AS Britain’s security services wrestle with the problem of 500 young UK Muslim men joining the Islamic State army in Syria and Iraq, Blackburn MP and former Home Secretary Jack Straw looks at the attraction of jihad and how to ensure its recruits do not come from East Lancashire.
Thousands tortured, then executed, in the most horrible way that man could invent.
All in the name of God. We’d call it jihad today. At the time it was known as the Spanish Inquisition. The victims were Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the ‘wrong’ kind.
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In my parents’ lifetime, Europe saw still greater barbarity. Millions slaughtered and God, our Christian God, invoked in prayers for victory over the ‘enemy’, by all sides.
Meanwhile, in the USA white supremacists brutally targeted the black population, lynching thousands “in the name of Christ”.
In my lifetime, in our country, over 3,500 people were killed during the Northern Irish conflict.
As we shudder in horror at the unspeakable violence perpetrated by the ‘Islamic State’ in northern Iraq and Syria, we should remember that human kind down the centuries, regardless of race or religion, have shown a capacity for utterly depraved behaviour.
Since 9/11, there’s been a danger that we’d lose sight of our history; that we start to believe that the only really bad people in the world are men in Middle Eastern dress, wielding Kalashnikov rifles, and justifying their wanton brutality by claiming to be “better Muslims”.
In truth, the Catholic priests involved in the Inquisition were acting as contrary to the tenets of their religion, as those today in the ‘Islamic State’. As one local Blackburn councillor (and a Muslim) has commented to me: What the Islamic State is doing, “is in no shape or form Islamic. Islam cannot be linked to [these] barbaric acts… [Our] religion condemns the killing of innocent people.”
So what is it about the ‘Islamic State’ which is attracting an estimated 500 young Britons of Muslim backgrounds to go and fight to kill innocent people, allegedly in the name of their God?
‘Grievance’, and ‘alienation’ are the two words most frequently offered in explanation, but “gangs” comes a close third.
In 1930s Europe there were plenty of young men with no work, little self-respect, completely alienated from the rest of society. They saw conventional politics as a conspiracy against them and were attracted by ‘charismatic’ leaders into believing that fascist gangs offered them a future, a belonging, and a definition, against the rest of the world.
There’s been a similar, if less-serious phenomenon, in the late 20h century, when some discontented young men thought society offered them nothing, and found comfort – for them – in the violence and exclusivity of gangs.
It’s the same fundamental psychological process at work with today’s European citizens who go off to fight jihad. It’s about power, status, money, which they reckon they’ve been denied at home, and the excitement of violence against others. But, for these jihadists, their actions are made justifiable by being told by their psychopathic leaders that this is for their God.
How do we stop young Britons from joining these jihadist gangs?
First, this fig-leaf of religious justification for barbarity has to be exposed. The Muslim Council of Britain, and other, including local, leaders, have spoken out against the outrage of these gang members wrapping themselves in the pages of the Holy Koran, particularly after the killing of Lee Rigby. But they have to keep saying it, long, loud, and with confidence.
Second, we have to do everything we can to stop these alienated individuals falling into this life of criminality. There’s nothing noble, or high-minded about it.
Sometimes, it’s the same despicable people involved in sexual grooming, and drugs who ‘graduate’ to terrorism itself. It’s right to review, and strengthen where necessary our counter-terrorist measures, but any changes have to be fair.
Schools, colleges, above all madrassas, mosques, and families have to do all they can to spot likely jihadist recruits – though this can be really difficult.
I’ve never forgotten a good friend of mine in town telling me how the father of one of the two convicted terrorists from our area had said to him that he had been worried about his son’s increasingly extreme and intolerant practice of Islam, and how my friend was kicking himself that he had not done more than put it down to a “teenage phase”. But neither he nor the father had any idea where the son’s views would lead.
Third, there’s western foreign policy.
On the desperate, vexed issue of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict a double standard does operate. Too often it appears that scores of Palestinians’ deaths count for less than many fewer Israeli deaths. We need a stronger, more even-handed policy.
However, the UK’s foreign policy cannot ever be, and is not, an excuse for jihadism.
Even if we shifted foreign policy as many would wish, it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to Islamic State and its ilk. They don’t want Israel to exist at all. The innocent victims of this terrorism not only include minorities like Iraqi Christians and Yazidis; the vast majority are Muslims.
Fourth. Though we’re doing a lot in East Lancashire to try to bring greater understanding between communities, we have to do a lot more. The ground-breaking Blackburn Youth Zone, for example, has a really important role to play, so do our colleges. We also have to increase understanding about Islam itself; what it shares in common with Judaism, and Christianity (with Jesus, and the Virgin Mary, revered in the Koran) and never conflate those who are genuinely devout with those who are terrorist-inclined. (The two are very different). There have been no reports of jihadists from our area, but this is not a ground for complacency.
To truly combat the threat groups like ISIS pose, we must address, head on, the factors that allow their ideology to spread; taking firm action against the criminal terrorists involved.
It is a responsibility on us all, every one of us.