April 10, 2010
National Public Radio (NPR) has been doing a fascinating series on how the young Nigerian wanabe bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was radicalized. Much of what they have provided resonates with the research I did for my book, God’s Law or Man’s Law, published just before 9/11/2001. I tracked fanatical and violent religious movements around the world that appeared threatening to all secular governance. Although there are fanatics in every religious and ideological denomination, Islam is currently the most prominent.
One conflict area even then was in Nigeria, where radical Islamic and radical Christian missionary movements were already in collision. Northern Nigeria is heavily Muslim, whereas southern Nigeria is Christian, Animist, and secular. But until radicalization became the mode, all of these groups managed to coexist. For the past decade, however, coexistence is no longer an option.
Nigerian Muslims came to world attention when some northern provinces replaced secular law with Sharia. This was followed by flogging, intimidation of young secular Nigerians, and plans to execute a young woman who had become pregnant out of wedlock. This news created a global furor.
In the face of this past decade or more, how can we be surprised by the radicalization of Abdulmutallab? His story evokes others in history, in particular the story of St. Francis, a wealthy medieval youth who was radicalized (although a pacifist) by a version of his religion and who resented his father.
Abdulmutallab was born into a family of wealth—his father being a prominent banker. According to interviews with relatives and one authority on Nigerian Islam, the Abdulmutallab father was a stern, pious Muslim who saw to it that his brood of children (and wives) behaved “properly.” One such standard involved sexual restraint (in the case of the daughters, constraint).
Young Abdulmutallab diligently tried to live this way; he was the first to go to mosque and the last to leave, according to his cousin. But this sexual restraint was working on his mind. Being sent to a co-ed school thoroughly distressed him because, as he wrote in his diary, he had trouble “averting his eyes” from young women. He wrote that the Prophet Mohammad urged fasting for young men who could not yet marry. Abdulmutallab tried that, but it did not help his obsession. His father would not consider finding a wife for him at 18.
This reminds me of my least favorite Tolstoy work, a story about a pious Christian monk who dealt with his sexual obsession by cutting off his own hand. Yes, that’s one way to distract oneself.
Abdulmutallab also focussed his resentment of his stern father into condemnation of his father’s profession: banking. Very pious Muslims consider banking and taking interest sinful. The boy disdained his father for this, and let his father know that he was leaving school and going to Yemen to become a “real Muslim.”
St. Francis also had a strained relationship with his father. He scornfully stripped himself of all the clothing his father’s wealth had provided and threw them into the face of the old man, standing naked (and virtuous?) in the street. What happened to “respect your mother and father?”
However, this comparison has some real differences. St. Francis rejected his father and his lifestyle, but assumed for himself pacifism. He not only did not want to harm, but wanted to care for the most neglected in his society. His obsession was turned to good, and he comes down through history as a man who seriously understood the message of Jesus.
Abdulmutallab’s notion of virtue, however, was not pacifist. He believed that as a good Muslim he must destroy his religion’s enemies—even at the cost of his own life. Even Tolstoy’s sick solution of the monk cutting off his own hand is better than suicide/murder.
Stern upbringing, a deluge of religious propaganda, and sexual deprivation has driven more than one young man (or woman) into extremism.
Laina Farhat-Holzman is a writer, lecturer, and historian. You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net.