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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Atheist Muslim

A Journey from Religion to Reason

Ali A. Rizvi

St. Martin's Press



Smoke Break


I’m in the fifth grade at the American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and our teacher wants us to make paper snowflakes. Brimming with excitement, we all fold up our pieces of paper, cut into them, open them up, decorate them using glue and glitter, and label them with our names. They will be displayed on the bulletin board in the hall, after which we get to take them home to show our parents.

Thing is, it doesn’t snow in Riyadh. I’ve never even seen snow—and I won’t until I move to Canada, well into my twenties. But this is an American school, and it’s two weeks to Christmas break. Trees with handmade ornaments are up everywhere. Music teachers are busy preparing students for the winter recital. And classroom walls are adorned with cutouts of elves, snowmen, and reindeer.

My school has over two thousand students of about eighty nationalities, all from expatriate families, mostly American and Canadian. The Saudis aren’t allowed by law to attend it. This is more or less consistent with the generally minimal interaction foreigners have with the locals anyway—and the government seems to like it that way. Consequently, our exposure to the Saudis’ culture and customs is limited, as is theirs to ours. So it makes sense that Westerners who find themselves isolated in this cultural desert halfway across the world would want something to keep their kids connected to the way things are back home.

Well, almost.

You have to say “winter” or “holiday” instead of “Christmas”—winter break, winter recital, holiday party, and so on—and you can’t display anything religious like crosses or images of Jesus. But the rest of it’s pretty legit.

From time to time, government officials drop by to see if our school is in compliance with their rules. And today—on snowflake day—an officer from the ministry just happens to be dropping in for an inspection.

He approaches our snowflakes on the bulletin board, and he doesn’t look happy. Scowling, he turns around to say something to our teacher. She hands him a pair of scissors, at his request. Then, he proceeds to snip one of the points off each of the paper snowflakes, leaving the disfigured, asymmetrical five-pointed figures on the board, not even bothering to pick up the amputated scraps of paper that have fallen to the floor.

As you’d expect, it isn’t long before my teacher finds herself staring into the faces of twenty confused kids trying to make sense of what they’ve just witnessed. What could possibly be so threatening about snowflakes? Why are five points okay but not six?

“What is the Star of David?” we ask her, after she has finally—and hesitantly—given us the real answer to a long string of persistent “whys” characteristic of children our age. And what’s so repugnant about it that a grown, literate man, presumably of sound intellectual faculty (he’s from the Ministry of Education, after all), can’t even stand the sight of paper snowflakes made by a bunch of eleven-year-olds just because both structures happen to have the same number of points?

“It’s their symbol,” the kid sitting next to me tells us, practically whispering.

I’m puzzled, disoriented, and slightly traumatized about having my creativity mauled. But most of all, I’ve just been given my first ever introduction to the Jews—and I am terrified.

I get home, itching to ask my father, a geography and history whiz, about the Jews. He asks me to get my illuminated plastic globe of the world that we bought earlier this year from both his and my favorite place in the city—the Jarir Bookstore in Riyadh’s Al Akariyah Mall. He tells me a little bit about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and guides me to find Israel on the globe. I look, and it isn’t there. He then brings down a world atlas, also from the same store. Again, no Israel. It isn’t on either map. Strangely, the maps haven’t just ignored its existence and called all of it Palestine like they do on TV; instead, it appears as a blue, nameless notch in the Middle East, blending into the Mediterranean—literally wiped off the map.

*   *   *

I’m not telling you this to assert one position or another on the Middle East. Of course, I know today that Israel isn’t synonymous with “all Jews” and vice versa. But I want you to understand how people often grow to believe things the way that they do, and how fear can entrench those beliefs so deeply in one’s mind—especially a child’s mind—that they become all but intractable.

What happened with me was actually the best-case scenario, considering the circumstances. I was a Pakistani child going to an international school. Both of my parents were highly educated university professors. My father had earned his doctorate in Canada, and my mother earned hers in the United States. They were progressive, rational, and well traveled. Both had lived and taught in several countries before they got married and had me. Like the other expatriates in Saudi, they had very little interaction with the locals outside of their places of work. They were liberal Muslims who valued pluralism and quality education that went beyond the textbook—and they wanted to instill that in us, their four children. This was a key reason they sent us to this expensive, private school.

