Why medical schools provide Islamic extremists with fertile recruiting grounds

By Michael Binyon (THE TIMES, 04/07/07):

Medicine and engineering have long been the two most prestigious professions for Muslims. Some of the Arab world’s most famous writers and politicians have studied these disciplines. But so too have its most notorious extremists, including Osama bin Laden, who trained as an engineer, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy, who qualified as a doctor.

In Egypt, the top echelons of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have long been full of doctors, engineers and geologists, while Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist party, is also dominated by such professionals, many of whom studied in Egypt. Recruiting such pillars of the community – who are often driven by strong ambition and convictions and may also be easily swayed by political extremism – has therefore been a prime aim of al-Qaeda. It has sought, especially, to radicalise Muslim medical and engineering students overseas, where they are often perplexed by a liberal culture, isolated from their families and more easily indoctrinated. Many, especially those from poor families, are proud of their achievements and believe that they have a right to be heeded. In many Middle Eastern countries, doctors, as leaders in their communities, are sucked into politics and become radicalised when they run into the inevitable corruption and frustrations. Dr George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was a classic example and was among the most extreme of the Palestinian militants in the 1970s and 1980s.

The strategy of seeking out recruits among those who might be seen as “westernised” is the brainchild of al-Zawahiri. Several senior figures in the terrorist organisation have been recruited as students, including Omar Sheikh, the former London School of Economics student involved in the abduction and murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl.

The involvement of at least six doctors and medical students in the London and Glasgow bomb plots has come as a double shock to most Muslims. Not only does it besmirch their religion by associating it with terrorism, but it also insults the pride that Muslims take in the achievements of their golden age, especially in the fields of medicine, surgery and pharmacology. Medicine owes more to Islam than to any other religion or philosophy. It was the great Muslim physicians of Spain and the Middle East who laid the foundations for today’s science; it was the writings and medical observations of scholars such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes, as he was known in Europe) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) that led directly to the medical advances of the past nine centuries.

The names of these scholars are still familiar to educated Muslims, even if their works are no longer studied. Today medicine remains one of the most admired professions for a young Muslim man – and, increasingly, for women. Ambitious families encourage their children to aim for a career in medicine. The result is that all Muslim countries that have become rich have made the provision of universal health care a top priority, and in many countries there are now more medical graduates than jobs available. This is why doctors trained in the Middle East (especially in Iraq) are among the largest group of emigrants to Europe, where they know they can find work. Some become disillusioned and radicalised by the contrast between their own privileged lifestyle and the frustrations of the poor. Others may inherit a world of learning, but focus their intellect on radicalism.

Al-Zawahiri, probably now the most influential figure in al-Qaeda, comes from a large family of doctors, trained as a psychologist and pharmacologist in Egypt, holds a master’s degree in surgery and worked as a paediatrician in Egypt. Even while studying, however, he was already active in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Overwhelmingly, however, Muslim physicians reject extremism. Dr Abdullah Shehu, a member of the Muslim Doctors and Dentists Association, categorically rejected any link with violence. “It is completely contrary to the teachings of both medicine and Islam,” he said yesterday. As a member of the Muslim Council of Britain’s medical committee, he said that doctors were subject to all kinds of political pressures, but any connection with extremism was entirely an individual decision.

The pride Muslims take in their past is universal. And this may account for the strength of condemnation, by the Muslim Council of Britain as well as Muslims overseas, of terrorism perpetrated by doctors. It is a stain on the Islamic heritage.