A few years ago, I was asked to join a group of four younger men and attend a religious conference in Birmingham. Being a non-practicing Muslim, I was constantly pestered by my mother about the daily prayers, which I must admit were so infrequent that the Arabic words I had learnt in childhood under the constant threat of a good thrashing were fading and I agreed to go to the conference, not so much to appease my Mother, but to hold on to that part that held distant memories of a distant life.
I remember good things from my childhood: I remember mango's that were bright yellow and melted in your mouth, bananas that were much smaller and much sweeter. Most of all, I remember not having doubts about who I was, nor walking the streets in contemplation at my own foreignness. Things are much easier when you belong, when your skin does not make you stand out, when the call to prayer is an assuring reminder to remember God and forget your inner demons, when there is someone to greet or talk to at every corner. I remember bad things too, but those memories are not as easily accessible.
As such, going to Birmingham was more about recapturing that feeling and those memories that I yet hold of Africa. Yet, the minute we hit the M1, doing 80mph northbound, I knew that the people I was stuck in the car with were not the sort of people that populated my childhood memories. Back then, I had never heard anyone talk negatively about other sects or other faiths. Yet there I was in a moving metal box on the highway when one of them spoke of being solicited for a donation to build a mosque in London. The others asked him if the Mosque in question was of the Salafi sect and when he said no, they admonished him and told him that he would have committed a sin had he given money to the establishment of such a Mosque. I had no idea what Salafism was, but from that moment, I decided I wanted nothing to do with it.
When we finally arrived and snaked through the city's streets, I was trying to figure a way back on my own. Birmingham is an industrial town and all its industry is presented to the visitor as they enter it: warehouses lined up like matchstick boxes busily producing the steam that belched out of the numerous chimneys. The houses were depressingly uniform, the sky a sullen grey.
We went to the cheap hotel that we had booked and thankfully, since I had been last to book, I was the only one not sharing a room. I sat down and fell back on the bed, cussing my luck and the sad waste of a very long weekend. A minute later, a knock on the door let me know it was time to go and I reluctantly got up, realising that if I wanted a ride back to London I would have to put up a front. So I forced a smile and opened the door looking like the workers at my local fast-food place.
Moments later, I saw a dome with a green minaret reaching for the sky. My eyes glued to the car window, I waxed lyrical at the beauty before my eyes only to be told that we would not be going there. As the mosque faded in the mirror, we drove past a street populated by minorities and I observed the absence of white faces. Soon after, the car stopped and I followed my companions down a side street. The street was crowded and everywhere I looked, men and boys were dressed in white Galabiya gowns. Some had the headscarves that I associated with Saudi's, while others wore loose fitting white pants and tunics. There were women too: in black, faces hidden and unlike the men who walked individually or leisurely in groups, the women moved in packs and slithered past in the margins, disappearing like the fleeting shadows cast by the clouds.
I followed my companions to a concrete warehouse, shoulder to shoulder at the doors, jostling to get in. I took off my shoes and moved forward. There, inside another door, was a great space already packed. My legs cannot fold back to the knees from an operation in my childhood and seeing that there was no space to sit with my legs outstretched, I decided to turn back. Once outside, I saw pavement to the side of the building and followed it to an open door. I looked in and saw a grey-bearded man sitting on a chair, talking to a rapt audience. Deciding that I could hear everything fine from where I was, I found a plastic chair and sat outside listening in. The man lamented the lack of faith of Muslims and pointed out the faults of the Muslim community: their lack of cohesion, their lack of fortitude and their not following the Sunnah or the non-obligatory emulation of the way the prophet and his followers lived.
I stopped listening not long after as the sun decided to come out and the droplets on the leaves of the shrubs in front of me gleamed like tiny gems. I do not remember how, but I found myself back on the main street with the shops and the discernible lack of white faces. I went in one of the shops to buy a can of cola and as I was paying, the man behind the counter touched my hand and called my name. I looked up at a familiar face, but the name escaped me. He asked me about my mother and about neighbours from long ago. I asked him what he knew about Salafism and he told me they were crazy and to stay away from them.
So I walked, still in a daze, back up the road the car had traversed from the hotel. As I was passing the mosque, I saw what appeared to be a garage sale of books in the parking space in front of the building. I walked in and browsed books on how to perform the prayer, on learning Arabic, on the history of Islam. I picked one on the five pillars of Islam and paid the young bearded Asian man. But buying the book was an excuse to talk to someone, so I asked him about Salafism and he shook his head in disgust. I told him it confused me why they were crammed in a warehouse just down the road from the biggest and currently emptiest mosque in Europe and he shook his head again.
The next day, I walked the same road with my companions and let them go in ahead of me as we entered the warehouse, then snuck back out. Stalls had been set up by the entrance selling small vials of perfume and items of Islamic dress. A young mixed-race man in his late teens or early twenties tried to sell me perfume. His neck was covered in tattoos. A big man of Afro-Caribbean descent with muscles bulging in what is meant to be loose fitting clothing, laughed heartily at something said by a much smaller Asian man. Younger boys fleeted past between us and the atmosphere was at once communal and menacing.
I then realised that my discomfort stemmed from the people around me. These were ex-gang members and petty crooks; streetwise young men who had probably converted in prison. The only thing that could bend their will was a communion so harsh, strict and uncompromising. It dawned on me then that I was in the midst of cult and that their constant badgering of moderate Muslims was a way of strengthening the cult's image of exclusivity, but also a ticket to the hearts of people who were incapable of sitting alone in quiet contemplation in a mosque with a book or in prayer. These people needed to be told what to think and had found another gang to belong to.
The next morning, I told my companions I would meet them at the warehouse and when they were gone, I turned on the TV and watched a Western. The day after, as we were driving back from the city of belching smokestacks, I asked one of my companions a question on religion and his reply was that he did not have an answer but that he would login on a website and ask the scholars in Saudi Arabia.
Recently, I read the story of the 'Jihadi rapper' Omar Hammami, an American who had gone to Somalia and joined Al-Shabab in Somalia. Wanted, with a bounty of five million dollars on his head, his death came at the hands of Al-Shabab whose leadership he had alienated by pointing out the apparent hypocrisy in their lavish lifestyles.
Yesterday, someone rang my door and asked to speak to me by name. I went out to meet them as I had been cleaning and the place was not presentable. He told me he was a journalist and next to him stood a shorter man who kept looking at me suspiciously. The journalist told me that he was looking for people who knew a person by my name. I told him that I was that person and asked why a journalist would want to speak to me. He apologised, told me that it had to do with the Nairobi shootings and then asked me what I thought of Al-Shabab.
Now, as I watch the havoc that Al-Shabab have caused in Kenya replayed in the news, I wonder if that man that shared my name was at that conference in Birmingham. Did he die so that the Al-Shabab leaders could keep getting dollars from Saudi Arabia to support their lavish lifestyles?
Most of all, I wonder whether I am here today saved from fanaticism by doubt, for in looking for thoughts on the question on fanaticism, I came across this quote from Bertrand Russell contained in the essay The Triumph of Stupidity (1933) :
The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.