Now, imagine the experience of an average Saudi child who will live in Saudi Arabia most or all of his life, like his parents did. He attends public Saudi schools—which the children of expatriates are not allowed to attend. Officials from the Ministry of Education—like the one who visited my classroom that day—don’t just do spot-checks in his school to see if everything’s running as it should. They actually write his school’s curriculum, and significantly influence what goes in his textbooks.

We got a peek into the content of these textbooks shortly after the 9/11 attacks, after an investigation into the factors that may have led the hijackers—fifteen of whom were Saudi out of a total of nineteen—to do what they did. For example, a textbook for tenth-graders entitled Monotheism, published in 2000, featured passages like, “The Hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill all the Jews.” Students weren’t just asked to learn these ideas—they were required to memorize the passages verbatim.1

Concerned, the United States put pressure on the Saudis to reform their education system. The author of several of these books, a deeply revered religious scholar named Saleh Al-Fawzan, was furious. In an interview with Saudi newspaper Al Jazirah, he said,

The Jews and Christians and the polytheists have shown their heartfelt hatred and try to prevent us from the true path of God. They want to change our religion and our teaching to disconnect us from Islam so they can come and occupy us with their armies. It is bad enough when it comes from the infidels, but worse when they are of our skin. They say we create parrots, but they are the real parrots repeating what our enemies say of Islam.

Other Saudi officials, however, were more conciliatory. Over the next four years, they kept insisting repeatedly that the system had been reformed and the textbooks changed. And then Freedom House, a human rights think tank, got hold of some of these “reformed” books published in 2005 and 2006 and put out a report. Its findings were astonishing.2

A fill-in-the-blank question in a first-grade textbook read, “Every religion other than Islam is ___________. Whoever dies outside of Islam enters ___________.”

The correct answers: “false” and “hellfire,” respectively.

A fifth-grade textbook taught lessons on friendship and loyalty: “It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam,” and, “A Muslim, even if he lives far away, is your brother in religion. Someone who opposes God, even if he is your brother by family tie, is your enemy in religion.”

In the eighth grade, students learned about dealings with Jews and Christians. “The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus.”

By the twelfth grade, the students were ready to graduate and go out to face the world. “Jihad in the path of God—which consists of battling against unbelief, oppression, injustice, and those who perpetrate it—is the summit of Islam. This religion arose through jihad and through jihad was its banner raised high. It is one of the noblest acts, which brings one closer to God, and one of the most magnificent acts of obedience to God.”

Let me reiterate here—these were the reformed textbooks, printed several years after 9/11.

My experience on snowflake day really shook me up at the time. My memory of it is crystal clear to this day. Eventually, though, I was convinced that I’d moved on from all that backward silliness and prejudice. I was educated. Enlightened. I’d grown up with friends from all over the world. My parents had raised me right. I was smart enough to realize, if I’d been born in a Jewish or Christian or Hindu family, I would be raised in those religions. Being Muslim was just an accident of birth. Being good or bad is about your actions and deeds—not where you’re from or what your parents happen to believe. That’s just common sense.


*   *   *

Ten years later, I’m sitting in a convenience store in Mississauga, Ontario—a city just west of Toronto that first started up as one of its suburbs. My parents have now moved permanently to Canada. I’m still attending medical school in Karachi, Pakistan, but I’ve got the summer off and I’ve come here to spend it with them.

I’m working at the store to make a bit of cash, completely oblivious to the South-Asian-working-at-a-convenience-store stereotype here in the West, despite being a fan of Apu’s character in The Simpsons. Either way, I wouldn’t really care. It’s 1996, and one Canadian dollar equals almost thirty rupees, which goes a long way back in Karachi. It’s not too busy, the weather is amazing, and I’ve got a lot of time to study. (In medical school, you’re always studying.)

It’s after lunch, and I’m walking back from the record store two shops away, where I’ve just picked up the new Metallica tape, Load. Their last album, eponymously named Metallica, had all of my high school anthems on it. This is their first album after that. It’s been five years.

I’ve always loved metal. It’s aggressive, rebellious, smart, and it pisses off all the right people—teachers, preachers, and the mutawwahs, the religious policemen who used to go around the malls back in Saudi and hit your mom on the head with a stick if her headscarf slipped too far off her forehead. They hated the music. They said it was the Shaitaan, the devil, putting his word into our ears. But all the kids were listening to it. Riyadh had lots of tape and CD stores, and the mutawwahs didn’t like it one bit. My favorite was a place called 747, right at the corner of the Olaya and Talateen streets, located at the base of the Green Towers apartment buildings that some of my friends lived in. The store was huge, had virtually everything, and was cheap because all the tapes were pirated. It was also a favorite of the mutawwahs, but for completely different reasons. They targeted it frequently because it had become a popular secret meeting spot for young boys and girls. Ultimately, it became men-only.

