The murder of Lee Rigby 
Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale both came from respectable, middle class professional families, both from Nigeria and both were converts to Islam, in 2003 and circa 2009 respectively. Much has been and will be written about the dramatic elements of their stories in which they have been associated with militant extremists, but little of value will be learnt from that period. Two things are of enduring importance, one is the means by which they turned from being vocal extremists to being murderous ones, but that is ground that will be thoroughly covered by both clinical analysis by crime professionals and in lugubrious feature articles by journalists with copy to fill.

The second, and in my view, more important element, is in understanding how two new converts to Islam, growing up in London, readily accept a path that takes them swiftly out of the mainstream and places them in a situation where they are hungry for the world-view of the militants, and hungry again to shed blood supposedly for causes which they have no obvious link to.

Michael Adebolajo was born in 1984, to Christian, Nigerian parents, social worker and NHS nurse-manager, living in Romford. He converted to Islam at 19 while at Greenwich University.

"Muslim communities in universities are very fluid affairs, with a continuous turnover of members and officers. University campuses provide an incredibly rich environment for factions to spawn and develop:
• New students are freed from family and peer group constraints.
• They have time to reflect and egos to establish.
• University prayer rooms need new imams nearly every year, naturally selected from the student body, and Islamic Society events need speakers and organisers.
• Differences between ethnicities, their practices and factions are brought into sharp relief by the cosmopolitan mixture of students.
• Activists are compelled to recruit again every year merely to ensure that their faction and their union budget survive.
• The events programme requires a stream of visiting speakers to address meetings on interesting and therefore controversial topics. Most speakers are unknown individuals, friends and fellow factionalists of the organiser.”
(Mehmood Naqshbandi, Shrivenham Paper No. 1, Aug 2006)(pdf)

There is no necessary reason to suppose that Greenwich University Islamic Society per se had any special interest in guiding the new convert - he would have relied on his own circle of friends. His studies were not very productive, and being in London, he would have had ample opportunity to mix with other students, Muslims, converts, from other London colleges or the local community. What he would definitely have experienced, and for me this is the most vital point, is his experience as a Muslim convert. While at college he would have been among the Bohemian and free-thinking milieu of students, many of them playing with ideas that certainly would have embraced militancy, fantasised heroics and world-challenging idealism. As a convert he would have had numbers of fellow converts and returnees, young people at the point in their lives when they feel bound to start committing themselves to something fervently, to make redress for their hitherto dissolute teenage years.

But wherever he went in the ordinary world of local mosques and local Muslim communities he would be an ignored stranger. In his home turf of Romford, there is one well-established masjid, Havering Islamic Cultural Centre on Waterloo Road since 2007. In 2000 the council rejected planning permission to use a former council premises they owned, as a masjid, through very vociferous local opposition and that 'an Islamic cultural centre "could attract vandalism"' (Romford Recorder Hornchurch Upminster, 03.11.00). They continued to hire Century Youth House up to 2007, for Friday salaah, so there was nowhere actually local and mainstream for Michael Adebolajo to go as a Muslim, except perhaps on Friday lunchtime. Such is the law of unintended consequences, that the local, essentially white-racist opposition to their own Muslim neighbours can be considered to have prevented Adebolajo from settling into mainstream Islam and have thus indirectly led to Rigby's murder. However I would not dwell too heavily on that point. Had Adebolajo gone along to Jumu'ah salaah, he would have sat among a few dozen Pakistanis and a few Bangladeshis, to listen to a khutbah (ritual Jumu'ah reading) recited swiftly in parrot-fashion, with probably no non-ritual wyaaz (non-ritual speech or sermon) and if there had been, it would have been in Punjabi-ised Urdu. If he had been befriended by anyone there, it would have been most likely a local shopkeeper or taxi driver.

If he had showed any inclination to enthuse about the religion in that gathering, the predominantly Tablighi Jama'at, Deobandi oriented organisers and activists of the locale, would have tried to take him under their wing and impressed on him the simple, reductionist formulae of their methods - five times daily salaah in the masjid, going out "in the path of Allah", i.e. spending two or three nights in a small group in some other masjid in a Tabligh party picking over odd passages from Maulana Zakariya's Tablighi Nisaab, and knocking on the doors of exclusively Asian, known Muslim families and encouraging them to come to the masjid to listen to one of their party repeat a 10 minute speech that has been unchanged in the hundred years since the Tablighi Jama'at formula was first proposed; thuswise completing the cycle in which anyone thus aroused would be invited themselves to "go out in the path of Allah".

