Politicians target effects because they can’t see causes
Q: It looks like the net is closing in on Muhammad Emwazi aka “Jihad John” (pictured below) the suspected executioner who appears to have grown up in London before making his way to Syria. And the three runaway teenagers who were caught on CCTV in Turkey, according to reports, are now in Syria. How do we make sense of young British Muslims, educated in British schools and colleges, who decide they want to commit themselves to the Muslim struggle against unbelievers and who are, in all probability, prepared to die?
A: The first thing we should understand is that how the global conflict involving Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al-Qaeda and other affiliates of the movement that is fighting for the establishment of the caliphate provides a schema, plan or model. Believing you are the victim of oppressive, prejudicial policing or harsh treatment from society makes sense if you accept that you are part of an unjust exercise of force that forms a wider pattern. The renewal of Muslim identity is the effect rather than the cause of conflict in Britain. Forms of allegiance focused on place, nationality, class or ethnicity have been serviceable to an extent, but lack an encompassing worldview. Islam, by contrast, offers a strong, reaffirming identity.
Q: Hang on right there. First, what is the caliphate?
A: The word “caliph” comes from the Arabic khalifa, meaning “successor”. Caliphate means “the government under a caliph.” ISIS has declared its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the spiritual leader of all Islam.
Q: OK, but why should young people who have no obvious connection to ISIS become attracted to the Jihad, which is effectively a Holy War, right?
A: The popular explanations are that they have been influenced, groomed, or even “brainwashed” by influential Muslim leaders. Politicians are trying to figure out how to stop charities and mosques they think preach the jihad and finance fighting abroad. They are also considering clamping down at universities where they think “radicalization” takes place. They are focusing on symptoms, of course. The real challenge is to discover why Muslim clerics who preach violence against unbelievers (that is, those who do not accept Islam) are considered plausible. Leaders are effective only when they have receptive followers.
A: Yes. Leaders reflect the times and social circumstances in which they emerged. Take some of the greatest leaders in history — Jesus, Gandhi, Bismarck, Hitler, for example — and relocate them to different places at different times, and their ideas might not find such a reception, by which I mean potential followers could have reacted differently and opted not to follow them. The kind of preachings that encourage young Brits to join the jihad would have been disregarded twenty years ago when young people would have been less suggestible. Trying to control or eliminate the preachers or criminalizing those who choose to join the jihad is a limited and ultimately self-defeating exercise. Young Muslims can take it as evidence that the West is doing everything it can to destroy Islam.
Q: Eh? Are you serious?
A: The situation in Palestine, the invasions of Iraq, the Egyptian spring and the latest conflict in Syria are all parts of a pattern in the minds of many. For those who want to interpret their own experiences in terms of a global complex, ISIS and those who share its worldview supply a framework. This is a way of making personal experiences intelligible in terms of an overarching conflict. Young people who, for all manner of reason, believe they are disrespected, disregarded, treated unfairly, or pushed to the margins of society are, it seems, finding this worldview appealing. So much so, they are prepared to act on it.
Q: But young people all over Britain have similar kinds of complaints: they all, to some degree, think they are marginalized or just picked on.
A: Perhaps, but some Muslims, particularly those who have converted to Islam, discover in the jihad a way of linking their own marginality with those of Muslims around the world and this can, indeed, is proving a potent association. I can’t see any practical way of breaking that association either. Clearly, there is a form of racism we call Islamophobia that’s been around for many years and any young Muslim who believes they have been on the receiving end has a ready-made model that can assist them when they ask: Why? For reasons we clearly don’t want to face, a lot of young Muslims don’t identify with British society and feel disengaged enough to want to commit their lives to what appears to others a mystifying war.