I had a dual-tape Sanyo system that I’d brought along to my university hostel room in Karachi. It was almost always at full volume, blasting out angry voices drenched in a massive wall of rich, distorted guitars, screaming hope and possibility.

“Don’t damn me when I speak a piece of mind.”

An irrepressible, growling Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses, speaking truth to power.

“’Cause silence isn’t golden when I’m holding it inside.”

Fuck yeah.

But back here in Canada, it all feels different. It’s comfortable, it’s open, everything seems to work, and you can say whatever you want without someone whisking you off to the mutawwah station or following you to your house. I pop in the new Metallica tape, and it seems they just don’t have it anymore. There’s no tension, no hunger, no urgency. There’s an impalpable but tangible feel of complacency in the air. It’s almost … boring.

It’s fantastic.

A Middle Eastern–looking man walks in. I know he’s been here before, but I’ve never spoken with him. He wants a pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket, and a soda (they call it “pop” here, but at this point in my life, I’ve spent more years at an American school than in any Canadian city).

“What is that you’re reading?”

I’m pretty sure that’s an Arabic accent.

“Oh, this?” I smile. “Medical Microbiology, by Jawetz.” I show him the cover. “I didn’t do too well on my micro finals this year, so I have to redo the exam before starting the next year.”

“So you’re a doctor?”

“Ha, no, not yet. Hopefully in two more years, if I don’t screw up any more of my exams.”

He laughs, warmly. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Then, the question that almost every medical student has been asked by almost every parent with a child in high school or college.

“My son is studying science in university. He’s very smart, and also wants to go into medicine. What can he do to increase his chances of getting in?”

I rattle off my usual answer—that there’s no real shortcut, you have to study hard, get good grades, research experience, and so on.

“Where is he thinking of applying?” I ask.

“It is still early,” he replies. “I would like him to come to Canada for medical school.”

“And where is he now?”

“Back home, in Israel.”

And, suddenly, he looks different.

I start to feel a little cold. I feel my heartbeat, racing, in my throat. My palms are clammy and my muscles tense up. I’m sitting on a stool in a narrow space behind the cash register. My ambulatory ability is restricted, and I feel vulnerable. I’m in full fight-or-flight mode, and it shows on my face—I’m sure of it. I’m surprised at my reaction, and puzzled by my inability to control it. I am embarrassed—and a little angry.

This isn’t me.

I’m a reasonable person. I’m not even religious at this point. Bizarre thoughts are darting through my mind. Hey, Seinfeld is Jewish, and I love Seinfeld! And Einstein, Woody Allen—they’re my heroes. Wait, one in five people in Israel are Arabs. Maybe this guy’s not Jewish at all—maybe he’s an Arab. But no, why should that matter? What if he isn’t an Arab? What if he is a Jew? Why should that even make a difference? I wonder if he supports the settlements. Has his son served with the Israel Defense Forces? Or maybe he’s like Chomsky or Tony Judt—one of us. Huh? What does that even mean? “One of us?” Are you serious?

“Oh, yes, for sure. He should definitely try here,” I tell him, awkwardly.

“And where are you studying?”

“In Karachi, Pakistan. Before that, I lived in Riyadh—also the Middle East.” I offer a forced smile. It doesn’t help. In this particular context, highlighting our prior geographical proximity doesn’t exactly evoke warm, fuzzy feelings of neighborliness. He’s not quite as convivial as he was before my twenty-second mental meltdown. But despite having read my reaction perfectly, he remains polite—a quality that briefly makes me think he’s more Canadian than Jewish—until I promptly tell my brain to shut up.

“Well, good luck, and thank you.” He takes the cigarettes out of the bag and starts walking away, rapping them firmly on his palm twice before starting to open the pack. I call out as he pushes open the door.

“Hey, mind if I join you? I have my own.”

“Sure,” he says. “Come on out.”

After a few short, quintessentially Canadian exchanges about the weather, I come clean.

“You’re the first person from Israel I’ve ever met.”

I tell him what they think about people like him in Saudi Arabia. He knows, but he hasn’t heard the stories. He’s laughing and shaking his head, more entertained than outraged. And when it comes to religious beliefs, it turns out we’re not so different after all.

We’re both atheists.

