Creative Writing on Terrorism

Reza Aslan is a highly successful author, whose first book on the “Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” won international acclaim and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. According to his website, the Iranian-born Aslan studied “Religions” at several US universities, though he is now an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

I have to admit that I’m not familiar with Aslan’s work, but that is likely true for many other people who followed CiF’s “Best of the Web” recommendation that featured at the top of the list Aslan’s blog at the “Daily Beast” where he had posted an excerpt from his second book that has just been published in paperback.


As can be seen from the screenshot above, CiF’s one-sentence summary provided the title of Aslan’s post: “Jihadists’ Palestinian rallying cry” and promised “[an] excerpt from Reza Aslan’s book, in which he writes about the 7/7 bombers’ radicalization after a visit to Israel-Palestine.”

Indeed, the passage Aslan chose to entice readers to buy his new book opens with the (creatively written) claim:

“Two years before Mohammed Siddique Khan, the soft-spoken second-generation Pakistani-Briton from West Yorkshire, led three of his friends on a suicide mission that would end in the murder of more than 50 of his fellow British citizens on July 7, 2005, he stood at the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, at one of its 500 or so security checkpoints. In all of the material published about the so-called 7/7 bombers, all of the documents and studies and conferences meant to discover what could have led to the radicalization of those four seemingly benign British youths, Khan’s trip to Israel is rarely, if ever, mentioned. But there can be little doubt that it was the decisive moment in his young life—the pivot in his journey from husband and father and, by all accounts, well-adjusted, well-integrated, well-educated youth worker to radical jihadist bent on mass murder.”

Aslan’s assertion that “there can be little doubt” that it was the trip to Israel that turned a “well-adjusted, well-integrated, well-educated youth worker” into a “radical jihadist bent on mass murder” is truly remarkable given that he notes – albeit in passing – that Khan came to Israel on “a last-minute detour on his way back to Britain, after he had completed the hajj pilgrimage with his wife and a couple of close friends.”

But Aslan then quickly moves on, doing his creative best to imagine Khan’s supposedly traumatic experience while waiting at an Israeli checkpoint to cross into the Palestinian territories. Relying on the story as told by one of Khan’s companions, Aslan vividly describes that Khan witnessed how an elderly Palestinian endured “being manhandled by a nervous young soldier” who searched his belongings, while another soldier, “sweating and timorous and just as young as the first, held a rifle barrel against the old man’s chest.”

And just in case anyone would question Aslan’s qualifications to imagine the scene properly, Aslan remarks that those soldiers manning the checkpoint were “probably no older than the pimply immigration officer who had pulled me aside as I deplaned in Tel Aviv.”

Well, what do you know, encountering IDF soldiers is a trauma, even if (or particularly if?) they are nervous and young and sweating and timorous; and for an Iranian-born American who apparently goes back to visit his native country every now and then, it’s really a nuisance to be “pulled aside” by a “pimply immigration officer” upon arrival in Israel.

To be sure, Aslan acknowledges that at the checkpoint where Khan supposedly was radicalized into a “jihadist bent on mass murder” because he watched an elderly Palestinian being searched by nervous young sweating timorous soldiers, there “had been attacks”, and he even adds: “Israelis had died; Jews had died.”

However, in Aslan’s mind, there is no doubt that Khan’s life was changed completely once he had watched the elderly Palestinian being searched, and Aslan dramatically declares: “in that fateful moment, his [Khan’s] identity was altered. He was no longer British. He was no longer Pakistani. His sense of self could not be contained by either nationalist designation. He was simply a Muslim: a member of a fractured, imaginary ‘nation’ locked in an eternal cosmic war with a Jewish ‘nation’ just as imaginary and just as fractured.”

Isn’t it rather strange that Aslan would so completely discount any effect the hajj might have had on forming Khan’s Muslim identity?

And wouldn’t it be worthwhile asking what had prompted Khan to visit Israel in a “last-minute detour on his way back to Britain” after he concluded the hajj?

