Manufactured Muslim Identities: From Nablus to Newham, Emblems of Islamist Sympathizers

In East London, I examine the emaciated boy. His pigeon-chest rasps with each mechanical breath. Finely etched features remind me of Saudi camel sellers, once my patients. Wisps of hair peep through his unbuttoned thobe, betraying a still-lingering puberty. An untrimmed beard and skullcap are final clues: my patient is an Arab Muslim.

X-rays show a ferocious pneumonia. I go in search of family, expecting to see other Arabs. Instead, I encounter four robust Pakistani women. Pockmarked acne and gap-toothed smiles unite them as family. As a Muslim of British-Pakistani heritage and a physician, I am amazed at the extent of his racial transition. He has fooled me entirely.

Many British Muslims, like my patient, fervently erase their ethnicity with ritualistic religiosity, deliberately choosing distinction from that of their parents'. They do so in a desperate search of politicized Muslim identity, with little understanding of either Islam, or politics.

Raised on a virtual Ummah made vivid through satellite TV and YouTube, these young Muslims seek to relate to a Palestinian neighbor they will never know, in preference to the Londoner next door. In a digital mirror, they identify with pixilated distortions symbolizing a manufactured Muslim identity. Choosing Nablus over Newham, they dress in thobes, a keffiah thrown in for Gaza Strip panache. In austere, imagined Arab dress, they ride the District line, unaware how removed they are from their Hilfiger-and-Hi-top-wearing Saudi counterparts.

Increasingly, first and second generation British Muslims shun their ethnic heritage and cultural frameworks in favor of a perverse, exaggerated narcissistic compassion for worlds of which they can never be part. It is among such youth that martyrdom operations find Muslim sympathizers. The resurgent Arab dress code is integral to what psychologists describe as Terror Management Theory. Dr. Jose Liht at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have studied Islamic extremism in Britain. Earlier this year he explained the theory to me, and its role in radicalization during my time in the Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship in Science and Journalism.

Foreknowledge of death is unique to humans and exists in parallel to a fundamental drive to survive. This tension forms a circular connection between meaningfulness and death. Crises (whether political, environmental, or other) heighten the desire to become part of a 'meaningful' universe; something bigger than self; something worth dying for. Failing to find meaning in day-to-day existence erodes psychological protections against the inevitability of death. An unavoidable awareness of a meaningless finality triggers desperate attempts to find meaning, often found only by participating in something of epic dimension. Vulnerable British Muslims retreat into chosen Islamist group identities with alternate worldviews. Theirs is a deadly roulette: trading individual identity in exchange for the group's. As the invisible Islamist croupier spins the wheel of deception faster and faster, self identity spins and spins. Soon the Muslim has lost all boundaries of self, arriving to a new, highly malleable manufactured one. He cannot remember whom he once was, having irretrievably left his 'self' somewhere behind on the roulette wheel. Becoming part of an extreme group assuages the individuals anxious search for meaning while demonizing the 'other' against which he seeks real or imagined refuge. A valuable new focus has been provided.

Muslims who are feeling increasingly disengaged from both surrounding British society and that of their parents' heritage are particularly vulnerable. Wearing 'Arab' clothing is externally emblematic of this dissolution. Quite simply, when ideology changes, people change their clothing. Accepting terrorist operations, including suicide martyrdom, may now take root, as the group identity builds on this fertile, distorted worldview.

Islam reviles suicide, designating the taking of life tantamount to the killing of all mankind. Yet many Muslims privately condone, or openly admire suicide martyrdom operations particularly when deployed as a weapon against Americans or Israelis. This is a direct function of disordered terror management psychology: the American, the Israeli, the Jew, the 'other' is now an amorphous, legitimate target for destruction.

As a Diaspora Muslim I must belong to the real societies around me, not virtual ones networked-in. My belonging is physical and psychological. Belonging is inclusive, not exclusive. I must belong, even if in doing so I am aligned with groups increasingly repugnant to the discourse of mainstream Muslims. I am aligned with Americans, Jews and Israelis, all targets of suicide operations, because I share their revulsion for suicide operations and the desecration of land and life. I share these values, as a human being, as a physician, as a Muslim.

Wherever I am, the fabric of society is more important than any fabric of my clothing. As Muslims, that can be our only authentic identity: one where we are human beings first, People of the Book second, this can be our only cloth.

This article was first published in The Guardian on December 11th 2010 in the Face to Faith section and can be found here.