*   *   *

It’s 2001, a little over two years since I graduated from medical school and moved permanently to Canada. I’ve done my U.S. licensing exams (transferring your qualifications to Canada as a foreign medical graduate isn’t a simple process, unfortunately), and I have just enrolled in graduate school.

I think clinical medicine is an incredibly noble profession, but I’ve always had an avid interest in—and a knack for—science. Whenever science students ask me about going into medicine, I advise them to first understand what it really entails. For the most part, medicine is more public service than science. In medicine, you have to follow protocols. In science, you help create them. In science, trying out new things and being creative is encouraged. In medicine, getting too creative could get you sued, or worse.

I’m in the biochemistry program because of my fascination with molecular genetics, and will go on to earn my Master of Science degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, before returning to medicine and specializing in pathology. But at this point, I don’t know that. Starting off, my goal was to do a Ph.D., but the harsh realities of living on a paltry stipend for five or more years of my adult life have caught up to me—an important point I now hasten to add to my science-versus-medicine advice speech to balance out the idealism. For now, I’m happy.

My daily commute is about forty-five minutes to the lab and forty-five minutes back. I’ve just gotten into the car on a bright Tuesday morning. It’s September 11.

By the time I turn on the radio, the first plane has already hit. It is being treated like an accident, but I instantly know it isn’t. As I’m merging onto the highway, the second plane hits the South Tower. Now everyone knows what’s going on, but the lady on the radio is being very careful. It’s the usual, obligatory list of disclaimers: remember, the Oklahoma City bomber was a white man, and so was the Unabomber. And what about those guys who blow up abortion clinics? You never know, right?

All they know, they say, is that two large passenger planes have flown straight into the World Trade Center buildings, one in each tower, within less than twenty minutes of each other. One reporter says it could be a terrorist attack, but it’s also possible that “the air traffic control system completely crashed.”3

I switch stations.

Nearly all of the music stations are running a live CNN or CBC feed. Everyone’s trying to be responsible in their reporting, and they’re doing a remarkably great job at it. But these aren’t the people I’m going to run into on the street, or be interviewed by at the border the next time I drive down to the States. So I switch over to Howard Stern, my usual morning commute go-to, who is broadcasting live from Manhattan.

Howard still hasn’t figured out exactly what’s going on. One of his staffers says it looks like there’s smoke coming out of the second building too.

“No, no, no, no,” counters cohost Robin Quivers. “It’s a reflection. It’s a reflection.”

Soon, they receive confirmation that there was indeed a second plane.

“We’re totally too lax in this country,” Howard says. “We gotta bomb the hell out of them. You know who it is. I can’t say, but I know who it is.”

A caller dials in. “This is them towelhead bastards! You can’t say that, but I can say that. It’s time we take these towelhead bastards and throw ’em outta the damn country!”

Then, one after the other, the towers collapse.

“Atom bombs! Atom bombs!

“Nuclear strikes all over those countries…”

“The first second I hear it was one of these towelhead or dothead bastards, I’m going to go out there and start goin’ to those A-rab stores and I’m gonna start kickin’ ass and get those assholes out of the whole frickin’ neighborhood…”

“I call all Americans to get your arms together, baby, get out on the streets and go to your local frickin’ deli…”

“You see how they wiped out the twin towers? Wipe out their country! Don’t worry about the kids or the old people. Babies? Who cares about their babies?”

Because I fall broadly into the towelhead/dothead category, this is disturbing. But at least it’s real. It’s raw, without pretense. Now I actually feel like I’m getting the news in real time. Regular New Yorkers are calling in. A cab driver. Someone who lives two buildings away from the towers. Someone with friends who worked there. Someone who’s concerned about pandemonium breaking out on the streets—looting, rioting, violence.

I arrive at the lab. Everyone is speculating, wondering how much worse it could get. “They’re saying fifty thousand people work in both of those buildings,” someone says. “And now they’ve hit the Pentagon.” I walk over to my bench and start setting up for the day. The Internet is still a relatively recent phenomenon at this point, and we have a total of two desktop computers in the lab connected to it by way of a jumble of wires. No one has even heard of Wi-Fi. Some people have cell phones, but at this point, they’re just, well, phones. So far, I’ve only heard about what’s happening. I haven’t seen the images.

I load up the CNN home page, and there it is. Stills of fire and thick black smoke billowing out of the towers, moments before they collapsed to the ground. A picture of people running down the street, noses and mouths covered, smothered under a dark cloud of gray dust. Pieces of paper flying around, completely intact. I wonder why they didn’t burn.