Surprisingly, Aslan really doesn’t seem to think that performing the hajj strengthens Muslim identity; instead, he argues that “Palestine has become the sole source of pan-Islamic identity in the Muslim world, the universal symbol that, in the absence of a Caliphate, unites all Muslims, regardless of race, nationality, class, or piety, into a single ummah.”

Assuming Aslan is right, what does this tell us about the willingness and indeed ability of the Muslim world to give up this identity-forming “symbol” and abide by any potential peace agreement?

This crucial question is apparently of little interest for Aslan.

Similarly, he prefers not to mar his dramatic re-creation of Khan’s experience and emotions at the Israeli checkpoint with any factual context. If Khan visited Israel on his way back from the hajj, he visited some time in early 2003. This is what happened in Israel from early 2002 to early 2003:

Jan 27, 2002 – Jerusalem: An elderly man was killed and over 150 people wounded in a suicide bombing on Jaffa Road in the center of Jerusalem. A female terrorist, identified as a Fatah member, was armed with more than 10 kilos of explosives.
Feb 16, 2002 – Karnei Shomron: Three teenagers were killed and 30 people were wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up on Saturday night at a pizzeria in a shopping mall. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 2, 2002 – Jerusalem: 10 people were killed and over 50 injured in a suicide bombing in the ultra-Orthodox Beit Yisrael neighborhood where people had gathered for a bar-mitzvah celebration. The Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade took responsibility for the attack.
Mar 9, 2002 – Jerusalem: 11 people were killed and 54 injured when a suicide bomber exploded in the crowded Moment Cafe in the Rehavia neighborhood. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 20, 2002
– Musmus: Seven people were killed and 30 wounded in a suicide bombing of an Egged bus traveling from Tel Aviv to Nazareth at the Musmus junction on Highway 65 (Wadi Ara). Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 21, 2002 – Jerusalem: Three people were killed and 86 injured in a suicide bombing on King George Street. The terrorist detonated the bomb, packed with metal spikes and nails, in the center of a crowd of shoppers. The Fatah al-Aqsa Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 27, 2002 – Netanya: 30 people were killed and 140 injured in a suicide bombing at the Park Hotel, in the midst of the Passover holiday seder with 250 guests. The bomber was a member of Hamas, on the list of wanted terrorists Israel had requested that the Palestinian Authority arrest.
Mar 29, 2002 – Jerusalem: Two people were killed and 28 injured when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in a supermarket in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood. Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar 31, 2002 – Haifa: 15 people were killed and over 40 injured in a suicide bombing in the Matza restaurant near the Grand Canyon shopping mall. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Apr 10, 2002 – Kibbutz Yagur: Eight people were killed and 22 injured in a suicide bombing on Egged bus #960 en route from Haifa to Jerusalem.
Apr 12, 2002
– Jerusalem: Six people were killed and 104 wounded when a woman suicide bomber detonated a powerful charge at the entrance to the Mahane Yehuda open-air market. The Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack.
April 27, 2002 – Adora: A five-year-old girl and three other Israelis were killed when terrorists infiltrated the community of Adora in the southern Hebron Hills and shot them to death.
May 7, 2002 – Rishon Lezion: 16 people were killed and 55 wounded on the 3rd floor of a crowded game club when a suicide bomber detonated a powerful charge causing part of the building to collapse. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
May 19, 2002 – Netanya: Three people were killed and 59 injured when a suicide bomber disguised as a soldier blew himself up in a market. Both Hamas and the PFLP took responsibility for the attack.
May 23, 2002 – Tel Aviv: Terrorists used a remote control device to detonate a bomb planted underneath a fuel truck at the Pi Glilot fuel depot north of Tel Aviv, in an attempt to create a mega attack that would explode adjacent fuel tanks. The truck burst into flames, but the blaze was quickly contained. No one was hurt.
May 27, 2002 – Petah Tikva: A woman and her infant granddaughter were killed and 37 people were injured when a suicide bomber detonated himself near an ice cream parlor outside a shopping mall. The Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack.
