American Sufi

From Texas to the Taliban, and Back

A man reads a Koran at the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan, August 2010. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

A deep betrayal marked the turning point for “Nasruddin,” the American jihadist turned Sufi mystic. His parents had come from Afghanistan but led a secular life, and Nasruddin didn’t confront the question of faith until they were killed in a car accident when he was 14 years old. He declared himself an atheist, and for the next few years, he lived the life of a typical American teenager—drinking, partying, and dating.

But during the 1990s, the Muslim community in Houston, Texas, where Nasruddin grew up, was growing rapidly. At the time, Salafism, a conservative school of Islam that advocates the separation of men and women and generally condemns socialization with those from other faiths, was the dominant form of Islam being preached in U.S. mosques, due in large part to funding from Saudi Arabia. It was especially big in Houston. Nasruddin was introduced to Salafi Islam through Saudi engineers who worked with his brother. He was soon devout: he grew a beard, stopped partying, and started praying regularly at the mosque. Finally, an Iranian–American Salafist—an educated, multilingual biologist—convinced him that he would be a good candidate for jihad, which for him meant holy war.

“I liked [jihad]. It represented chivalry, honor, dignity, self-sacrifice, something bigger than yourself,” said Nasruddin, who is now a middle-aged engineer living in Houston. Nasruddin was soon introduced to a recruiter for Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based Islamist militia fighting against India in Kashmir. The recruiter gave him taped lectures from Salafist clerics, and further indoctrinated him into their strict version of Islam. A few months later, at age 18, he flew to Pakistan and completed intense physical and weapons training before crossing over to Indian Kashmir, ready to become a martyr.

After four months in the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas, Nasruddin met a mystic, a Sufi sheikh from the United States, who told the impressionable young man that the fighting in Kashmir wasn’t jihad. It was simply the result of a power

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