Back in the summer of 1988, I was in Pakistan with my family when the president, Zia Ul-Haq, was killed in a plane crash. One of the more popular stories that got out was about his personal Quran, which survived the crash with minimal charring, apparently just enough for it to qualify as a miracle. The way people ranted about it was bizarre to my eighth-grade mind. “Did you see? Not a word damaged in his Quran! Masha’allah! Praise God!” What’s so impressive about a god that allows thirty-two people to perish in the sky, instead choosing to protect a book? I thought. And a book with billions of other copies in print around the world, at that. But there were grown, educated adults around me going on and on about it. There was probably something I was missing. Maybe I’d understand it when I got older.

Well, now I’m older, and this was no miracle. There is plenty of undamaged, nonsacred paper floating purposelessly through the dust clouds this morning—really mundane, nonrevelatory stuff like stationery, office memos, and financial statements. I refresh the page. And I see the one picture I will never forget.

There’s a close-up of the burning part of the building, and there are people hanging out of the windows, clinging to the outside. It’s zoomed in so close that their faces are blurry, but you can tell some of them are about to jump. People who came to work just two hours ago, like any other morning, now have to decide whether they want to be burned to death, or simply fall to it a thousand feet below. It will be some time before I see the actual video footage of people jumping. For now, I’m staring at the still photo, my eyes frozen in place.

Our lab tech walks over to me, a middle-aged man from Beijing, China, with a heavy accent. He is also a physician who trained in his own country, but isn’t able to pursue medicine here, I assume owing to language difficulty. He sits next to me and leans in close.

“What are they saying in Pakistan?” he whispers, half smiling.

“Well, I’m sure some people there are happy,” I reply, keeping my voice down as well. I’m being honest. I’d been in Lahore just two years before, and Osama bin Laden was already a hero there after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings by Al Qaeda in Kenya and Tanzania. President Clinton had sent out two cruise missiles to kill Bin Laden—but missed. The fact that America was unsuccessful in hitting him back was a huge morale booster for many Pakistanis, only amplifying the already frenzied state of collective ecstasy the population was feeling after becoming the first ever Muslim-majority country to go nuclear just three months before the embassies were hit. We’d just gotten the “Islamic bomb”—and from where we were standing, things were looking pretty good.

No one in Pakistan liked America back then. The country was still reeling from having to take in over three million refugees during the U.S.-supported Afghan war against the Soviet Union. With the war came large amounts of weapons—weapons that were supposed to be channeled to Afghanistan, but often found their way to Pakistani locals, both during and after the war. The country was awash in Kalashnikovs (AK-47s), handguns, rocket launchers, land mines—you name it. Weapons were in ample supply, at giveaway prices, and, of course, all in the wrong hands.

The resulting “Kalashnikov culture” continues to destabilize Pakistan to this day, and many blame the United States for it. First, the United States propped up Zia Ul-Haq—the military dictator who ousted and executed the democratically elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir). Then, after the war, it cut and ran without helping to clean up the mess. Pakistanis still blame America for the violence within their borders, harboring a deep distrust of the superpower (even if almost all of them would jump at the chance of getting a green card). They wanted someone to strike back at all those complacent people in America, protected on either side by Earth’s largest oceans, comfortably ignorant of the terrible things their elected government was doing to others around the world. But now they had the Islamic bomb, and a hero in Bin Laden, himself U.S.-trained, who could stand up to America’s cruise missiles. Even those who didn’t like him didn’t really mind him.

“Well, he is just a bearded mullah like the others,” a friend’s U.S.-educated father once told me, swirling his scotch. “But he’s the only one with the balls to stand up to the goras, the white people.” He took a swig. “Beta, son, they got the Soviet Union, they got Iraq, Afghanistan—you know what that means, right?” He shrugged his shoulders like it was obvious. “Pakistan is next. They want to destroy Islam. Now that Muslims have an atom bomb, they will double down, you just watch. Don’t fall for all this propaganda.”

My colleague is smiling, and comes even closer. Pointing to my computer screen, he whispers, “In China they say this is good.” He’s referring to the Hainan incident in April that year, where a U.S. surveillance plane collided midair with a Chinese fighter jet a few miles off China’s southeastern coast, killing its pilot. China detained the American flight crew, angering the United States. The United States, on the other hand, expressed regret, but specifically stated that it was not an apology, which is what the Chinese wanted. And although U.S.-Chinese relations are particularly strained in 2001, this is far from the only issue the Chinese have with the United States.

