We often make quick judgments, based on what we think we know, only to discover later that our brilliant insight may have been wrong. In fact, not only wrong, but unkind and — in the long run — harmful.
Thus, the story in The Daily Mail. A story about someone we thought we knew, someone we made into an iconic symbol of all that we hate and fear since 9/11.
He’s a poster boy for islamic terrorism, right? He hates, and it shows on his face. But what is behind that façade? I’ll bet that like me, you thought you knew his story, or at least it’s general outlines.
If so, then like me also, you are guilty of the rush to judgment of another human being… guilty of indulging the need for a scapegoat who can carry our fears, if only in his image.
Yes, Rage Boy. That funny, strange face that I called “the missing link.” Mea culpa. That others have used to make money by putting his image on coffee cups and bumper stickers and underwear. Mea maxima culpa.
I don’t know if this reporter’s story is true or not. However, he travelled all the way to Kashmir to examine the life of Rage Boy and to draw his own conclusions. But first he sets the stage with our pre-determined ideas about this man:
Islamist extremism is rarely out of the news these days. It showed its most inhuman side last week when a Taliban suicide bomber killed politicians and a group of schoolgirls in an attack in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said the bomb that blew up her homecoming convoy, killing 140 people, may have been strapped to a child dressed in her party colours who was handed up to her vehicle moments before the blast.
Islamist terrorism — the reason given by General Musharraf for declaring martial law in Pakistan last weekend — has spread its tentacles wide, leaving people and governments frightened about how best to respond.
If anyone embodies the violent potency of this threat, it is Islamic Rage Boy. Over the past few months he has become as much of a hate figure as Bin Laden.
Journalist Christopher Hitchens calls him a “religious nut bag” full of “yells and gibberings”, and says that he refuses to live his own life “at the pleasure of Rage Boy”.
On Jihad Watch… ‘The Goobs’ writes: “Can you IMAGINE how nasty it would smell standing next to this nutter? Whatcha wanna bet he hasn’t ever owned a can of Right Guard?”
‘Johndoe’ thinks “Rage Boy will never rise from the madness that enslaves him. Never. He is past the point of no return — irredeemable like millions of his fellow psychotics.”
And then there is the summation of Rage Boy by Real Clear Politics last June, comparing the ugliness of his open mouth to the ethereal beauty of an unknown British man’s mouth, fully opened to sing an aria from Puccini. The author (as I did) already knows who Rage Boy is, and what he is thinking. We both know this even though we don’t even know his name:
In Rage Boy’s world, anything or any person perceived to undermine his fragile sense of self is justification for someone to incite a riot, or to wear a bomb to market, or even to fly an airplane into a building. The fact that Rage Boy is obviously an actor sent out to hype outrage at these orchestrated events only confirms the cynicism that underpins jihad’s moral bankruptcy. Rage Boy is nihilism unleashed.
But are those summations of Rage Boy his actual truth? Patrick French went to Kashmir to find out.
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He hadn’t been to Kashmir since his exotic travels as a teenaged backpacker. Back then, as he says, it was full of “hippies and tourists”, but they are long gone. The beauty of the place remains, but the airport is anything but welcoming:
… since the start of the anti-Indian insurgency in the late Eighties, it has become a place of bloodshed. When India became independent and Pakistan was created in 1947, the Kashmir valley became a part of India despite having a large Muslim majority — a decision that was to have fatal historical reverberations.
Arriving at Srinagar airport, I got a taste of what was to come: sand-bags, fortified arches draped with camouflage netting, pill-box bunkers, armoured vehicles with gun barrels poking out of their turrets, roads lined with razor wire. Indian paramilitary police in helmets and metal breastplates manned frequent checkpoints.
I soon realised that my mobile phone was not working: all foreign phones are jammed as a security measure.
Mr. French, with the aid of a local reporter, made his way to what his guide called ‘the Gaza Strip of Kashmir’:
We went to Malik Angan, a poor area that the security forces monitor closely, though they risk being shot at or stoned.
As we arrived, paramilitary policemen were searching a cloth vendor, making him dismantle his cart.
