In No Enemy to Conquer – a fascinating examination of forgiveness in an unforgiving world – the author, Michael Henderson, refers to the malicious rumors of 2007 which alleged that presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama had once attended a radical Muslim school in Indonesia.
Henderson’s deep disquiet over this incident is because the War on Terror has come to mean that any allegiance to the Muslim faith can now be used as a political weapon with which to dishonor and discredit your opponent. His disappointment moves from the political to the personal as he recalls 25 years earlier telling a friend that there were more then 46 countries in the world with a Muslim majority, to which she exclaimed, “How terrible!” He confesses too that,
More recently I was emailed by another person who said, ‘When I passed through Heathrow airport, there seemed to be only Pakistanis. I was so frightened.’
One of Henderson’s aims in writing No Enemy to Conquer is to bridge this dangerous gulf and find an “appreciation of our brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith.” One way he does this is to recount stories where fear of former, or perceived, extremists has blended into understanding through simply listening to the other’s story – a process which re-humanizes the enemy.
A story similar to those cited by Henderson, is that of Khaled al-Berry whose recently published memoir, Life is more Beautiful than Paradise convincingly and sensitively documents the author’s teenage years and his steady and subtle transformation from an ordinary middle-class boy in secular Egypt to a fanatical Jihadist flirting with the idea of sacrificing his life for “the extension of the dominion of God’s religion on Earth.” For the young al-Berry, soon Islamic doctrines take the place of Agatha Christie novels, ‘thank you’ is replaced by the phrase “God reward you”, and popular music, jeans and TV are all renounced.
If you believe that extremism by-passes children who are loved and for whom there are high expectations (al-Berry was studying to become a doctor at the time), and if you believe that suicide bombers are born out of poverty because poverty breeds shame and shame breeds hate, then al-Berry’s account will surprise you. His conversion also takes place without persuasion or force – on the football pitch, not in the Mosque, and often through people who demonstrate compassion for their young recruits. By 16 al-Berry had grown a beard, was known to State Security and contemplating martyrdom. He believed that if he achieved the kind of deep devotion that would make him weep on hearing the words of the Koran, he would be “released from the prison of the body.”
Life is More Beautiful than Paradise will also challenge the view that those who seek to convert and influence young minds into the jihadist mindset are inherently evil. Like any successful movement, Egypt’s Jama’a Islamiya, in the aftermath of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, spoke to the youthful heart eager for justice and change. Zeal and devotion will always be reinforced by the group and doctrine will only be revealed as manipulative dogma when an individual realises, (as eventually al-Berry did after two months in prison), that he or she has been “raised on illusions.” It was this that eventually took al-Berry down another path. The sheer joy of experiencing freedom following the confinement of the prison walls, gives him a taste of something he realized he had lost long before his arrest. He writes:
Just as standing out from the herd, with my beard and clothes, had once given me pleasure, now the melting into their midst gave me a sense of limitless freedom.
Some may take issue with al-Berry for writing about members of a radical Islamist organization without loathing or fury towards the “Brothers” who sought to pervert his thinking. Some will be disappointed that there isn’t more high drama and incrimination. However, the author’s refusal to demonize and his relative objectivity in telling the story is precisely what makes this book authentic and extremely important. Above all it provides a rare and valuable insight into how easily the young idealist can become radicalized by sects who believe that truth has just one face.