However Adebolajo would never have had the slightest interest in Tablighi Jama'at; there are almost no converts to Islam who do have, in spite of it being the biggest and most active movement in UK masjids. Its extraordinarily limited formula does not equip its followers for tackling the diverse issues that a newcomer to Islam would raise, so it explicitly and often annoyingly ignores converts completely - the often-stated rejoinder to any plea to them to help a new Muslim or to try to persuade an interested non-Muslim towards Islam, is to say, "There's no value in bringing new people into Islam when the body of Muslims is still corrupt," by which they mean not practising in the precise manner that they practise.

The Havering Islamic Cultural Centre wasn't quite the only game in the village. There is also a rather peculiar entity on Lessington Avenue. In one form or another the "Essex Islamic Trust" has been pottering around Romford offering a rather idiosyncratic alternative view of Islam. Its website states, "This is first Mosque in Havering and is totally and completely based on Taqwa (piety, “Fear God as He should be feared” The Holy Quran: Al-i-Imran 3:102) and follows the Shariah’s laws." There is nothing remotely sinister or extreme about this entity, it is merely one individual's attempt to offer up his own individual home-brew of Islam and cultivate a small following of supporters: Islam is a most accessible faith, and with the canonical sources open to all comers to make their own interpretations, there are numerous individuals who dream of carving out a place for themselves. Most other Muslims treat them with healthy scepticism, so the Lessington Avenue entity has little traction. On top of that, its organiser has had more practical problems getting established - run-ins with the Charity Commission and the council over the status of the property he uses, and having to move his activities from place to place around Romford, as well as attacks on the property itself. Romford seems to have a sorry history of local Islamophobia - this itself may have contributed to Adebolajo's sense of victimhood or a sense of championing the militants' cause. However the Essex Islamic Trust itself, even if in 2003 Adebolajo could have found it, would have nothing to offer other than the gripes of a singular individual about his own take on issues vexing Asian versions of Islam.

So, in Romford, there was almost nowhere for Michael Adebolajo to go as a newly converted Muslim, save for an Asian-style Jumu'ah salaah and possibly Asian-style Tablighi Jama'at, or a peculiar individual Asian idiosyncratic version of Islam with very obviously no following to back it up.

There are more fundamental difficulties Adebolajo would have faced. He is a convert, in a religion that at the community level in the UK is overwhelmingly dominated by the Asian sub-communities - Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Gujerati. He is from a Nigerian family. Converts to Islam in Britain attract helpful attention in only a limited way. If they hold a red passport and have economic standing, they have interest as the means of extending the foothold that a family with migratory ambitions have - suggestions of marriage to a cousin's family in Pakistan, the cynical machinations buried in a show of hand-wringing piety. But interest rarely extends any further - Bangladeshis are invariably only interested in their own community, witness the number of masjids with exclusively Bangladeshi management, very often in the same neighbourhood (and in a couple of cases literally next door) as slightly more diverse masjids often with the same religious ethos. Asian racism towards blacks, whether African or American-Caribbean, is notoriously endemic. Adebolajo having reputedly involved himself in local gang activity, would fit their worst stereotypes, as a convert in need of cultivation he would be regarded as an embarrassment to them.

Before his conversion, his family moved to Lincolnshire, an attempt to shed the influence of London street gangs. Had Adebolajo sought any Muslim company in Lincolnshire, he would have found only the same Pakistani and Bangladeshi mono-cultural Islam as Romford, in an even more parochial and alienating form, among people who would have been even more reluctant to draw him into their narrowly traditional practice.

As a Nigerian, he might have tried to find a home among the West African masjids particularly around Southwark, including explicitly Nigerian ones such as Nasrul-lahi-Il-Fathi Society of Nigeria, NASFAT in Bermondsey, or Muslim Association of Nigeria on the Old Kent Road. If he had, he would failed to recognise anything that matched the expectations of Islam that his college Muslim friends would have inculcated in him. These under a dozen masjids, mostly in Southwark and South London, have more in common in their ethos with African revivalist churches than the sobrietous masjids of mainstream Islam. They are happy, welcoming and enthusiastic places for sure, but with his West African Christian upbringing to refer to, he would have seen them as little different to what he had left behind, indeed he would very likely have perceived them as being hugely 'deviated' from the austere and dogmatic Islam of the Muslims he mixed with in college.