Jun 5, 2002 – Megiddo junction: 17 people were killed and 38 injured when a car packed with explosives struck Egged bus #830 traveling from Tel Aviv to Tiberias. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.
Jun 18, 2002 – Jerusalem: 19 people were killed and 74 injured in a suicide bombing on an Egged bus traveling in the Gilo suburb of Jerusalem to the center of town. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Jun 19, 2002 – Jerusalem: Seven people were killed and 30 injured by a suicide bombing at a crowded bus stop and hitchhiking post in the French Hill neighborhood. The Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack.
Jul 16, 2002 – Emmanuel: Nine people were killed and 20 injured in a bombing and shooting attack on Dan bus #189 traveling from Bnei Brak. While four terror organizations claimed responsibility for the attack, it was apparently carried out by Hamas.
Jul 17, 2002 – Tel Aviv: Five people were killed and 40 injured in a double suicide bombing on Neve Shaanan Street near the old central bus station.
Jul 31, 2002 – Jerusalem: Five students were killed and 85 wounded when a bomb exploded in a cafeteria on the Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Aug 4, 2002 – Meron junction: Nine people were killed and 50 wounded in a suicide bombing on an Egged bus traveling from Haifa to Safed.
Sep 19, 2002 – Tel Aviv: Six people were killed and 70 wounded when a terrorist detonated a bomb on Dan bus #4 on Allenby Street.
Oct 21, 2002 – Hadera: 14 people were killed and 50 wounded when a car bomb detonated next to an Egged bus traveling north of the town on Route 65. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.
Oct 27, 2002 – Ariel: Three IDF officers were killed and about 20 people were wounded in a suicide bombing at the Sonol gas station at the entrance to the city. The victims were killed while trying to prevent the terrorist from detonating the bomb. The terrorist was a member of Hamas.
Nov 4, 2002 – Kfar Saba: Two people – a security guard and a teenage boy, both recent immigrants from Argentina – were killed and 70 were wounded in a suicide bombing at a shopping mall. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack.
Nov 10, 2002 – Metzer: A Palestinian terrorist slipped into the kibbutz and gunned down five people, including two children killed in their beds as they hid under the blankets, and their mother. The Fatah al- Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility.
Nov 21, 2002 – Jerusalem: 11 people were killed and 50 wounded by a suicide bomber on Egged bus #20 in the neighborhood of Kiryat Menahem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Nov 28, 2002 – Mombasa, Kenya: A car bomb crashed into an Israeli-owned resort and detonated as guests were checking in. Three Israelis were among the 13 killed, and 21 Israelis were among the 80 injured. Almost simultaneously, a surface-to-air missile barely missed an El Al plane as it was taking off from the airport. Al-Qaeda is believed to be responsible for the double attack.
Jan 5, 2003 – Tel Aviv: 22 people were killed and 120 wounded in a double suicide bombing near the old central bus station. The attack was apparently carried out by two members of the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, with the help of the Islamic Jihad.
Mar 5, 2003 – Haifa: 17 people were killed and 53 wounded in a suicide bombing of an Egged bus in the Carmel neighborhood. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Apr 30, 2003
– Tel Aviv: Three people were killed and 60 wounded by a British Muslim suicide bomber, sent by Hamas, at a beachfront pub “Mike’s Place”.

None of this really matters for Aslan, because he is interested in presenting Khan’s “narrative” that justifies Islamist terrorism by blaming Israel – and the fact that Israel is actually blamed for trying to protect its civilians against a murderous wave of terror is conveniently left out. You see, if those nervous sweaty young Israeli soldiers hadn’t searched the elderly Palestinian, Mohammed Siddique Khan would never ever have thought of launching a deadly terror attack in London.

It may well be that elsewhere in his book, Aslan provides a more critical perspective that addresses how utterly contrived the kind of narrative exemplified with Khan’s story really is. But in the excerpt he chose to represent his book – and that CiF chose to endorse as “Best of the Web” – there is precious little that would prevent a reader from concluding that it’s Israel’s arbitrary maltreatment of Palestinians that turns nice young British Muslims into murderous terrorists.

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