UK: From Dewsbury to Raqqa – Coming to Terms with Radicalisation
Last night I listened to rather a confused debate on Newsnight, the BBC current affairs programme.
In amongst the incoherent arguments put forward by the three guests, a single idea came over loud and clear. The speaker who articulated it suggested that if the UK wished to stem the tide of young people going to Syria to live in the lands controlled by ISIS, it should change its foreign policy. He claimed that foreign policy – presumably the UK’s interventionist actions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan – was the number one reason why British Muslims are flooding to Syria.
Technically, he may or may not be right, but in terms of the big picture, I think he’s dead wrong.
ISIS will use any argument to persuade people to accept its ideology. If convincing people that the UK is controlled by godless aliens from the Planet Zog produced an abundant supply of new recruits to its cause, it would use that argument.
As I contended some time ago in ISIS – Religion, Politics and the Yearning for Identity, the Islamic State is a political organisation. It is using religion, sectarianism, idealism, sexual temptation, the lure of adventure and just about any other tool it can think of to consolidate its caliphate, which, contrary to its claims, is a political entity. So it makes no sense using the “Islam is a religion of peace” argument to counter its interpretation of Holy Quran and the Hadith. You might just as well argue about the length of a piece of string.
It also makes little sense engaging with the Muslim “communities” for the specific purpose of stopping people from going to Syria. The United Kingdom is a secular nation. Although Church of England occupies a privileged position in our constitution, purely in legal terms religious groups exert no influence on the governance of the country except through the ballot box.
Imagine a situation where a fundamental Christian movement took power in Syria and Iraq instead of ISIS, and started persuading young Brits to join them in their crusade to create a Kingdom of God. Not so hard to imagine, if we remember that it was a Christian leader – Pope Urban II – who kicked off the First Crusade, and inspired thousands to go to the Holy Land, where they committed unspeakable atrocities against the indigenous Muslim population.
But that was then, and this is now. Would the British government engage with the Catholic Church, the Church of England – or the Jehovah’s Witnesses for that matter – to prevent our citizens from leaving to fight in the crusade?
In most nominally Christian countries it would be seen as a civil matter. There would be no “reaching out” to the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other prominent Christian leader, because someone motivated enough to wage holy war would be highly unlikely to listen to bishops and popes in any event.
The very fact that a young white Muslim convert goes off to join Al-Shabab and gets himself killed in Kenya, while a 17-year old ethnic Bangladeshi from Dewsbury does the same thing in Iraq, and three sisters of Pathan origin disappear with their children, seemingly towards Syria, illustrates the blindingly obvious. Which is that those who disappear into the ranks of ISIS or Al-Nusra don’t pay the slightest attention to their parents, husbands, wives, imams or any other members of their “communities” except those who encourage them in their new-found convictions. And those who encourage them do so in ways difficult to detect without the security forces bugging every house, mosque, room and individual in the country. And we all know that that will never happen….don’t we?
So what’s to do? From my limited perspective, here are a few suggestions:
We should understand that British Muslims are as diverse in their beliefs, aspirations and behaviour as Christians, adherents of other religions and those who have no religious belief. So we should stop thinking of them as “Muslims”, as though they were a single homogeneous entity. They are not.
We should refrain from clumsy attempts to win hearts and minds by “reaching out to communities”. Promoting inter-faith tolerance and understanding is fine if the motivation is to create a more coherent society. Even better if those doing the reaching out have more than a superficial knowledge of those to whom they are trying to connect. But as long as such activities take place as part of an underlying agenda to prevent radicalisation, they will be met with suspicion and limited cooperation.
We should form a more rounded view of what is happening within ethnic and religion-based communities. If a study was carried out of Muslims between the age of thirteen and thirty, I suspect that for every “radicalised” person there would be at least as many who reject the values of their parents and their communities in other ways – by marrying the partner of their choice, by embracing lifestyles prohibited under Islam or by creating lives for themselves away from the areas where they were born and grew up. Jihad is not the only road out of Dewsbury and Bradford.
We should recognise that we are in a generation game. Every generation in one way or another moves away from the previous one. Will jihadis beget jihadis? Probably not, unless they happen to be born within a domain similar to that of ISIS. The offspring of the current crop of radicalised young people will most likely see the world in a different way from their fathers and mothers. We need to wait for that to happen of its own accord.
We should recognise that social engineering is futile unless carried out in a totalitarian state. Attempts to force values on groups of people by dictating behaviour and attitudes tend to result in conflict, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. There is no place for thought crime in a democratic society.
We should not attempt to stop people going to Syria. The issue is not where they go, but for what reason. It’s whether or not they have been radicalised. If they have been radicalised, we should focus on the level of threat their beliefs pose to the society in which they are living. Is it more in the national interest that radicalised people go to Syria if they wish to or are forced to remain here in the UK? That’s a debate worth having.
We should focus on finding out who has gone to Syria (or Iraq, Somalia or wherever), with whom they are aligned and what they are doing. If we know this, then we have the opportunity to assess whether or not those who return pose a threat to law and order. We should not make it impossible for them to come home without facing prosecution – not everyone who goes there ends up decapitating people, and of those who have taken up arms there will be some who deeply regret having done so. Each situation should be judged on its own merit. If that means doubling the size of the security services to gain the necessary intelligence, and tightening up border control procedures, then so be it.
We should stop focusing on the symbols of faith. If we ban burqas, why not stop Sikhs from wearing turbans? Why not stop people from wearing long beards and shaven upper lips? Why not stop Christian clergy from wearing dog collars? The only grounds for insisting on specific modes of dress and appearance should be when those modes interfere with civil process and the rule of law.
We should accept that we are going through a period when successful acts of terrorism involving injury and loss of life are inevitable. We should stop carrying out witch hunts against the police and security services when they happen. If incidents occur because of incompetence, that’s one thing, but no security service in the world can stop the “one in a hundred” from getting through.
We should treat plots and conspiracies as potential or actual breaches of the law, not as battles in a “war against terror”. If individuals become radicalised, it is the responsibility of society as a whole to prevent them from committing crimes in the country. Yes, there is a role for families and ethnic or religious communities, but we should no more be pointing fingers at them than we should be blaming other communities if one of their number ends up robbing banks, raping or murdering. If our actions discourage Muslims from feeling that they are part of British society – rather than cases for special treatment – we will encourage them to become ever more insular in their attitudes and behaviour.
We should not apologise for our values. By “we” I mean any ethnic, religious, cultural or geographic stratum of society. It would be nice if everyone shared the same core values. But it has never been the case in Britain, nor is it likely to be in the future. Values emerge from the bottom up, not top down. They change with time. So any attempt to articulate – let alone impose – values will end in failure, because the target is moving.
I’m not suggesting that the solution to jihadi radicalisation is accept multiculturalism any more than to reject it and seek to promulgate common “British values”. We are what we are.
What I am saying is that there are no quick fixes. That we need to re-examine our attitude towards terrorism, and start seeing it a crime like any other prohibited activity. That we should come to terms with the idea that our society has become a melting pot in which the ingredients are taking time to congeal. That if we accept diversity instead of marginalising it, any malignant consequences of that diversity will slowly but surely dilute, as will the diversity itself. And that when present diversity in our society fades, it’s likely to be superseded by more diversity.
Finally, we are not an island any more, and barring a natural or man-made catastrophe we never will be again. We are living in dangerous times, and we can’t afford to have little islands in our midst. Seductive as it may be, an island mentality reflects the past, not the future.