The Muslim Ties that Bind

Adherents of Islam share a transnational brotherhood that followers of other religions—and your average Westerner—can't begin to comprehend.

An advertisement in the classifieds section of the International Herald Tribune, of November 4, 2010, caught my eye. It was posted by the "2nd Family Court of Kadikoy" and related that a ruling had been passed granting a divorce to Akay Viran, born in Antalya (in the village of Yuksekalan), Turkey, from Siti Mariam Seikh Abu Bakar, "of Malaysian nationality."

Malaysian? Perhaps, as many Muslims would put it, the Muslim world (Dar al-Islam) is one and all Muslims are brothers (even if on occasion they seek divorce).

I moved on to The Guardian (London) of the same date, where I read an interview with one Roshanara Choudhry. Eh, not exactly an interview. Rather, extracts from the interrogation of Choudhry by detective sergeant Simon Dobinson and detective constable Syed Hussain, both of the London police. Choudhry was arrested on suspicion of the May 2010 stabbing of Labour MP Stephen Timms (who has since recovered).

Choudry was earlier this month given a fifteen-year-minimum prison sentence for the attempted murder. A top student in her class at King's College, London University, where she was studying English and Communications, Choudhry decided to quit school and kill Timms because he had supported Britain's participation in the war in Iraq. She was persuaded to adopt this course while listening to online sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni preacher regarded as the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Awlaki convinced Choudhry, an English girl of Muslim South Asian origin, that, as she put it under interrogation, "I should have loyalty to my Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine." So she left King's College, because it had given an award to Israeli President Shimon Peres and, besides, the college had established "a department for tackling radicalisation. So I just didn't wanna go there any more."

She stabbed Timms because "millions of Iraqis are suffering and I should do what I can to help them and not just be inactive and do nothing while they suffer." Or, as she put later on:

Because as Muslims we're all brothers and sisters and we should all look out for each other . . . We shouldn't allow the people who oppress us to get away with it . . .

. . . When a Muslim land is attacked it becomes obligatory on every man, woman and child and even slave to go out and fight and defend the land and the Muslims . . .

. . . All Muslims are brothers and sisters.

After stabbing Timms she felt like "I did my best to fulfil my duty to the other Muslims."

In these interrogations, the twenty-one-year-old Choudhry put her finger on something that is completely incomprehensible to the average Westerner, the world-straddling sense of brotherhood among Muslim believers. Christians do not feel such brotherhood. Perhaps they did, to a degree, in the Middle Ages (the Crusades were "multinational" ventures). But no longer (did the world's Christians rally round, and offer to fight, when the PLO or Lebanon's Muslims, or the Syrians, attacked the Lebanese Maronite community? Or after London's and Madrid's transport systems were attacked by Muslim fanatics? Would Christians rally in the West in defense of Egypt's Coptic community, were it assailed by its Muslim neighbours? Or in defense, say, of France's Christians down the road?). Lacking it among themselves, Westerners find it difficult to understand such deep and self-sacrificial brotherhood in another religion.

I don't know what proportion of Muslims (and where? In Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan, in Indonesia?) feel the pull or obligationist weight of this brotherhood—but many apparently do, and Westerners would do well to take it into account, as a given, when contemplating confrontation with local and faraway Muslim communities and lands.