is really only a natural response. In my case ignorance affects me in many ways, which at first seem quite distinct, but which are in fact all interrelated. An ignorant response to mistakes is tied to the ignorance which leads to them in the first place.

All of this carries me back towards my thoughts during my recent stay in the Black Sea, which I have wanted to write about since my return, but have been unable to articulate (I still can’t as I would like to). People in that forested valley not far from the border with Georgia generally lead happy, contented lives and are self-sufficient in many ways, but I was still struck by the hardship of many of their lives. We met widows on the sides of those valleys, and children who had lost their fathers, mothers who lost their sons. I watched as old men busied themselves chopping logs for the stove and women collected hay for their cows, each preparing for the cold winter that will draw down on them in the next few months. I witnessed much more than this, and I reflected on it in light of my own life and the way I live it. My life has always been characterised by remarkable ease—I have never experienced real hardship—and yet what can be said of the way I live it? I am lazy and often feeble, capable of telling myself that I am doing okay when I achieve nothing in weeks and weeks. What my experience in the Black Sea taught me—and this thought kept recurring in my mind throughout our stay—was that our Lord has far higher expectations of us than I have ever acknowledged, that He requires a higher standard. The great hardship I witnessed convinced me that my laziness and feebleness in the face of so much ease could not possibly be acceptable to our Creator.

So here I stand taking stock of my life, and truthfulness—not humility—confesses that there is not a lot to be proud of. I may well deny that need for a redeeming saviour, but I remain tarnished by the legacy of that tradition, for instead of striving against my laziness, my weakness, my emotional addictions, I have allowed myself to succumb to them. Jesus was sent to sinners not saints, Christians often remind us, but we recognise that this was one of the roles of our noble Prophet too: the point is that they were sent to sinners so that they might reform themselves and become the best of people. I reflected on those matters during my stay in a simpler setting in Ramadan, but what have I achieved since my return? Nothing to be proud of once more. ‘To good and evil equal bent, both a devil and a saint.’

I recognise that laziness is one of my greatest diseases, but as I said to my friend last night, most of the time I’m too lazy to do anything about it. In a world of AA for alcoholics and smoking cessation counselling for Smokers, isn’t ‘the addictive power of sin’ a rather lame excuse for idleness?