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‘We were the classic attention getting, hard talking boys in town. We became a small set of extremists’
Rizwan Mohammed is a 31 year old Muslim from Toronto, Canada. He coordinates the Common Ground project, an experiment in civic engagement led by diverse youth in ten cities across Canada who are who developing multi-faith social action projects on local issues. In the first of three stories, he tells us here about becoming involved with an extremist Muslim group in Toronto.
I didn’t really know any Muslims as I was growing up in Toronto. My connection to Islam was mostly through my parents and I grew up searching for a faith of my own. In my early teens I encountered Christian, Hindu and Atheist classmates who were confident about their beliefs and would often get into debates. I got good grades at school and was militantly involved in student activism, especially anti-racism work. I met politicians, educators, some really amazing people. We had conversations and took photos, but nothing seemed to be changing and the more involved I became the more disillusioned and frustrated I got.
At the same time I was questioning whether I wanted to be Muslim or not. At high school, I got to know some new students whose parents had converted to Islam and who had grown up Muslim. They were African Americans with English names who had immigrated to Canada but who walked around wearing shalwar khameez. They looked like Afghan Mujahidin to me.
The things in my own cultural background I didn’t like, they celebrated and honoured; the clothes, the food, the music, the poetry. They even spoke Urdu, and they tied it all together with their version of Islam. They were fantastic athletes, had memorised a lot of the Quran and could recite it in a very beautiful way. They were very impressive guys and inspired me to keep more company with Muslims. We were the classic attention getting, hard talking boys in town. We became a small set of extremists. It took several years for some of us to break away from that, find some balance, and start to give back.
I was 16 when they invited me to spend the summer with them at a camp in New York. These guys were a year or two older. I was told it was like a religious retreat. I wanted to go but my parents forbade me and instead I got a summer job. My parents were practicing Muslims and at the time I couldn’t see why they didn’t like my friends. I thought it was racism because my parents were Indian and my friends were Black; that they thought I’d get into trouble, which seemed crazy because these were the most law abiding guys I knew. They were serious about their faith, smart and strong. I just loved being around them and absorbing their personalities, trying to become like them.
Some of the leaders of our group went to New York and found the experience to be something more like a quasi-military boot camp with some religious instruction. I was intrigued but less interested since I was looking for a more intensive immersion in religious learning at that point in my life and the boot camp sounded more like jail to me than it did like a military.
The next summer when I was invited to go to Pakistan’s mountainous region to meet the leader of my friends and train with the most serious members of their group, I became interested again. Once again, however, my parents intervened and I ended up working and studying in Toronto. Some of my friends went and when they came back they no longer dressed like regular students in jeans and t-shirts. They were now wearing dressy clothes and overcoats and carrying briefcases. They used to be smiling, relaxed, easy-going and warm but now they scowled a lot and seemed extremely grave. They were cold and businesslike and regimented. I had to do a double take the first time they came back to my door after that summer; I almost didn’t recognised some of these guys who I’d know for two years.
Initially the rest of us tried to play along and keep up with them. There were about 20 or 30 of us in the group by now. Along with the three or four guys who were the leaders there was a smaller group of six of us who did all the organising. I was one of them but I was also one of the youngest. We talked about getting more organised and started calling ourselves the Brotherhood of Light. We were modelling ourselves on some kind of Afghan Mujahid–Muslim Brotherhood hybrid, before we knew what either of them were. I used to walk around in Walmart in all the Mujahidin gear myself. Even though they seemed to have changed, we stuck with our friends because we thought they were the most knowledgeable amongst us and they really knew what they were talking about. They kept saying a war’s coming and that we need to prepare. This was as early as 1996.
Some of them seemed to be very interested in interfaith dialogue. They’d say things like, ‘We need to dialogue, especially with Christians and Jews because when Christ returns to earth and there’s a war we’re going to have to band together.’ It wasn’t about working to establish peace though, it was more about building alliances for the coming war that would bring the end of days. They framed everything within Islam’s eschatology but I didn’t know how to process all this talk about end-times. They told us it could happen at any time and that it was going to get bad. Until then I’d never been exposed to the idea that the world could end at the end of the Millennium. It was a strange thing but quite exciting too. I was strong, young and angry so I wasn’t interested in growing old and I romanticised the idea of dying while fighting.
You can continue reading Rizwan’s story here.