Once Upon a Jihad
ONCE UPON A TIME, NOT SO LONG AGO, in a land not far away, a British man who would become an icon to a generation of European Islamists fighting and dying in Syria and Iraq, sat down before a webcam in his parents’ modest home on England’s south coast and filmed a 90-minute tutorial on how to tie a turban. The image was blurry and badly lit, but sharp enough to reveal the figure of a young man with extravagant black hair. To the back and sides, it fell in long, thick loops, tumbling onto the upturned collar of a docker’s jacket where it executed a final exuberant ski-jump. The front was more delicate: single, thin strands tipping like poured water down over his forehead, past his black eyes, his noble nose and full mouth, extending to his black beard. Ifthekar Jaman looked like a musketeer. Like Robin Hood. Like Che Guevara. And that was no accident. Staring directly ahead, Ifthekar examined his image, then ran his fingers through one side of his hair before turning to the other and smoothing it. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said. Then he added: “Okay… er… I thought I’d do a little tutorial on, er, turbans ‘cos a couple of brothers – I wonder if he’s watching – er, @ReflectionofIslam is a brother that asked can I do a tutorial so I thought yeah, man, might as well …”
Ifthekar checked how he looked again and smoothed his hair several more times. He regarded his smartphone, mouthing the words as he read them. “Hafee-m-m-munee,” he pronounced. “Hafid Munir,” he corrected. “Are you watchin’? I’m doing this tutorial for you. @me, @me, so I know.” With no audience, there was no point to the tutorial, and maybe not to anything so Ifthekar waited in silence, watching himself on screen. He folded his fingers in a steeple and brought them to his lips. His hair still wasn’t right, so he went back to stroking it and puffing it and ruffling it and flattening it. “Hair’s really crazy, man,” he tutted, as though someone was watching – which, after several minutes, they were. “Cool, man, ’preciate it,” said Ifthekar, smiling at his phone. Then picking up a white Muslim cap, he cleared his throat and began. “Alright,” he said. “OK. So. First of all, you need a hat …”
Ifthekar Jaman was 22. His parents, Enu Miah and Hena Choudhury, were first-generation immigrants from Bangladesh. Arriving in 1981, the couple settled in Hudson Road in Portsmouth, a few streets from where Charles Dickens was born and a 20-minute stroll back from the old navy docks where Nelson set sail for Trafalgar. Like hundreds of Bangladeshi émigrés, Enu and Hena opened a takeaway selling kebabs, biryani, tandoori and chips with curry sauce, and free delivery on orders of more than £6. The name they gave their business, St Mary’s Kebab & Masalla, captured the integration – the multiculturalism – that was the shared hope of the British state and the hundreds of thousands of new citizens it assimilated from its former colonies in the half century after empire.
Portsmouth gave Enu and Hena the essential elements of a new, prosperous life: a decent living, a home, free hospitals, and free schools for their four children. But Portsmouth was a hard place to love. Hudson Road was one of hundreds of drab, treeless terraces ordering human life into neat, grey rows that ringed the city and one of tens of thousands like it in regional towns across Britain with names like Luton and Droitwich and Slough. The high streets of these towns, some bombed out during the Second World War, some without even that excuse, were filled with the same dreary architecture and cheerless enterprises that lined Portsmouth’s Commercial Road. Poundland, Iceland, Carpetland. There was Primark, whose clothes were made in the windowless garment houses back in Bangladesh. There was Galley Discount Stores, which hung T-shirts celebrating misery in its windows. “I Don’t Need Sex: the Government Screws Me Every Day” read one. “Parental Advisory: Don’t Have Kids” warned another.
Enu represented the family out in this English world. Hena lived more of an expatriate existence, moving between the few spots in the city – Asian stores, the Jami mosque, her kitchen – where her Bengali was understood. Her disinclination to learn English was partly due to her lack of schooling but partly a statement of sorts, about culture and tradition and tenacity and pride in this country of unearned affluence and extravagant complaining. Enu and Hena fretted they might lose one of their three sons to the tide of obliterated young Englishmen that staggered through the doors of St Mary’s Kebab & Masalla on Fridays and Saturdays. There were also the cheap, grubby escapes on offer at the southern end of Commercial Road: a nightclub called Heaven, a strip club called The Fuzzy and, tucked away behind blacked-out windows under a small pink and blue “Adults Only” neon sign, a porn store.
Tamannah was the couple’s eldest child and only girl, after whom came the boys: Tuhin, Ifthekar and baby Mustakim. Of all of them, Ifthekar was the dreamer. Like many English kids, as a boy he liked to lose himself in stories of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. That was fine, as far as it went. But these were British stories and British cultural mythology; and Hena, especially, didn’t understand them and neither she nor Enu really trusted them. So when Ifthekar was 11 they sent him for a year’s Islamic instruction at a private school in London. It seemed to work. Ifthekar stuck with his Bengali traditions. By the time he left school and got a job answering phones in a call centre for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV, he was a polite and sober young man, popular with colleagues and calm with customers, even when one asked if his name was pronounced “I’m a fucker”. On Saturdays, he even volunteered at a da’wah stall in Commercial Road, where he and other respectable boys from the neighbourhood handed out Qur’ans to passers-by and talked to them about Allah and prophet Muhammad in a yellow T-shirt which asked “Is life Just A Game?” with the “I” in “Life” in the shape of a bottle and a silhouette of a naked woman reclining on the “E” of “Game”, like one of Charlie’s Angels.
