You don’t need Islam to explain the Chattanooga shootings

mosque (2)

Chattanooga is not Murfreesboro, where plans to expand a mosque sparked protests and ill-feeling. Instead, the doctors who made up the board of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattangooga invited Bassam Issa, a real estate developer, to join them in order to help ease through their plans for a community centre, mosque and school deep in the Bible Belt.

He helped find a site outside residential zones, close to shopping malls, where no-one could object.

Mr Issa arrived in the mid 1970s, when he estimates there were maybe 40 Muslims in the city and for years they worshipped in a former church. Today there are several thousand, and never, he says, have they experienced discrimination or abuse.

“Our sisters and daughters wear scarves wherever they go, and there has never been an issue,” he says, at the mosque, which opened about three years ago.

As we speak, there should have been inflatables outside for the children and parties to mark the end of Ramadan. This year, Eid has been cancelled in response to the awful mass shooting last week.

Residents of the city and worshippers at the mosque are horrified that such destruction could be unleashed in a place like Chattanooga. Everywhere I stopped – including Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken (no burger on this trip, well it is the South) – it seemed everyone was searching for answers.

“This is not the Chattanooga we know,” said the young woman sat beside me at Champy’s bar as I ordered my two-piece dark meat plate.


Inevitably that search is focusing on Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez’s Muslim heritage and frequent visits to Jordan and Kuwait, where he was born. Days before he launched his deadly spree, Abdulazeez’s began writing a blog:

Brothers and sisters don’t be fooled by your desires, this life is short and bitter and the opportunity to submit to allah may pass you by. Take his word as your light and code and do not let other prisoners, whether they are so called “Scholars” or even your family members, divert you from the truth.  If you make the intention to follow allahs way 100 % and put your desires to the side, allah will guide you to what is right.

Perhaps some of these words sound chilling to those unfamiliar with Islam and the Koran. To me, they sound like the words of someone who is lost and lonely, who wants his life to end. The killers of al-Qaeda and Isis have far bloodier epitaphs.

So too the trips to the Middle East, where his family says he was sent to clean himself up and kick the drug habit he was developing. Jordan seems an unlikely place to go to seek radical training (although it does border Syria). As the days go by, the more it seems Abdulazeez was a young man in pain, suffering from depression. One friend has says he had no truck with Isis.

And this is the most difficult answer for the people of Chattanooga. There is no easy external explanation. There is a difficult explanation closer to home, tied up in questions of gun control and the way America deals with mental health.

In so many ways, Abdulazeez’s is an American story: He liked to wrestle, smoke marijuana and shoot guns. And he chose a Ford Mustang for his final, violent act.

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