This is the place where Rage Boy lives and moves and has his being. This is the place where he even has a name and a history beyond what we have allotted for him. Mr. French arrives at the house where this man resides, and climbs the wooden steps to the third floor and comes face to face with this icon:
There, standing in an empty room, dressed in a salwar kameez and zip-up cardigan, with crooked teeth and a quizzical look on his face, was Islamic Rage Boy.
His name? Shakeel Ahmad Bhat. His age? Twenty-nine. His occupation? “Failed militant.”
During the following two days, Mr French sat on the floor of the home Shakeel Ahmad Bhat shares with his mother. Through an interpreter, he listens to this man’s life story, while part of him — the observing reporter — asks himself if this is the truth. He decides finally on the simplest answer –
His story was not what I had expected and showed the personal torment of life in a society that has gone wrong. Although it is hard to prove the authenticity of his story, given my knowledge of Kashmiri political history over the past 20 years, everything he told me sounded plausible: after all, what reason would he have to lie?
Indeed. As you read the details, you realize that he’s probably not capable of lying now; perhaps he never was.
Rage Boy — I mean, Shakeel — is from a Sufi family. He says his father brought him to mosques and told him two rules: don’t be greedy and help to spread Islam peacefully.
In this country Shakeel would have been designated as “learning disabled.” Even beatings at school did not make him literate, so at the age of ten he was permitted to stay home. By the age of thirteen, he’d been recruited as a “militant” to fight Indian troops. His recruitment came about through a family member:
While searching for militants, police raided Shakeel’s home and threw his 18-year-old sister Shareefa out of an upstairs window. She broke her spine and died from her injuries four years later.
So much for his father’s admonition about being peaceful. Shakeel joined other boys headed to Pakistan for training. He was so small, he was often carried on the shoulders of the bigger boys as they traveled over the mountains to Muzaffarabad and the training camp run by the Pakistani army — along with the help of the Al-Umar Mujahideen. Then, dressed up in his AK-47, Shakeel made his way home. He would drive the Indian army away from Srinagar:
“I thought Kashmir should have the right to self-determination… ”
Shakeel was not a very good militant. When I asked him how many people he had killed, he looked embarrassed.
“I gave scares but I never killed anyone,” he said. “I couldn’t. I never hurled a grenade in a public place.”
His greatest achievement was opening fire on the cavalcade of a visiting Indian government minister.
Even when his team caught a police informant, Shakeel called for him to be set free. “I thought I would set an example. Forgiveness is better than killing.”
In 1994, when he was 16, he was arrested and taken to a military barracks. Of the 20 boys and young men who had crossed the border to Pakistan with him, only eight were still alive.
Once detained, his story of torture is familiar, so numbingly routine has it become (for us, at least, who are the armchair readers).
- He was stripped naked, watered down, and treated to electric shocks.
- A nail was pushed through his jaw. He still has the scar thirteen years later.
- They pushed his head under water, to simulate drowning (was this ever done to you as a kid by the “big boys”? It feels as though you will die… which is the point, I presume)
- His right arm was so badly injured that he is unable to lift anything.
- Even after they let him go, they still kept watch. Once they visited his home and since Shakeel wasn’t available, they beat his grandfather instead. The old man’s leg was broken and he spent his remaining years bed-ridden.
Because of his injuries Shakeel doesn’t work; his brothers support him.
Mr. French reports that Shakeel says he feels like he’s a hundred and ten years-old. That is a common feeling for PTSD victims. One of the more common results (the “sequelae” as the experts would say) of post-traumatic stress disorder is that feeling of being old and fragile, even if you’re only ten.
As I read of his illiteracy and injuries and very limited life, I wondered how this man had managed to become an icon all the way across the world:
Shakeel’s understanding of the world is limited by his inability to read or write. He likes going to demonstrations and has an ambition to start a political party.
“But not to be the puppet of Pakistan or India,” he insisted.
He sometimes watches Al Jazeera English on television and although he cannot comprehend much of what is said, he told me he can work out what is going on from the images on screen and from what his brothers have told him.
If something upsets him, he organises a demonstration.
He seems to be quite an idealist.
He has demonstrated against the Pope’s comments about Islam, against the sexual exploitation of Kashmiri girls, against police violence and ‘encounter’ killings and against the honouring of Rushdie. Why did he object to Rushdie being knighted?
“He has a reputation for Muslim-bashing,” he said solemnly. “Why is the London government encouraging someone who does these things?”
