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In photographs, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab–the Nigerian who planned to blow up a Northwest airliner on Christmas–looks younger than his twenty-three years. Seventeen, eighteen, maybe—the face of innocence but also of bewilderment, a little like the emblematic deer-in-the-headlights—certainly not the face of the disaffected, the disenfranchised–though there’s also a wisp of sadness, the lost soul badly in need of someone to talk to.
Abdulmutallab’s numerous online postings, including on Facebook, belie a rudderless young man, conflicted about Islam, lonely and depressed, someone who wanted to get married. At eighteen, he realized that his affluent family had the money for him to be married but that an early marriage would not be acceptable, an insight about himself he shares with many disaffected Muslim youths. The excessive barriers against early marriage—let alone the possibility of young men and women mingling together—are obstacles that Muslim men articulate with such frequency that they’ve almost become a leitmotif in recent Islamic literature.
And then there’s Abdulmutallab’s go-going frustrations with education, beginning with the elite British prep school he attended in Togo. Though he was later a student at University College London (2005 to 2008), where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering, apparently his heart was set on American schools in California (Berkeley and Cal Tech), but his SAT scores were too low.
As an international student, he was not alone in being frustrated with American admissions policies. It’s impossible to say that if he’d been admitted to an American school that he wouldn’t have become a terrorist. But what can be said say is that the obstacles that international students (and particularly non-Western ones) encounter in seeking admission to American universities could easily result in a cause and effect situation, i.e., no admission; hence, retaliation.
We will learn much more about this naïve young Nigerian, who already appears to be co-operating with federal authorities. Plenty of people will want to talk to him, and he’ll probably provide valuable information. But the core of the issue is what we are chillingly learning about young Muslim men (from the poor and undereducated, to the middle class such as the men who blew up the buses in London, and now to the rich and the elite –Abdulmutallab’s banker father has a four million dollar house in London). The new face of terrorism knows no class.
And that’s the most unsettling element of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s brazen attempt to bring down a jet on Christmas. There are millions of young Muslim men frustrated about sexuality and marriage or the lack there of; millions of others who can’t get the most basic training that would prepare them for the twenty-first century. Education is only part of the solution, the rest is social. Islam’s restrictions on marriage and sexuality may have been appropriate centuries ago, but in the twenty-first century the biological clock of young men and women is ticking as fast as a time bomb.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.