For most of the early and mid 1990’s I was traveling from one Muslim community to the other in the US looking for that perfect community. Brothers like me had been advised to give ourselves to the movement and not worry about education, money and all of the things that we had been raised to think about.
Some brothers that I knew were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to alleviate the suffering of oppressed Muslims in places like Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. These brothers were not terrorists; they were more like socially conscious warriors, like those American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, who wanted to do their part for what they thought was right. These brothers opposed suicide bombings, attacks on civilians and the like, and strictly wanted to engage the armies and militias of those pledged to oppress Muslims.
We can agree or disagree as to the fact of whether or not these Muslims were oppressed or not; but have no doubt this is what the brothers believed and they acted on those beliefs. Years later the American government, with almost no knowledge of the Islamic movement and lacking the intellectual firepower at high-levels to think in complexities (not to mention the abysmally low amount of knowledge at lower-levels) when it comes to Muslims, decided that anyone who wanted to physically help Muslims were the same as al-Qadea terrorists. Therefore we have a number of American-Muslims, some of them friends of mine, in prison today for very long stretches of time, because the government needed to make cases and this was the closest thing they could find to an actual terrorist. The brothers that I know would not, and did not by anyone’s allegation, attack civilians or encourage others to do so. What they did do was stand up against the likes of armies of Serbian ethnic-cleansers and a savage Russian army that were slaughtering Muslims by the thousands.
I had the opportunity to go and fight in Bosnia but I decided not to do so at the time and regretted that decision for a few years. In 1996 I was in Northern Virginia and free of any other obligations and I decided that I would go and fight in Chechnya in order to make right my disappointment at not being able to fight in Bosnia. However, just as I as planning to go, and I only had the slimmest of connections to anyone who could help me there, the conflict ended after what most saw as a victory for the Muslims. Again I was left with disappointment. After all we are taught that those who fight in the path of Allah are at the highest level of iman and I figured since my iman is not that high, and my life is full of bad deeds, what better way to cleanse myself than to fight in the path.
The fighting in Chechnya began again in 1999 and this time I was able to get the money together to go to Chechnya from some Muslim students who did a collection for me. Many of these students were not that religious, and none of them were politically active; but they felt that helping a mujahid would help to wash away some of their bad deeds.
The problem this time is that unlike in 1996 I had no connections in Chechnya. That didn’t worry me that much because I knew brothers who had went to Bosnia without knowing anyone. They just flew into Italy, found a way to Bosnia, and walked into camps and said “I’m here to help”. I figured that I would do the same thing in Chechnya. It turned out not to be that easy as the Russians had sealed off the border with Georgia (although there are cracks in the wall) and I had a difficult time while in that region which led me to retreat to Jerusalem where I spent a long time working at a hotel.
This piece is not about my time in Jerusalem but I will just say that I learned a lot while I was there from my interactions with Israelis, Palestinians, and many Westerners living and traveling there. Praying at Masjid al-Aqsa everyday, having breakfast with old Palestinian fighters and hearing their stories, having Shabbat meals at the homes of Observant Jews, traveling in the places of Biblical lore, and having long talks with the likes of my good friend Andrew from Cambridge, England and Craig from Jersey and Simon sapped me of my will of even wanting to fight. It gave me a new outlook on things.
The question that I kept getting, from those whom I let in on my secret, is that “why would you want to travel all the way to go fight” and I asked myself this “ why I am I interjecting myself in to other peoples conflicts?”
Looking back there are certainly many things that I could have been doing that would have been a lot more beneficial to Muslims. Like working to establish my household and myself and then becoming a productive member of the community and setting a good example for others. Yet all of us young American-Muslims who wanted to go for jihad were thinking that we wanted to be bigger than our everyday lives and we wanted to make our mark in the world and not just read about the news we wanted to make the news and make history. Is this unnatural? It certainly is not and it is something in the warrior gene of the male the causes him to act in this way often at the risk of himself and others. Those who fight on the winning side of these battles are often seen as heroes and those on the losing side as monsters and terrorists and a lot of people are in jail today for being young and being Muslim. A friend of mine form New York told me “ I would have been better off joining the Latin Kings”. He thought he was getting away from the streets and trouble with the law by being a Muslim and it turned out he was wrong.
I say all of this because I think everyday about the brothers I know who are in prison such as Ismail Royer and Hammad Abdur-Raheem. Hammad, no matter what anyone says is innocent of what he was accused of and Allah will judge us all one day; but what Ismail did is known and if he had it to do over again I believe he would have done some things differently. Now I will just make duah for his family.
This came to my mind as I watched 3 Days in September yesterday on Showtime. This is a documentary, like Children of Beslan, about the siege of the school in Beslan. This doc does a great job in profiling the city, shows home videos of the Chechens, of the hostages and of the fighting that took place. After watching this I think “ how could I have ever wanted to put my life on the line with people who are willing to take children hostage and kill them”?
The answer is clear of course; because the Russians have killed thousands of Chechen children and have destroyed the land of Chechnya and the Chechen people represent the greatest suffering of any Muslim people today. Compared to Chechens Palestinians are living lives of luxury.
Today, because of Beslan, Muslims are scared to speak up on behalf of Chechnya, and even before Belsan Arab and Pakistani dominated American-Muslim organizations were doing very little for Chechnya. In this climate, with the Chechen struggle now equated with Beslan, for anyone to defend Chechens is hard; but people of reason know that there needs to be a political solution to the problem.
This means that Russians, if they can, must choose someone with a greater vision than President Putin and that Chechens, and the global Muslim community, need to crack down, and even kill if they have to, the renegade mujahudeen leaders in Chechnya and many of the Arab Mujahudeen. I know that when I wanted to go to Chechnya Belsan is not the kind of madness that I had in my mind and watching the film I was rooting for the Russian soldiers of all things.