Undercover Muslim: a Journey Into Yemen

Undercover Muslim: a Journey Into Yemen
Theo Padnos
Bodley Head, 304pp, £12.99

It's a well-trodden path. White man pretends to convert to Islam and goes off to the Orient in search of knowledge. He returns with tales of the quaint customs and outlandish ways of "the Muslims". The white man in this case is an American named Theo Padnos, who travels to Yemen to study Islam. Yet it is difficult to imagine that Padnos studied anything at all, given that most of his time in the country appears to have been spent chewing khat, the local substitute for amphetamine. He was probably manic and hyperactive most of the time, not to mention constipated.

He says he was following in the footsteps of the demented Yemeni-American preacher and internet imam Anwar al-Awlaki. But Awlaki, who does not shake hands with women but likes to fraternise with prostitutes, did not acquire notoriety until 2009. Padnos went to Yemen in 2005. So the explanation we are being offered for the journey turns out to be a rather weak post-facto rationalisation.

After a stint as a copy editor at the Yemen Observer, our man enters the Mahad Medina school in Sana'a, where the students are required to be Salafis. The Salafis renounce politics, idealise family order and love the Prophet in all things, we are told. However, they do not hesitate to impose their will on others, by violent means if necessary.

The curriculum at the madrasa is rather basic. The first requirement is reading and writing Arabic - the language of heaven. But the Arabic the students learn is a tongue that no one speaks. Having mastered this "classical" Arabic, they move on to jurisprudence, Islamic law and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. In between, they have to memorise the Quran.

They are taught that the only thing which matters is correct belief. There are true Muslims, who believe in God, and the kuffar, the unbelievers who deny Him. The aim of the teaching is to prepare the students to fight for the restoration of a pure, untrammelled Islam. This requires destroying the Arab plutocracies, killing all those who are considered to be deviants, such as the Shias, and establishing a purified Arabia as the abode of the true believers.

What kind of individual would swallow such toxic rhetoric? The students Padnos encounters are mostly black men from Virginia and pale-skinned converts from good schools and pretty suburbs in the west. There are also French Algerians from Lyons, British Muslims from Birmingham, Moroccan Dutchmen from Amsterdam and Yemeni Americans from New York. All of them are socially inadequate and most of them have sexual hang-ups, but they believe that the umma, the global family of Muslim believers, will provide them with a community and sort out their sexual problems. One could add that, like Padnos, they are not very intelligent, either.

Padnos tells us that these wretches go to Yemen to "seek happiness". They have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, he writes, a desire to learn about "true Islam". Unfortunately, the knowledge they acquire turns them into extremists. As social analysis, this is on a par with the graffiti - "Give piss a chance" - one finds in the urinals of Muslim seminaries. The converts and their fellow western-born Muslim "seekers" do not "turn" into extremists. They start off as extremists. They go to Yemen to pour Islam into their preconceived ideas. They wish to turn their violent and deranged fantasies into certainty.

These men imagine "the land of pure Islam" as a heaven of doe-eyed, submissive women, a place where drugs are plentiful and life is shaped by unambiguous rules. But they are seeking not so much knowledge as attention. They know that, in places such as Yemen, western Muslims, particularly white converts, enjoy a special status. Not only do other people look up to them, but they are regarded as figures with a special destiny.

Padnos does not tell us whether he acquired a "submissive wife". He does, however, find confirmation of what he is looking for. If you learn to pray in a proper Salafi way, memorise the sacred texts, and turn your back on reality and regard the world as a passing shadow, he tells us, you will have found real Islam. In other words, the madness of the Salafis is not "really such a remarkable departure from standard Islam". That's all there is to this great religion.

It is not just Islam that Padnos reduces to cheap orientalist clichés. The Yemenis are subject to their fair share, too. By and large, they are fools, have no sense of irony and live in "a wide rocky bin of zaniness". They like to wallow in poverty, degradation and turmoil. The national currency is third-world Monopoly money. All of which makes Yemenis quite incapable of fighting for democracy and standing up to dictators backed by the west.

Padnos's infantile orientalism adds nothing to our understanding of Muslim extremism. Perhaps it is time for the white man to forget the Orient? He can find all the knowledge he seeks in his own neighbourhoods. l

Ziauddin Sardar's latest book is "Reading the Quran" (C Hurst & Co, £20)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India