On 7th July 2005, Mohammed Sidique Khan carried out his suicide bombing on an Edgware Road train, killing himself and five other people. Shortly after, there was an influx of journalists and writers to Beeston in Leeds (where Khan had grown up) in search of answers to the question, “why did he do it?” But did any of them ever answer the question? And is this even the right question?
First out of the blocks for the BBC was Nasreen Suleaman who made the 2005 radio documentary Biography of a bomber (audio below). It provides some interesting insights, but only manages to scratch the surface. Nasreen came to interview me for the documentary because I went to school with Khan. But, just like my peers in the documentary, I could offer little useful information, having only known him casually (I only played tennis with him, how would I know?)
Shiv Malik’s 2007 article for Prospect, My brother the bomber, appears to be more successful. Malik visited Beeston in 2005 on assignment with the BBC to put together a factual drama (which was never commissioned) based on the lives of the four 7th July bombers. During his time in Beeston – which Malik inaccurately paints in a singularly negative light, perhaps with a dramatisation commission in mind – he tracks down Khan’s brother and other acquaintances that are able to help him piece together something which convinces Malik he has found the answer. He concludes:
“Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn’t the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters. At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis – with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.”
Malik certainly sounds confident, but if it really was about inter-generational clashes then why haven’t thousands of others in similar situations, and with similar experiences to Khan’s, done the same thing?
In Why conventional wisdom on radicalisation fails: the persistence of a failed discourse, Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Robert Lambert discuss this point and how a standard, but inadequate, ‘radicalisation’ explanation is now given by the media, government and academics in response to the question, “why did he do it?” Their research finds that ‘radicalisation’ is “largely an assertion that a sense of Islamic difference (variously explained in terms of a lack of integration, a lack of secularism, the existential threat posed by Islam to the West, or external Islamic influences from Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East) among Muslim communities has the dangerous potential to mutate issues of differing identities into support for violent ‘Islamo-fascism’. In this conventional wisdom, exploitation of these differences culminates in terrorism, either passively by contextualising and rationalising this violence, or by explicitly and actively supporting this violence.”
Whilst failing to explain reality, the conventional ‘radicalisation’ explanation also “justifies a policy-making and media approach…that promotes emotional or politically driven feelings about who poses a security threat over a scientific, empirically derived form of knowledge and understanding about what this threat actually is or is not… ‘radicalisation’ has become an extremely powerful and destructive political label in twenty-first-century Britain. It not only allows the stigmatisation of certain Muslim groups and individuals and their exclusion from British political processes; it also allows the government and media commentators to engage in a process of differentiating ‘good Muslims’ from ‘bad Muslims’, thereby supporting those who support the government’s political projects at home or abroad, and punishing those who critically engage with policies that affect Muslim communities either in Britain or beyond…Conventional wisdom on radicalisation has sapped this term of scientific value, so that the label of ‘radicalisation’ has become instead a tool of power exercised by the state and non-Muslim communities against, and to control, Muslim communities in the twenty-first century.”
So, why did he do it, and why haven’t others in similar situations with similar experiences?
Biography of a bomber (BBC Radio 4 documentary, 2005):
History Commons website provides a timeline of Khan’s activities here.