Why can’t a leading Muslim cop tell Islam from ISIS?

Picture of Mak Chishty, a balding and beardless South Asian man wearing a British police uniform, sitting signing a book.Today the Guardian published an interview with Britain’s “most senior Muslim police officer”, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty, head of community engagement for the Metropolitan police, in which he claimed that earlier and more intrusive intervention is needed to counter radicalisation at younger ages and earlier stages, that there is Islamist propaganda so powerful that he fears his own children could be radicalised and that children as young as five are being influenced, and that the state should intervene in “private spaces”, including what people read on their mobile phones or computers or talk about in a “shisha cafe”. Needless to say, the judgement on (mainstream) Muslim social media, and even from some outside the community, is pretty damning: “batshit crazy”, intrusive, “house Muslim”, “thought police”.

There are two specific things he names that he believes are evidence that someone is becoming radicalised. He mentions that he has heard of five-year-olds saying that Christmas is “haraam”, or forbidden in Islam. This is in fact mainstream Islamic opinion. Muslim families do not celebrate Christmas; the only Muslims who take part are those from non-Muslim families who fear alienating them, children who are surrounded by it at school towards the end of the autumn term, and those who want to make a show of how “integrated” they are. Muslims otherwise do not join in other religions’ celebrations, much as they, for the most part, do not take part in ours. The five-year-old who said that probably heard it from another child in the playground who had been told it by their parents. As for not shopping in Marks & Spencer because of its supposed Jewish ownership, this rumour (along with the claim that they donate a percentage of their Saturday takings to the Israeli army as expiation for trading on the Sabbath) has been in circulation for decades, although in recent years even George Galloway has refuted it (M&S is a publicly traded company; its shareholders would not tolerate a huge cut of its takings being given away, although what its directors or owners do with their earnings is their business). M&S also has a rather fusty, middle-aged image in everything except food and underwear, despite some ranges trying to broaden their appeal (e.g. Per Una, sometimes).

He also lists among the “subtle, unexplained changes” in Muslims’ behaviour that could indicate radicalisation “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol, social occasions and western clothing”. All these could just be signs of someone becoming more religious if they had not already been, since drinking alcohol is forbidden (a necessarily known fact of Islamic law), attending social gatherings where people are known to be drinking is as well, and wearing modest clothing is mandatory. People should be able to deepen their practice of Islam without fearing a visit from the police because someone suspected that they were under the influence of “Islamist propaganda”, or were annoyed that their favourite “normal Muslim” was slipping away from them.

Chishty claims that the use of social media by ISIS is a new thing. It is not: al-Qa’ida have been using sympathetic blogs, social media accounts and slick magazines for years (including the one with that infamous “how to make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” feature). They influenced people through preachers who operated openly, followers in many well-attended mosques, magazines, tapes and websites; it is not that ISIS is any more sophisticated than al-Qa’ida, but that people have more bandwidth available to them (so they can download a video rather than buy a CD or DVD) and that the social media available are more varied. He claims that “we are facing a risk, a threat which is global, which is powerfully driven by social media, reaching you on your own through your mobile phone”; for it to reach anyone’s phone or computer, they had to have sought it out somehow. They don’t spam their videos or propaganda to any email account with an Islamic-sounding name (a tactic they could use very easily). I have personally have seen much more anti-ISIS material on my social media networks than anything supporting it; the nearest thing to supportive is articles questioning some of the atrocity stories in the media.

And I am sceptical about the suggestion that ISIS’s propaganda is more potent than any other kind of propaganda, such that anyone who might possibly receive any of it should be subject to some kind of early state intervention. How potent is it even possible for propaganda to be? It’s necessary for their to be a drip-feed over several years for ideas in it to be commonly believed (the Tory press did not suddenly start saying that there was a huge problem with bogus benefit claimants after the 2010 election, and the propaganda of racist régimes does not go from nothing to advocating mass murder overnight). ISIS have been on the scene for just two or three years and their ideas are not new; what is new is that they have concentrated on taking territory and building a state rather than hiding in the shadows and trying to provoke a big world war.

That alone will impress some Muslims, young and old, many of whom feel threatened by the continual negative coverage of and accusations about Muslims in the national media and the drumbeat campaign against “multiculturalism”, not only from the right-wing blogosphere and low-circulation magazines as was the case in the late 2000s, but in mainstream newspapers and from politicians. Chishty does not mention that in his interview; the only threat to the safety of Muslims he acknowledged is backlash from terrorist acts by Muslims, not one of which has happened in the three years or so since ISIS first appeared. There has, in fact, only been one successful attack in the UK since 2001, and that was nearly 10 years ago. Chishty is trying to justify repressive government policies aimed at ordinary Muslims, not just “Islamists”, let alone terrorists, using practices that are just mainstream religious practice as examples of potential ‘radicalisation’ and a bit of scary rhetoric. The level of Muslim support here is much less than that for the original Afghan Taliban, let alone al-Qa’ida; there is no substantial body of Muslim opinion and no network of mosques or imams that support ISIS here. They do not have a base, only a small network of would-be followers on social media and obscure chat systems. His claim of an unprecedented and potent threat is wild scaremongering which can only damage the Muslim community; I do not know enough about him to know if that is its purpose.

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