Last week, in a speech to a gathering of security chiefs in Bratislava, Slovakia, David Cameron accused Muslims of pointing the finger at everyone but themselves for some Muslims being attracted to ISIS. The speech, sections of which were briefed to the media in advance and which made the front pages of two Tory newspapers, claimed that the cause of western Muslim attraction to ISIS was “an Islamist extremist ideology: one that says the West is bad and democracy is wrong, that women are inferior and homosexuality is evil”, rather than Islamophobia or the failure of the security services or police to prevent them being radicalised or leaving. The speech follows an incident in which three sisters from Bradford whose brother is already in ISIS territory took, between them, nine children to join him after going on the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and a 17-year-old from Dewsbury carried out a suicide bombing for ISIS in Iraq. (A video of part of the speech can be found here; the Guardian’s write-up can be found here.)
In a sense, he is right about blaming the security forces: Muslims should not be relying on the state too much to protect their youth from being radicalised or running away, because that will end up with all our liberties, to talk and travel freely, being restricted. The family’s solicitors accuse the police of complicity in radicalising the three sisters by facilitating contact between them and their brother, but really, he is their brother and for all the police knew when they made the contact, they could have been trying to persuade him to return home. But that doesn’t mean that all the blame for some Muslim youth being attracted to ISIS lies within the Muslim community here. Islamophobia is a real thing, manifested in repeated stories in the Tory tabloid press (and sometimes their broadsheets) about Muslims getting special treatment and the latest poll about what Muslims think about Britain. And as Deeyah Khan, the director of the film Jihad — A British Story, wrote in today’s Observer, “a great deal of racist violence is also directed at Muslim women, who are more visible than men. This can leave women isolated and fearful; hyper-aware of their identity, which marks them out for hostility”.
Cameron referred to “young people, boys and girls, leaving often loving, well-to-do homes, good schools and bright prospects travelling thousands of miles from home”. It is ironic that he mentioned good schools, as his own inspectors rated several schools that promoted some of the values he criticises as outstanding, then failed them after the government moved the goalposts following the publication of the fake “Trojan Horse” letter. British politicians of both major parties have long denigrated British state schools, subjecting them to one initiative after another and increasing the bureaucratic workload year on year yet always claiming standards are falling.
He is simply wrong about those who hold the opinions he mentions condoning ISIS’s behaviour. As he well knows, a number of people on the Islamist fringe have in fact appealed to ISIS to release western hostages they were holding, many of whom had gone to Syria to help victims of the civil war and one of whom was a Muslim. It is unusual to hear so many Muslim voices come out against a group or movement which claims to represent Islam and Muslims and which has also attracted the enmity of politicians and the media; if one thinks back to when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, their practices were not quietly condoned but openly justified in some mosques and Muslim publications. When the media reported that the Taliban were preventing women from working and girls from gaining an education, or flogging people for some infraction or other, some Muslims here called it propaganda, said we shouldn’t believe what “the kuffar media” said about the Muslims, or justified it. There is none of this conflict with ISIS; people will believe almost anything they read, whoever it comes from. This is a huge shift, and the material on ‘Salafi’ Facebook pages about ISIS is remarkably similar to what is in the mainstream media.
The disappearance of the women and children from Bradford demonstrates something in the jihadi mentality which predates ISIS which is clearly contrary to Islam and to the practice of the salaf or early Muslims, which is their lying to and deception of their Muslim family and friends, in at least one case leaving a medical degree half done. It is unlawful in Islam for someone from a Muslim family to go to fight without their parents’ permission unless their community is under imminent threat. A few years ago someone I had met a few times — a British Pakistani from west London — was involved in a suicide bombing in Israel, and all who knew him were shocked as he had shown no signs of interest in extremist politics, let alone terrorism, when living in London; he was studying in Damascus at the time he went to do the bombing. Someone who knew him and his family told me that the two men borrowed money before they left for Palestine, as if to say that he could not have done that and then gone off to certain death, knowing he would not be able to pay it back (i.e. he must have been set up, something I believed until I saw him explaining his action on video). It reflects an attitude that since they are ‘saved’, or guaranteed Paradise by virtue of martyrdom, they can do what they like. The Sahaba (the companions of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) certainly did not take this attitude even though they defeated attempts to kill what were then all the Muslims in the world, but were diligent in making sure they did not have outstanding debts or obligations, as it could be held against them on Judgement Day. So they have deviated far from acceptable Islamic standards of behaviour, and have done for years. This should be prominent in any attempt to educate young people against going off to join ISIS or to fight abroad in any other Islamic cause.
Cameron’s speech also ignores the fact that extremists often target people through underhand means, often pretending to be someone’s friend or ingratiating themselves into a group of friends, often on social media, and influence them in ways their parents may not be aware of. As one person who was a target for them noted, the “shaikhs” that encourage people towards joining ISIS are not well-known scholars but “Twitter shaikhs” who are unknown in their community. I have been told that they have released propaganda videos showing people who have moved over there having access to pools, gyms and other western conveniences (which actually do exist in Iraq and Syria, as if this should be a surprise), but much of it consists of footage of executions set to echoey Arabic male singing. While most westerners know that Assad is a brutal dictator and many Muslims want him and his thugs gone, the majority of those executed are presented as “Iraqi spies” or similar, and few Muslims in the west are so hostile to the present government in Iraq that they would care particularly to see such people killed, especially by burning or drowning.
So, their recruitment potential is fairly low, and as Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, noted (at a Jewish News event on the theme of “challenges facing the UK and Israel today” featuring a number of noted Islamophobic speakers plus the Quilliam Foundation), “the more we overstate them the more, frankly, we risk labelling Muslim communities as somehow intrinsically extremist, which actually despite an unprecedented wealth of social media propaganda, they have proved not to be. So I think we need to be cautious with our metaphors and with our numbers”. Cameron is appealing to the politics of suspicion, associating beliefs held by many Muslims (e.g. that homosexuality is evil or that the caliphate comes before the nation state) with extremist positions held by jihadis and in particular ISIS, and with the intent to join them, when all the evidence suggests that Muslims in the UK do not support ISIS.
(As an afterword, in response to Sayeeda Warsi’s article last weekend in which she specifically criticised Cameron’s speech and said that Muslim activists had complained that it undermined what they were doing, the Tory MP Peter Bone called his speech “courageous” and said he “took on an issue which other politicians have been too scared to touch”. It can hardly be called courageous for a politician to make a speech casting suspicion on a minority at home, in front of a gathering of security chiefs abroad. Courage is something one displays when in difficulty, when facing a powerful enemy, when the odds are stacked against one, not when you are the most powerful man in the country, articulating a popular view and attacking a group that is already the focus of suspicion and hostility.)
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