22nd May, 2013, London. Two men behead a British soldier in Woolwich. They shout ‘god is great’ in Arabic. They were Muslim converts who had contacts in the banned UK organisation Al Mujaharoun and the Somali organisation Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab), which means ‘Mujahideen Youth Movement’. ‘Mujahiddeen’ means ‘those who struggle’ and ‘Jihadi’. Jihad basically means struggling for what is spiritually good.
23rd May, 2013, Idlib, Syria. A young British-Asian Muslim from Willesden dies while working in a field hospital. Dr Isa Abdur Rahman was volunteering as a doctor in a country where medics treating civilians have been tortured and killed. Hospitals are routinely attacked and there is a dire shortage, therefore, of medical staff willing to work under such circumstances.
Isa was my nephew. He was 26. His name means ‘Jesus’, who is also named as a prophet in the Quran. In the Quran, Jesus’ death is different but he still dies a young man striving for good. My nephew felt that he absolutely had to go to Syria and that he would awful as a qualified doctor to not go to a region so in need of his skills. He was supportive of the toppling of the dictators in the Middle East but was not fighting as a rebel but as a medic treating the sick and wounded. He was trying to do what he knew best to help out in a hard situation a very, very long way away from home. Trained as a doctor at Imperial College London, he put his career on hold to help the charity Hand in Hand, one of the few charities still getting aid through to Syria.
Isa felt this was his ‘jihad’, his ‘struggle for good’. It’s hard to imagine two actions so different committed in the name of god, the one in Woolwich and the one in Idlib. Hard to imagine two Londoners with such a different vision of what their faith means to them.
Isa wasn’t a British soldier, he wasn’t white, he wasn’t a murderer who was also a ‘troubled young Muslim man’ and he wasn’t a young man in ‘crisis’ with his masculinity any more than any of us are at crisis with who we are. He was a young Muslim man who had kind parents, four brothers and sisters and a young wife.
We feed our fantasies with images, plug ourselves into the internet until we’re bursting with criticism, anger and helplessness. But our lives are better than those of many. We’re the lucky ones. Our children are lucky. Where there’s life, there’s hope… but we don’t celebrate it.
My nephew did what he felt was right and kind. He cared for strangers in trouble.
I want people to stop and think. It’s not just some Muslims who kill people; it’s people who join gangs, who believe in attacks and reprisal attacks. Can we really keep just blaming religion per se when so many young Muslim men lead good lives and the use of knives and machetes in London are actually prevalent in forms of gang culture that have nothing to do with religion? I was struck by how the men in Woolwich tried to film their actions on their and other people’s mobile phones. It’s, well, very much like what gangs do – film awful things on their phones and upload them onto YouTube. To see the phenomenon as just ‘Islamic’ with no holistic view is crazy. It’s undeniable that certain groups are deeply problematic and this needs to be tackled, but it is them who (like the EDL and the BNP) actually want an ‘us’ and ‘them’ war to erupt, and we can’t let humanity lose out to that view. It would let them win.
My nephew was an amazing young man. It’s so hard to lose someone so young. But I’m proud of him and I’m also proud of all my nephews and nieces. If we are the ‘responsible adults’ in society, let’s celebrate and love and nurture our youth – not just our own children. That’s what real love is and that’s the real ‘jihad’ that my nephew fought, the real ‘struggle for what is good’ in the face of adversity: saving lives, valuing lives, respecting lives.
True terrorists do not recognise the existence of ‘innocents’ in societies they don’t like. Don’t be guilty of the same thing.
My nephew died saving innocents and he was just 26 year old. He gave up his future for them.
As I write, civilians continue to be killed in Syria with little international support. Donations are welcome to the charity Hand in Hand and any other charity getting aid through to Syria.
RIP, Dr Isa Abdur Rahman (1986 – 2013)… a young man who helped because his open eyes could see no other way.