Does this seem contrived? It might have to me, had it not been for The Man on Route 29. This is a divided north/south highway that makes its way from Florida through Atlanta and edging east to Washington, D.C. before it ends in Maryland. Along parts of the way it is named “The Seminole Trail.” There are lots of stories about the origins of its name, but as you travel it, you can see why it made such a good Indian trail.
For many years, to the west of us, as the Seminole Trail cuts through Nelson County, an old man used to stand in the median strip — or sit in his folding chair — during the daylight hours. He spent all his time waving to the passing cars. People who used the road everyday got used to him and waved back.
The Waving Man was a fixture for years. When he was forcibly removed by his sister, who found his behavior embarrassing, a petition was begun to bring him back to the spot he called “my church.” I haven’t been there in years, so I don’t know if he succeeded. But his mission reminds me of Shakeel’s. Sometimes your vocation just doesn’t have to be very complicated:
When the Islamic Rage Boy phenomenon took off and Shakeel had his face reproduced all over the world, the local police got worried and brought him in for questioning.
“They had photocopies from the internet which they showed to me.”
They told Shakeel to stop going on demonstrations but he refused.
He says he was brought before one of Srinagar’s most senior police officers, who offered him an administrative job in the government, and said he would find him a girl to marry. I believe him — Indian authorities have a habit of trying to rehabilitate militants who are no longer an obvious threat.
“They said they would drop all the cases against me if I quit going to demos.” He refused.
Just because he is simple, doesn’t mean he isn’t as complex as the rest of us. Mr. French asked him what he would most like. The answer is surprising: to marry a non-Muslim woman and convert her, thereby earning his way into Heaven. Mr. French remarked that there might be suitable candidates in Britain.
Even though he is poor and illiterate, he has folders of his images that people have printed out for him. Some of the work hurts his feelings:
Shakeel leafed through the pages: Islamic Rage Boy on clothes, being force-fed a pork chop, as a vampire, as a beer bottle, as a woman in a bikini, as ‘Jihady Idol’, as ‘Adolf Mohammed Rage Boy’, distended and jabbing his finger at a photographer above a quote from Christopher Hitchens: “It’s impossible to satisfy Rage Boy and his ilk. It’s stupid to try.”
One picture showed what looked like an American preacher holding a microphone while wearing a Rage Boy baseball cap. Shakeel stopped on an image of his face superimposed on a pig.
He looked profoundly shocked and upset by this picture…
“I surely get hurt when I see these pictures,” he said. “This is terrorism for me. The people who do this are showing their own culture, so why do they tell us that we are uncivilised?’
Mr. French calls Shakeel “an eccentric” but finds him more representative of Muslim anger than those who follow the hijacked Osama bin Laden synthetic version.
While I agree with Mr. French about this man — limited by poverty and a victim of Indian-Pakistani politics — we still must return to the dangers of the synthetics that the Salafists and Wahhabists would impose on us.
Those British-trained Muslim physicians who had their own terror cell do not inhabit the same spiritual universe as Shakeel or Mister Waving Man. And unlike his ineffectual dreams of world peace, they strive for world domination.
The problem for the rest of the world is how to tell the two apart. We want to simplify it: poverty, lack of education, marginalization — all the politically correct visions of The Problem of the 21st Century.
But the poor ones demonstrate and dance in the streets. And the educated, assimilated Muslims go about their daily lives just like the rest of us. It is that tertium quid — that third version — which seeks to destroy us. These are the educated, angry, and essentially envious ones who hate us simply because of their doctrine, a doctrine born of envy and hatred for a culture that came even and then passed them, hundreds of years ago.
There is nothing more dangerous than projected hatred and envy. But there are not enough bombs in the universe to eradicate the feelings of humiliation these killers carry. And like a virus, their hatred and envy spread to infect their fellow Muslims.
In fact, these Evil Ones are indifferent to the fate of their brethren. Does it bother Iran that any bombs aimed at Israel will kill many, if not most, of the neighboring Palestinians? Not at all. Palestinians are simply collateral damage waiting to be blown up, and they know it. Perhaps this knowledge fuels their hatred, too. Meanwhile, as we search for a path past this dilemma, it is helpful to remember that the story is seldom as simple as we paint it.
Rage Boy is more than the sum of our fears.