Ifthekar, however, hadn’t stopped dreaming. On the contrary, for him Islam had become the foundation for a powerful new adventure fantasy. Online he began to sketch out a new narrative for himself as a Muslim warrior-hero. Ostensibly this was about religious piety. Some would also have spotted signs of radicalism. “I really like Osama bin Laden, I’ll be honest,” said Iftekhar, just like that, in the middle of his turban tutorial. But mostly Ifthekar was just playing at imagining a new identity for himself, trying it on for size, acting it out – above all, looking the part. That was the simple and beautiful truth about surrendering to Islam, said Ifthekar. With all Islam’s prescriptions on how to be and what to eat and how to look, how you looked was who you were. To Ifthekar, bin Laden looked “like a really nice guy, a genuine cool guy”, so therefore he was. “He kept his beard here,” said Ifthekar, indicating his cheekbones. “I like the natural flow too.”
That was the point of Ifthekar’s turban tutorial. The look was paramount and, for 90 minutes, Ifthekar never strayed from the subject of appearance. He talked about how his grew his hair long, and grew his beard, and how some girls might not like it, might not marry him because of it, but that was alright, that was his beard acting as “my filter, man”, weeding out the impure and undesirable. He showed the camera how he slicked his hair and beard with olive oil. He demonstrated how he applied kohl to his eyelashes with a sharpened matchstick. He showed his audience a Japanese sword he’d bought and filmed himself staring at the screen, holding the blade beneath his eyes and unsheathing it while he roared like a ninja. Ifthekar had a pronounced underbite, making his tongue seem too large for his mouth, and when he smiled, he’d slap a palm across his face and say his smile was uglier than the ugliest face he could pull. But when he was serious, he looked good and he knew it, and much of the 90 minutes was taken up with Ifthekar practising his stony face, all deadly kohl eyes and creased hero’s brow.
If even thinking of any kind of sex outside marriage hadn’t been haram, you might have wondered whether Ifthekar was gay. He talked about a wife more as a duty than a desire and would scold young Muslim girls who told him he was beautiful. His blogs and tweets and video streams and Facebook posts were rarely addressed to girls and Ifthekar unfollowed any of them who posted pictures of themselves with their faces uncovered. But when the boys said he looked great, Ifthekar was unrestrained about how much he loved them right back, often spinning off into rhapsodies about his deep feelings for the brothers. “I swear – you know what? – I love you brothers,” he would say. “I just want you to know. I love you brothers so much. It’s something I’ve never seen before. I wish us lot, us brothers, we could, like, we could get some land and stuff and do Khilafah, all of us. Honestly. Alhamdulillah.”
And if Ifthekar was not all that articulate and easily distracted, going off on tangents about his pet cat, with which he played for hours, and how he liked to plait his hair and his beard, though he wasn’t sure whether beard-plaiting was haram, and maybe one of the brothers watching could let him know, though he was pretty sure plaiting chest hair was not only haram but impossible too – so that it took him 90 minutes to show you how to tie a piece of cloth around your head – despite all that, he was modest and had that easy-going, slightly feminine charm of 21st-century southern England and it wasn’t long before he had several hundred Twitter followers.
It was like this, steeped in his love for the brothers, and their love for him, and the way they looked, which was the way he looked, which was the same as Osama’s look, with bits from The Mummy and The Prince of Persia thrown in, that Ifthekar came to see himself as a soldier of faith and death, a mujahid, a jihadi, even, if Allah called him to it, a shahid – a martyr. If he was an example to others, he insisted it was not because he was anything special, but because he was guided through the darkness by the bright light of jannah, a word Ifthekar pronounced with a breathlessness because it was nothing less than another world, a perfect, everlasting paradise far away from Hudson Road and Portsmouth, far above Middle Earth and all the Muggles. “I’d love to meet all you brothers in jannah, man, just chilling, smoking some shisha,” he said. “Hey, imagine the cats you can have in jannah! Like massive tigers – or lions! – just walking with you…” This road to jannah was the “path”, and if you accepted your destiny and stayed on it, stayed true to the brothers, then Ifthekar said that was “being on it, man. On the deen, man”. That was the other reason for the tutorial. You had to share the knowledge and reinforce the Brotherhood and stay sure on the “path” – and if that meant a chance to dress up and look good on ustream, and have a few hundred people watch you, and tweet you, and maybe like you on Facebook, then that was cool, too. As Ifthekar said: “@me, @me.”
Ifthekar Jaman recorded his tutorial on the night of 16 December 2012. One day less than a year later, on 15 December 2013, in the snowy ruins of an eastern Syrian town called Ghazwa al-Khair, Ifthekar was sent by one Islamist militia to fight another and died right there, in the first minutes of his first battle, his legs blown off by a tank, his guts splashed all around, his lustrous long black hair curled back over his head.
For more, read the ebook here (UK) http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00SA9UW6U or here (US) http://www.amazon.com/Once-Upon-Jihad-death-radicalised-ebook/dp/B00SA9UW6U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422957888&sr=8-1&keywords=once+upon+a+jihad