You might wonder if the tech and I have talked about this before. After all, why else would he approach me and calmly express his approval of this terrible event mere hours after it occurred? We haven’t talked about this—or much else—before. He has assumed, though, without knowing any of my political views, that I—the brown, foreign grad student—would get it. He has come close to me and kept his voice down so the goras don’t hear, precisely because “they” wouldn’t understand—not the way that “we” do.

He isn’t the first to approach me this way. Over the coming weeks, several more foreigners and immigrants will come up to me and start talking about how America finally got a taste of her own medicine, assuming I think the same. They would never say it elsewhere, but talking to me is a safe bet—I’m one of them, so I “know.” It turns out that a lot of people have a lot of issues with the United States, and not all are unfounded.

Talking to one of my friends from medical school in Karachi that weekend is even more confusing. He is still back in Pakistan. He was three years junior to me, and is about to graduate this year. He is an American-born Pakistani who will interview for medical residency spots in the United States over the winter and start his first year in internal medicine next summer. He, like many others back home, thinks this was, as they say, the chickens coming home to roost. But that’s not all.

“Look, everyone knows it wasn’t Al Qaeda. Let’s just get that out of the way,” he types into the chat window. He has the same contradictory stance that many other Pakistanis—including Western-educated professionals—have about the attacks: that they are a justifiable retaliation to America’s anti-Muslim foreign policy, but it also isn’t Muslims who did it. It’s either the Jews or the U.S. government. Right.

But this picture, of people hanging off the outside of the towers—I can’t figure out how this could bring a sense of resolution for people like my lab colleague. How do you look at these images, of people consciously and deliberately deciding to jump to their deaths, and think, “Okay, this is good, now we’re even, I feel better”? I’m reminded of all those great Scorsese movies from the ’90s like Goodfellas and Casino. Every character in those movies is scum, and there are no good guys anywhere for miles. But you just find yourself rooting for the one whose story you know best. It’s simply a matter of what’s presented to you. Loyalty, it seems, is a function of proximity. And when you’ve grown up living among Saudis, in a Pakistani family, going to an American school, you aren’t just proximate to one side. You realize how primitive and tribal the idea of loyalty really is, whether it’s coming from a colleague happy to see innocent Americans incinerated alive, or callers to the Howard Stern show, itching to kick out all the towelheads and nuke their babies.

With time, the diagnosticians diverge, as they always do with any issue in America, into the right and the left. The right is clear: this was a naked act of aggression—a declaration of war by terrorists. They started it, and we must respond.

But no, the left says. We need to be more nuanced. These people are simply responding to America’s atrocities around the world. We’re the imperialists here—we colonized them, we’ve built ourselves up at their expense, we’ve left them powerless under the boot of the military-industrial complex. We must look at the underlying grievances driving this. What are the “root causes” at play here?

This is the crux of the debate here in the West. I wish it were as simple as trying to make sense of things, looking for rational explanations, or speculating about the geopolitical or economic benefits these actors are in pursuit of.

But a few weeks later—when it’s confirmed that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, not to mention Bin Laden himself—it all starts coming together. I try to figure out what grievances the Saudis might have against the Americans, who have given them near-unconditional support, turned a blind eye to their subjugation of women and non-Muslims, protected them in the First Gulf War of 1991, and helped place them, gallon by gallon, among the twenty countries in the world with the highest per capita GDP. I know if I dig deep enough, I’ll find something to explain this.

But I don’t need to.

Despite being kept segregated from Saudi culture as a foreigner during the decade I spent there; despite my interaction with the locals being sporadic at best; despite having reasonable, educated parents to talk sense into me on the odd occasion that I crossed paths with the mutawwahs or that Ministry of Education monitor; despite attending school with kids from many countries around the world and being exposed to a variety of cultures and ideas; and despite being a religious skeptic—I had a visceral, near-hostile, completely irrational reaction to the Israeli man at the store the moment I knew where he was from.

But those hijackers—they grew up right in the middle of what I had just gotten a mere taste of. It was focused on them, like rays from a hot desert sun converging through a magnifying glass and burning into their skin, from the day of their birth, through each advancing grade in school, with each advancing textbook from the first to the twelfth grade, beckoning them every day to fight the infidels and wage jihad against enemies of Allah—all within a quarantined world where even a snowflake was a threat to their faith, their heritage, and their identity.

Shocking? This wasn’t shocking. It was inevitable.


Copyright © 2016 by Ali A. Rizvi