Jihad Chic Comes to London

By Yousafzai, Sami | Newsweek, March 23, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Jihad Chic Comes to London


Yousafzai, Sami, Newsweek


Byline: Sami Yousafzai

In the city's Muslim neighborhoods, an Afghan reporter finds a few too many uncomfortable reminders of home.

I still don't know who wanted me dead. I was sitting in my car one day last november, not far from my house in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, when a group of strangers walked up. One of them pointed a pistol through my window. I remember he wore a turban and shalwar kameez--the tunic and baggy pants common in the area--and he had a long beard, dyed red with henna. He shot me in the chest, hand and arm, and then fled with his friends. Miraculously, none of the bullets hit any arteries or vital organs, and as soon as a doctor patched me up and I was strong enough to travel, I booked a flight to London. I planned to lie low for a while, to rest and seek further medical help for a bullet that was lodged in my arm. But more than that, I just wanted to be somewhere calm and safe, far from AK-toting gunmen, suicide bombers and the daily, random violence of Pakistan's borderlands.

London was a revelation--cold, clean and orderly--but my sense of relief didn't last long. In one of the city's many South Asian neighborhoods, I saw a tall young Afghan who reminded me of my would-be assassin, striding down the street like a bad dream. He too wore a shalwar kameez, and a big turban of white silk was wrapped loosely around his head. His beard was long, and his hair was shoulder length. Anyone dressed like that in Islamabad would be immediately picked up for questioning by the police. I had flown halfway across the world to get away from killers who resembled this young Londoner. I stared after him until he was gone from view.

But as days passed I spotted him again and again. He stood out even in a neighborhood full of Asians dressed in traditional garb--shalwar kameez, saris, abayas. Locals had a nickname for him: Talib Jan. It's a friendly Afghan slang term for a Taliban member, something like GI Joe for Americans. The area's crowded, rundown row houses had become home to hundreds of Afghans who first arrived in England as fugitives from the Taliban's intolerance and brutality. Nevertheless, most of Jan's neighbors spoke of him tolerantly or even approvingly.

In fact, during my three-month stay in England I met a surprising number of Muslims who shared Jan's fascination with the Taliban. The older generation, urbane and relatively well educated, had little love for the extremists. But among some younger men, frustrated and marginalized in British society, I discovered a fury that was depressingly familiar. I met many immigrants who were blatant, vocal and unquestioning in their support for what they imagined to be "jihad." Few seemed troubled by the brutality that characterized Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's reign, or by his banning of music or girls' education. Indeed, many looked back on Omar's rule as a kind of Islamic utopia, and they eagerly snapped up the Islamist leaflets handed out after Friday prayers at various mosques around town.

I first introduced myself to Jan at one of those mosques. I complimented his taste in clothes: that's how people dress back home in Afghanistan, I said. (I was born in northern Afghanistan; my family fled to Pakistan in 1979 to escape the Soviet invasion.) His fierce appearance to the contrary, Jan turned out to be friendly and outgoing. He listened with interest to my story, but mostly he talked about himself, his Islamist views, his fierce support for the Taliban and his contempt for the Brits and Americans fighting them.

His vehemence surprised me. Twenty-three years old, Jan had been born in eastern Afghanistan and attended a madrassa in Pakistan. The Taliban still ruled Afghanistan when his parents paid a people smuggler to sneak Jan to England at 14. There he applied for and was granted political asylum, claiming that the Taliban had persecuted him and his family. Now he's a legal resident, yet openly cheers for his supposed oppressors to defeat troops from his adopted homeland in Afghanistan.

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