“Police officers hold down one of the badly-burned men outside the Glasgow arrivals hall moments after he had set himself alight.” Source: Daily Mail.

It was during the autumn of 2001 that I met Kafeel Ahmed, a fellow student at Queen’s University of Belfast. I was a PhD student in the anthropology department, researching Muslims in Northern Ireland and Europe; he was a student in aeronautical engineering. Kafeel, an Indian Muslim born in Bangalore, was a very active member of the Islamic Students Society of Northern Ireland (ISSNI). Unsurprisingly, he became one of my respondents and contacts. I still remember his jokes about me being Italian, and the references to the film The Padrino.

Kafeel, the Kafeel who I knew from 2001 to 2003, when I left Belfast, was a very welcoming person, very reserved and shy. Yet when you came to know him better, you discovered his intellectual side, his strong belief in Islam as justice and God’s love. He was a very calm, quite ‘westernised’ Muslim, ever ready to laugh at jokes. Interested in sport, particularly cricket, we spent time speaking at my preferred coffee shop in Botanic Avenue about Muslim identity, the experience of living in Northern Ireland as a Muslim, the tension between India and Pakistan, and the Palestinian Intifada. Kafeel had always expressed moderate ideas, so much that, if you are tempted to look for him within my book Jihad Beyond Islam, maybe thinking of one of the pseudonyms, I can tell you that you would be seeking a phantom. He is not there. He never discussed jihad, he never referred to the struggle of Muslims in Palestine or Chechnya, as such. He was more focused on injustices that Muslims were suffering, specifically on the emotional side of the sufferance of Muslims. Yet he was very concerned about what was happening to Muslims in one of the most forgotten conflicts, the Chechen conflict.

After I left Belfast, I lost total contact with him, like many of my respondents. I never met him again or had occasion to speak to him. Little by little, he faded from my memory, and became, as often happens in fieldwork, part of a past research project, one among the many voices. As usual, during anthropological research, some people become friends, others just remain respondents, people with whom you have shared ideas and opinions.

I never heard of him again. This was until an amateurish car-bomb hit a Glasgow airport terminal and burst into flames. No innocent person was injured in the terrorist attack. Yet everyone has seen the dramatic pictures of one of the perpetrators, covered in flames, still struggling with the policemen while his body was suffering massive burns. Today, that human torch, who attempted to inflict the same pain he has suffered for days on unknown innocent travellers, died in Glasgow. That burned and unrecognisable body was Kafeel Ahmed. Although I still cannot believe that Ahmed the aspirant murderer was the same Kafeel who used to smile and joke about me being Italian, and inevitably playfully humming The Padrino main theme, or serving a portion of chips while working in a kebab shop. I have to accept that something in his life happened which killed Kafeel’s soul much before the flames destroyed his body. But what kind of ‘larvae’ could have entered his heart to transform him, as in a horror movie, into a killer. Thge man I knew was so against injustice, innocent people being killed and had condemned the 9/11 tragedy openly? Perhaps the answer could be found in India, back in his town. Yet it could also be found in his shyness, and in his way of perceiving the world as full of injustice and sufferance. It could be found in the emotional way in which things affected him.

What can we learn from Kafeel Ahmed’s story? The first thing is that the environment in which people live means a lot in affecting their identity. Kafeel in Belfast lived in a very open Muslim community, which knew very well, being based in Northern Ireland, how peace among people was important. He saw the damaging effects of sectarianism, and religious as well as political hatred. He spent time with Muslims from different nations, with different beliefs (and sometimes deeply different views, since Shi’a Muslims shared the mosque and prayed there) and ideas. He saw difference and engaged with it. Kafeel in India, or Cambridge, where it seems that he moved in 2004, may have met a very different environment. The Muslim community in Belfast is a special one. There might be disagreements among the members, as in any other community, Muslim or not, but there is a great understanding of the values of negotiation and understanding in achieving peace and wellbeing for all. As Kafeel faded from my memory bit by bit, I think that the Northern Irish experience faded from Kafeel’s mind.

I am now receiving phone calls and messages from people who knew him, and had shared the pale blue carpet and walls of the mosque, a very quiet place when empty, but very alive when full of people. All of them are traumatised about Kafeel’s actions. I personally do not know what happened to Kafeel while in India, but I know that he was a very emotional person that lived with his heart open to any injury that life can inflict.

Yet this tells us something. We have to stop using stereotypes to discuss terrorism. It is not Islam as religion that brings young Muslims to commit such horrible actions. It is not just the radical websites and propaganda that can brainwash them (though they can be used to reinforce the process and personal convictions). It is not a particular philosophy or the attraction of a phantomatic Al-Qaeda, which is less and less credible every day.

No, it is a complex process, which often happens very quickly. When people like Kafeel experience a particular personal crisis of identity, and they start to identify with the suffering of others, with the feelings of those whom suffer injustice, and they want to bring justice, they can easily end up in a circle of panic and emotions, in which the end is seen as the only beginning. They want to escape a world that they cannot tolerate, but they also want paradise and not the damnation that Islam promises for suicide. I have explained in another post why they do not feel guilty about taking innocent lives.

Indeed, I am now thinking that on that day I could have been at the terminal, just entering it, while the car is approaching. I would not have recognised him, but if the plan was better organised and evil luck helped his action, I could have been killed, burned to death, by Kafeel, the same, but yet not the same smiling Kafeel who was once ready to give me an extra portion of chicken and rice during Ramadan in the Belfast mosque.

I have only one hope, now that Kafeel is dead. I hope that in the days that death waited to call him, he had reflected on his actions, and reflected that innocent people, instead of him, may have been there in that hospital dying. I hope that he understood, and felt in his heart, that he betrayed the religion he worshiped, the Muslim community, his family and friends, that he went against God’s teaching, and that he had insulted Islam, so that he deeply repented before surrendering his soul.

Gabriele Marranci

[This post is also available on the History News Network.]