As an African, he may have expected to find common ground with the burgeoning Somali communities, and probably did, not in Romford but certainly in Greenwich, or among the Afro-Caribbean Muslims around South London in particular. But just as Asian Muslims would have kept him at arm's length, so he himself would find huge cultural obstacles between him and these. Regardless of Islam, Somalis have had a sorry time in their relations with London's Afro-Caribbean communities who have seen them as intruders, punctuated with numerous attacks and squabbles between them. Within Islam, other than the Brixton masjid at Gresham Road, Afro-Caribbean Muslims themselves are usually a sidelined minority in Asian-dominated and exclusively Asian-run masjids, so Adebolajo would have been a minority of one within another disparaged and distanced minority. In the last ten years the specifically Somali and Eritrean presence has grown so that there are now a couple of dozen masjids founded by these two communities, but these are young institutions, struggling just to get a presence for their own, never mind finding the ways and processes to help others outside ... Nigeria and Somalia are far from juxtaposed geographically; culturally they are worlds apart from each other. It is only our European-centric view that lumps them together in our minds in the vast and diverse continent of Africa.

In short, because of the cultural exclusiveness and parochialness of any of the mainstream masjids and Muslim communities he might have approached, there was never a hope that Michale Adebolajo could have bonded into any kind of mainstream Islam, not even the mainstream of the otherwise often challenging brands of Salafi-ism that he would have been introduced to. On the contrary, his desire as a convert, to make an impression, his zeal and determination to show his commitment, would have fed his frustrations with the complacent, racist and alien mainstream of Islam and driven him like so many other converts before him, to actively seek militancy and embrace it. In this way he would not only satisfy his own desire for status and influence, he would also have a powerful weapon to embarrass and undermine all those in the mainstream who despised and snubbed him. Just like the 11th September attacks, his motive was not only to hurt the non Muslim world, but to hurt Muslims that had made a comfortable settlement with the West, and ultimately in the chaos of the backlash he would cause, to give them reason to leave the West and 'return' to a Muslim world in which people such as he would be revered. To cause fear in people gives you a weapon and status way beyond your actual capacity to cause harm. Whatever the actual extent to which Omar Bakri Muhammad coached him, the keenness with which the latter claimed Adebolajo as one of his, and the way in which Adebolajo embraced the name of Abu Hamza, rather than perhaps the original Hamza himself, the honoured uncle of the Messenger of Allah (S), demonstrates his desire to bask in notoriety, fear and perception of power.

Michael Adebowale is a somewhat different person. His conversion to Islam is relatively recent, he lived in Greenwich rather than being a visitor to it, and he had very specific traumatic experiences prior to entering Islam. There is considerable information that suggests a degree of emotional disturbance, his testimony demonstrates far less clarity or rationality in his actions. Whatever the true state of his mind, and he was of course declared fit to stand trial, it would be rash to try and analyse the influences that drew him to partner Adebolajo's crime without a lot more clarity of his intentions that is currently not available.

Nevertheless both Adebolajo and Adebowale drew heavily on people they fell in with around Greenwich, its masjid in Plumstead, the university there and the neighbouring masjid on Lewisham High Street. Neither of these masids are 'extremist', both are well established, the former for several decades. Both are significant parts of the considerable Salafi influence on London's youth, and both have been at great pains to condemn Lee Rigby's murder and the ideas propagated by the two Michaels. I believe that there is nothing remotely insincere in what these masjids have done, and in the current state of affairs nothing else they could have done to prevent Lee Rigby's murder.

However there is some history here. I first visited Greenwich masjid in 1990, when the UK Salafi movement was still somewhat rarified. At that time the masjid was predominantly mainstream Deobandi, with a noticeable uncomfortable accommodation of a small Ahl-e-Hadith Asian community that drew on support from a mixture of people from various Arab backgrounds who lived in the area. Ahl-e-Hadith is a 19th century movement in India that adopted some of the ideas that were also behind Salafi-ism. Neither are of essence political movements, but both are direct challenges to the traditional sources of authority in orthodox Sunni Islam. Tensions in Greenwich masjid grew as the balance of power shifted in the 1990s, and during the last ten years any Deobandi, Tablighi Jama'at influence has withered away completely. Aside from the upsurge of Salafi-ism per se, inbound members of the Somali diaspora to Greenwich has undermined the stranglehold of the ethnic Asian control of a number of masjids including this one. In the process there has been pressure from below for change, culminating in a Charity Commission review that brought about termination of the trusteeships dating from 2005 and a series of elections with a change of management in 2013. While these machinations are a matter of public record, what they point to for those familiar with the tensions within this masjid, is recognition at grass roots level of the potential to exploit the instability of the masjid as an institution. It quickly becomes a place where a wide range of people seeking to recruit others to their various brands of Islam, involving themselves openly or surreptitiously with whoever they can find to share their stories with. This happens without anyone in charge being able to control or even identify what is happening. When the people in charge are themselves unable to enforce their authority, where that authority itself is not accepted, there is ample scope for extremist recruitment, without anyone being aware of it.

