Western cultural bias has allowed the media to shape Siraj Wahhaj, Sr. as a warm and fuzzy elderly man — a quintessential “grandfather.” This deception neatly distances him from the national headlines of his extremist son, Siraj Wahhaj, Jr.
In summer of 2018, Siraj Wahhaj, Jr. kidnapped his disabled three-year-old son to perform an exorcism on him. Wahhaj, Jr. believed the invasive cult-like ritual would cure the boy of his disability. In early August, authorities investigating the abduction were led to a remote, off-grid jihadi training camp where Wahhaj, Jr. and others (including three of his sisters) were training children to be school shooters. Remains of the toddler were found on the premises on what would have been the boy’s fourth birthday.
Presenting himself as an imam, Siraj Wahhaj, Sr. is a firebrand community leader often headlining on speaking tours at Islamist organizations. Media coverage of the New Mexico Islamist cult lead by Wahhaj, Jr. failed to underscore the connection between the father and the son — between Wahhaj, Sr.’s militant rhetoric and the Wahhaj, Jr.’s militant behavior.
What Western Cultural Bias Doesn’t Understand
Siraj Wahhaj, Sr. is not a grandfather in the context of how most Americans envision that role. Western civilization denotes a soft, paternal and benign image to the idea. This is in contrast to many other societies where a grandfather is the patriarch, the center of the family unit who orchestrates the family’s norms and behavior.
Western cultural bias often has little understanding of the communal structures that inform how different societies form and navigate. Wahhaj, Sr. is a Muslim grandfather who has tremendous clout, control and influence over his family.
It is thus naive to believe that his children are solely responsible for their horrific crimes — namely, the training of children to become school shooters and the death of his grandchild — without recognizing the hand his position played in shaping his children and the demise of his grandson.
In Islam, grandparents share rights over their grandchildren. Some interpretations believe grandparents hold higher rights than parents. Not only did Wahhaj, Sr. have a right over his grandson (including the power and authority to exert influence over him), he also has a “right” over his son’s perverted attempt at jihad.
Most schools of Islamic thought agree that a child has to seek out a parent’s permission before participating in jihad. The question is, did Wahhaj, Jr. seek his father’s permission before engaging in militant Islamist extremism, including brainwashing children to become school shooters?
Wahhaj, Sr. has personally absolved himself of responsibility for his children’s crimes despite decades of spewing militant rhetoric. In a Facebook video, he says his children involved in the New Mexico compound cut off their relationship with him. Yet, he cannot deny their first-hand experience with radicalization.
While Muslims are often misunderstood and infantilized by non-Muslims in positions of power who often seen them as binary figures — either good or evil — the issue of the hour is the death of a grandchild and the radicalization of children. Human decency calls for sobriety in the face of death and tragedy. Respect, time and transparency are in order as we discuss and grieve a murdered grandchild, and hostage-like living conditions for the other children trained to be school shooters.
Our ‘Grandfather’ Problem Points to Clash of Civilizations
When Professor Samuel P. Huntington spoke of the clash of civilizations, many imagined a battlefield where opposing armies charge and clash with clear and resolute outcomes. Though more recently, scholars and experts have come to recognize the battlefield as distinctly ideological, most have not appreciated the unique cultural biases that distort the full picture.
Failure to see how different family structures form and how they’re influenced clouds this important conversation.
A struggling national conversation on race is another source of confusion. For many Muslims, Siraj Wahhaj’s activism for the Black Muslim American community colors their impression of him.
In Emotional Plague: The Roots of Human Evil, psychiatrist Dr. Charles Konia points to the pathology in human nature that gives rise to powerfully destructive personalities, such as Hitler and Stalin. Though it may seem like a far stretch to go from Siraj Wahhaj to 20th century’s most notorious villains, the recipes that created them are surprisingly (and alarmingly) similar.
Dr. Charles Konia warns of the merging identities between different political and racial groups who align on supremacist belief systems of race and/or religious superiority. In the case of the Muslim American community, Dr. Konia cautions many hardworking, decent folks against being “swept up by the confusing rhetoric of Islamic reactionaries and Black Fascist plague characters.”
Dr. Konia rightly calls for an education campaign to find solutions to this identity crisis, in what can best be seen as a failure to recognize the self and the other. In the case of Siraj Wahhaj Sr., it starts with holding the imam accountable for his language and the way that language imprints on the lives of others.