My Son, the Jihadist
“I have become a Somali you could say,” he wrote in the December e-mail message. “I hear bullets, I dodge mortars, I hear nasheeds” — Islamic songs — “and play soccer. Sometimes I live in the bush with camels, sometimes I live the five-star life. Sometimes I walk for miles in the terrible heat with no water, sometimes I ride in extremely slick cars. Sometimes I’m chased by the enemy, sometimes I chase him!”
I have hatred, I have love,” he went on. “It’s the best life on earth!”
From the Jihadist Next Door, by Andrea Elliot, NYT Magazine
He’s a media event now. His transformation is complete. The bearded young man with the gaunt cheeks and sunken, coolly defiant eyes and pursed lips staring at me from my newspaper is in fact my son. His mother said he looks like a homeless person, and no doubt when my son reads this description in the paper, he will see it as reaffirmation of the decisions he’s made. I wouldn’t tell my wife this but her description is akin to the old saying “don’t leave home without clean underwear.” Do not let your appearance embarrass you or your family. My son is not embarrassed by his appearance. That he looks like a bum in the eyes of the woman who raised him in the first world, the secular West is more than likely a relief to him. He did it. He was able to erase all signs of the upbringing we gave him. Those in the West will call him a terrorist and that his actions and appearance confirm this description; he will call himself a third world freedom fighter, a jihadist, and his appearance and actions confirm this description.
I call him my son. I’ve memorized his life. I have no static image of him, but look at him from distinct blossoms of time. There he is gumming a frozen bagel; he is asleep in his swing, gently rocking side to side; we lie on the floor together, rolling matchbox cars back and forth to each other; he is on the soccer field; he is getting ready for the prom; I am showing him my birthplace in Damascus; we are praying together. His life is whole for me, and here my grief hits hard, a thud, a claustrophobic scratching at an endless wall. You only see a life in total upon death. My son is not dead to me—initially yes, I was angry with his radicalization of my faith, and threw him out of the house—but now he’s gone beyond. As my daughter says: “he’s in too deep.” He is dead in life. (Believe me, I am conscious of the polar opposites of our opinion. He will say, wrong, Dad, only now am I fully alive.) I tell myself he’s been ensnared by a cult, that nothing I taught him about Islam leads logically to the positions he now espouses. This provides no solace, however. My son does not have the deadened, robotic eyes of a cult member; he is sharp, lucid, and well aware of what he is doing. For him the logic is unarguable—he would tell me I’m lying to myself, that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too. To paraphrase another radical, this one also of the first world: “you’re either with us or against us.”
My wife and I—(the sharp pang of resentment I feel towards him right now! A pious Christian woman, southern Baptist, marries a pious Muslim man, and they make it work—they honor the faith of their soul mate—it worked, it’s possible! Now my son has set to tear it all asunder, to show the world that in fact it doesn’t work—the offspring of such union is the Radicalized, and religiously sanctioned killing. Or is he the offspring of America itself? The need for fame, for reinvention? When the hollowness at the core is exposed, and the desire for historical recognition increases, is the result my son? According to his words, his adolescent thoughts: “My reality is a bore. I wish, I want, I need the wall to fall and the monster to let me pass, the leash to snap, the chains to break. I’ve got a taste of glory, the ticket, but where is my train?”)
My wife and I tell ourselves that it is God’s will. God’s plan is unknowable to us, and it is beyond criticism. However, when I wake in the night, I wonder if the God of our faith, the one true God, smolders with the anger and certainty that has possessed my son. Sleep will come, I tell myself. God’s plan is unknowable and it is beyond criticism.