I wrote this article in the memory of journalist Jim Foley, who was murdered in cold blood by ISIS. Lets make one thing clear. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Great Britain reject ISIS, which is savage and grotesque. But it is undeniable, and utterly saddening, to see a significant minority of my fellow Muslims take to the streets of East London, or to social networks, to either explicitly support ISIS, play linguistic gymnastics before condemning them, or self righteously type away as they lay the creation of ISIS at the hands of the Israeli Mossad or the American CIA, on the unfound whispers and false hopes that Edward Snowden had released NSA documents showing that, ISIS too, had been a CIA creation like Al Qaeda before it, whom we can comfortably shift the blame onto. There is simply no evidence to this effect. ISIS has its origins as part of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was one arm of the resistance to the American occupation, but grew out of its former shell and matured into its own vile creature. The group which high jacked civilian airliners and flew them into packed skyscrapers has now disowned ISIS for being too extreme.
Yet even with its extreme levels of savagery, their popularity on these shores is alarming when put in perspective. The UK and US have roughly the same number of Muslims. But the number of Muslim Americans fighting for ISIS or other such groups in Syria or Iraq numbers around two dozen, whilst the number of British Muslims fighting for such groups is closer to 700 with some estimates going as high as 2,000. Put another way, there are more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than there are in the British Armed Forces. (The Iraq War, though, undoubtedly explains much of the latter discrepancy). Those individuals who aren’t going to fight directly for ISIS, or handing leaflets in support of ISIS on the streets of Britain, are turning their hate to social media. Facebook is serving as a platform for larger numbers to either defend their new perversion of a Caliphate, or like gymnasts, show how much a human being can flex from one position to another before making a conclusion. Adhering to hardline Saudi Arabian styled Islam, they preform the same sorts of gymnastic exercises on the murder of James Foley that racists in America are using on the situation in Ferguson. ‘I’m not racist, but, there are so many blacks killing one another in Chicago, why are we focusing on Ferguson?’ which has been adopted this side of the Atlantic as ‘I’m not defending ISIS for murdering James Foley, but, there are so many people being killed in Syria/Gaza/Nigeria why are we focusing on James Foley?’ The spread of hard line, black and white Saudi Arabian style Islam in this country (which one mustn’t ever mention lest it upsets the Foreign Office) is certainly a factor in explaining this. But the cause is more complex.
Muslims in the West enjoy the freedoms imbued in Western society. But when they look around them they see superficiality and moral relativism. We’re seeing Muslim women being fined for covering up out of their own volition, whilst pornography remains legal and profitable. Going to fight for ISIS, or even possessing their written materials has rightly been criminalized, yet people are freely going to fight for the Israel Defence Forces as it decimates a refugee population. Halal meat has been demonized, whilst the most lethal drugs known to man, tobacco and alcohol, are rife, advertised and killing en masse. Their corpses can’t be numbered. The churches are empty and religion is looked down upon as tribal, whilst football matches draw tens of thousands of people to chant and sweat together on an opposing field over men chasing a ball. British people are proud a previous generation of Brits went to Spain to fight Franco out of their own will, but Muslims wanting to join the Free Syrian Army - which our own government is backing – and fight a just war against Assad who is barrel bombing his own civilian population, is considered unacceptable. The government can’t even make the distinction between terror organizations like ISIS and political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood who it also wants to ban. We’re all lumped in together. You say political Muslim, I say terrorist. Abu Nasser Muthanna, the British medical student fighting for ISIS alluded to this disaffection from society in the now famous recruitment video: ‘To all my brothers living in the west, I know how you feel [from] when I used to live there. In the heart you feel depressed…The cure for the depression is jihad …feel the happiness we are feeling.’
This is all occurring in the backdrop of a Muslim world, which from Pakistan in the east to Libya in the west, is imploding. This is all relevant, because you can imagine how a young, disenchanted and bewildered Muslim can mutate against this trend. The promise of a quick fix by a (false) caliphate can be alluring to either go out and fight for, or defend explicitly or implicitly on social networks. ISIS seemingly provides all the solutions to these problems. Strict (fanatical) moral objectivism, a clear goal and meaning sanctioned onto your life - with a comfortable afterlife to match - all wrapped up in religious imagery and symbolism neatly packaged in high class advertising, making the pill easy for the young and disaffected from society to swallow. This view is concurred by terrorism expert Roger Griffin, at Oxford Brookes University who commented
Compounding all of this is that as a Muslim community, our current crop of religious leaders having immigrated to Britain in decades gone by, are still in the transition phase of being replaced by future leaders born here. They are in other words ill equipped to draw in large numbers of young British Muslims. They come from a different time and are typically unable to speak English. Being able to actually understand a sermon about Islamic history, ethics and theology in a mosque - in English - does wonders. Trust me. I can vouch for it.
I’m not claiming to have solutions to these problems, but I do see a clear cross roads where British foreign policy interests, the holy grail of ‘community cohesion’ and the valve disaffected British Muslims like Nasser Muthanna could have used to fulfil their hopes of meaning in life were perfectly overlapped. Another Middle East war by Britain, but this time if the target had been Assad, could have, I suspect, welded British Muslims en masse into the British army, than groups such as ISIS, due to the fact the overwhelming number of Muslims in the UK see the Syrian uprising as a just war. With so many having gone to fight whilst looked down upon, my suspicions are many more would go if part of a legitimate fighting force aimed at actually bringing Assad to justice than join extremists like ISIS. Crucially, the Syrian population has been calling for such intervention with an increasing voice. With this war now highly unlikely, however, I hope we can meet again at another crossroad.