Lewisham masjid is a more recent establishment, and was basically founded as a Salafi institution, its imam having trained in Madinah University in the late 1980s under the heavy influence of Shaikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz, the principle driver of the current Salafi movement. As such, Lewisham masjid has been a focal point of much Salafi activism dating back to the period in the 1990s when members of the nascent Salafi movement actively sought confrontation on religious issues with congregations of Deobandi and Bareilvi masjids. That period was turbulent and passed slowly; it left a legacy which still inhabits most masjids, of suspicion, distrust and antagonism between Salafi and other groups. Elements of Salafi theological methods were and still are adopted by extremist thinkers and are used to provide theological justifications for acts of political violence. While the managements of Salafi masjids strive to demonstrate their respectability and civility (with meritorious efforts - most Salafi masjids have far better records of good community relations and positive engagement than most Deobandi or Bareilvi ones), their reputations for antagonism towards the traditional orthodox Sunni practices continue to mark them out as places that are comfortable for other dissenters besides, including militant ones. Furthermore the absence of the ethnic cultural baggage of most Asian-run orthodox masjids and the accessibility of Salafi theology makes them very attractive to converts to Islam - nowadays most converts in the UK adopt Salafi practices. That combination, of a ready audience of converts and of an atmosphere of antipathy towards the mainstream, continues to attract militant activists. The problem masjid managements have is the same one that besets orthodox Deobandi and Bareilvi oriented masjids, the problem that this website continually raises: while all argument about the relative merits of different Muslim theological viewpoints continues to be nothing but polemical monologue, while Muslim preachers and practitioners treat other sects with utter contempt, it is impossible to have a genuine and informed discussion about such matters in which people and their differing beliefs are treated with mutual respect and attention to facts instead of diatribes. In other words, while managements and imams of Salafi masjids such as Lewisham Islamic Centre oversee an atmosphere of contempt towards alternative dissenting or orthodox beliefs and practices, all discussion of any different viewpoint takes place out of sight - that is true whether it is a healthy viewpoint or a militant one.

Thus it is easy for Lewisham Islamic Centre to declare, "At no point however, were these individuals members of our congregation. At no point did these individuals use our services or attend any of our classes. At no point did they have a personal relationship with anyone at the Centre and/or members of the mosque/management." - they will never find out anything different, because all dissent is hidden from them. Only when such places, along with all the other one and a half thousand autocratic, unaccountable, sectarian UK masjids, begin to accept and entertain Muslim religious diversity in a respectful manner will they be able to distinguish those remainder that continue to treat all of us with contempt, men such as Michael Adebolaje and Michael Adebowale. Only then will they recogise such people on their arrival in Islam and either make them secure in the Muslim mainstream, or as safe but opinionated dissenters whose voices moderate with age and wisdom.

If Salafi-oriented masjids receive far more antagonistic attention and unwarranted accusations of harbouring extremists than they deserve, they can look back a decade or two and see how the seeds for that were laid in their own frequently vicious and divisive antagonism towards the orthodox, particularly Deobandi and Bareilvi, masjids and communities. Their refusal to be respectful and tolerant to other Muslims is a legacy that will take huge acts of contrition to set right.

Meanwhile whatever the sect, the failure of the Muslim community to understand transparency and accountability, mutual respect and tolerance of diversity, its deep rooted racism among its own various ethnicities, and its total failure to bring converts into its bosom, means that the whole Muslim community, for all their denials, have to shoulder a significant part of the blame for Lee Rigby's murder, and the dreadful catalogue of other incidents of home-grown violence perpetrated by Muslim converts. Sadly there is no evidence whatsoever that such lessons are being learnt among UK masjids, their imams or their managements.


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