Conversation with a Terrorist in Training

(2017 – I’m republishing this because it is relevant to today. It is part of my autobiography.)

I was one of the first to board the plane. It was an EasyJet flight from London to Tel Aviv and at under five hours, I considered it a reasonably short hop. My one misfortune on this flight was that I was seated in seat B. A middle seat. I almost never find myself in a middle seat.

As additional passengers began to board, I played a familiar game. I analyzed them, wondering who my seatmates would be. Would they be the kinds of people who minded their own business — the kind of people you never bother to say “hello” to? Would they engage in polite small talk before turning to a book or movie? Or would I really learn something from them — finding myself next to somebody with a fascinating background or a promising future.

This wasn’t quite my normal Tel Aviv flight. In the boarding area, there had been more than a dozen Wahhabi Muslims (note, they don’t like being called that — they just follow a long-deceased leader named Wahab who claimed to be restoring pure Islam). These guys are distinct because of their haircuts, beards, and (most tellingly) their dress. I mean that last one almost literally. They dress in ankle-length tunics.

Oh, and while a tiny minority of Wahhabi may commit terrorist attacks, the Wahhabi are also the source of the vast majority of Sunni terrorists.

Notably, there were a few women in the group and while they were wearing the niqab — their niqabs were not black. On a spectrum then, these guys were to the left of the Islamic State, but it wasn’t clear how far to the left.

So, I was sitting on the plane and I’ve got to admit, I was hoping to score a Wahhabi seatmate. It would make for an interesting conversation.

The first guy to show up is the guy on the aisle. He’s white and dressed in conventional western clothes. Not a hit. Moments later, my window-side companion shows up and score!, he’s got the whole get-up going on. He slides past me and then the white guy sits down, plops on some earbuds and a face mask and passes out before pushback.

The Wahhabi guy and I start talking.

He’s from Manchester and he works in Finance (a customer support agent for an innovative credit card anti-fraud company, as I recall). Soon, he starts talking about the Jewish “invasion” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I turn the topic to the side; I’m not interested in a shouting match. So, instead, I get him to start showing me the beauty and purity of his Islam — especially when compared with Judaism. While I am no expert, he is quite surprised that I know what I know. And I have a lot of fun showing him the similarities in jurisprudence between the faiths as well as the fundamental differences in our relationships to G-d and our desired means of influencing the world.

Before long, it is clear he’s really a beginner. He tells me that he’d only begun to learn the Koran three years earlier. He explains the sorts of mistakes newbies make in reading it (e.g., mixing in Urdu pronunciation). But although he can read the Koran, he speaks no Arabic and no Urdu. He’s simply been fed (and eaten up) these standard lessons on maintaining the purity of the text and the tradition.

He and his group (they are all together) are coming to Israel for a rage trip. They are there to be given a guided tour of the suffering of the Palestinian people and to have their anger cultivated.

As the conversation continues, he confides that his uncle and aunt and parents are afraid of him. He explains that Islam is a religion of peace — and how Mohammed forbade the killing of children and women or the destruction of infrastructure. He explains the prohibition on suicide attacks.

As part of this, he tells me about another uncle, an officer in Pakistan, whose son was killed in school. The Taliban showed up, asked the children of the officers to step forward, and then machine-gunned them.

He condemns this.

But then he shares a question his teacher asked him — “If your enemy kills your loved ones, how are else you supposed to respond?”

The context is Israel.

At this point, it is clear to me that he is being trained. He is being trained to believe that his people are peaceful and G-d-like. Soon, he will be taught that they must, nonetheless, respond to the crimes of their enemies.

I’m sure he will soon learn, if he continues to be a good student, that this allows the crossing of certain lines.

He is being led down a path of complete radicalization. The process and the timelines match what profiles we have of past terrorists.

And so, it is clear to me that this conversation is an important one; perhaps more so for his life than for mine.

In response to his teacher’s question, I ask him to imagine that both sides might be asking that same thing. I ask him what the outcome of that would be.

And then I show him my book, the City on the Heights. In particular, I share the Mohammed chapter with him — sharing how that character is radicalized by the crimes committed against him. I want him to read and begin to grasp a broader picture.

I want him to see the path of my Mohammed’s life.

Thankfully, he is fascinated by the book.

He asks me about Zionism — he’d been told it was the equivalent of ISIS for Jews. I share our history with him and describe what Zionism is — a desire to return to our ancestral land. I explain that it is not exclusively religious. Many secular people are Zionist, and many religious describe themselves as anti-Zionist. The distinction among the religious is one of action: a disagreement over whether G-d returns us to our land, or whether we do it ourselves.

It is clear, as he asks me how I study, that this young man respects me.

And so, I tell him I am a Zionist.

I never say this to Jews (because it isn’t a primary motivation in my life), but he needs to hear it from me.

He asks me which kind — the kind who believes G-d should return the Jews to their land or the kind who should return ourselves.

And I say, ‘both.’

Soon after, he falls asleep and the white guy on my right wakes up.

That guy is a Christian Zionist who lives in Israel. Not just in Israel, he actually lived in Me’ah Shearim — the ultimate ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. I proceed to have a totally different conversation with him, as you’d imagine.

He too is quite interested in the book.

As we make our final approach, both men are awake and alert. I keep the conversations separate. I try to think of what thoughts to leave the Wahhabi Muslim with.

I prepare for our descent.

Perhaps we’ll fly over my home.

But then something remarkable happens.

In all the times I’ve flown into Israel (which is quite a few, I live here), I’ve always circled over Modi’in (my home) or come in straight from the coast. But on this flight, we fly straight inland and over Tukaram. I show him how thin the country is.

And then we fly over Rawabi – the new Palestinian city – I’ve never flown over Rawabi. It is a gorgeous city, a striking contrast to dismal Manchester.

I tell him about it, and it shocks him.

It isn’t going to be on his tour.

Finally, we land, and I share my card with both men.

I’ve since been in regular contact with the Christian. The Muslim never reached out to me.

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