The Economist has produced a characteristically easy to grasp overview of thinking on the factors which have given rise to jihadism among young men in Europe. As the article is pay per view – and I recommend buying the Economist just to read it – I extract the key arguments below:
1. The causes of disaffection among British muslims and muslims in Britain which initially put some individuals on the path to jihad are varied. For second generation British muslim lads, they include the following:
“Frequently, a young Muslim man falls out of mainstream society, becoming alienated both from his parents and from the “stuffy” Islamic culture in which he was brought up. He may become more devout, but the reverse is more likely. He turns to drink, drugs and petty crime before seeing a “solution” to his problems—and the world’s—in radical Islam”
…Antoine Sfeir, has identified relations between the sexes as a big factor in the re-Islamisation of second-generation Muslims in Europe. Because young Muslim women often do better than men at adapting to the host society (they tend to do better at school, for example), old patriarchal structures are upset and young men acquire a strong incentive to reassert the old order.
In many cases, say British specialists, groups of young, disaffected Muslims goad one another down the path to extremism. People who may be bound together by ethnicity, worship or criminal activity develop a common interest in the suffering of Muslims across the globe. Websites and satellite television channels then supply visual images and incendiary rhetoric from any place where Muslims are fighting non-Muslims. The favourite war used to be Chechnya; now it is Iraq.
2. At the second stage, “hard core members” of an incipient extremist group turn to the internet as a source of further education and radicalisation, often withdrawing from the mosque.
3. At the third stage, those members may try – and indeed have attempted – to commit acts of terrorism. If they try to do so on their own, their attempts will often be amateurish, incompetent, and therefore less of a threat than they might otherwise be. Alternatively, they may end up as “cannon-fodder in Chechnya” or in other wars which seek “Shahids” from overseas.
4. Alternatively, at that third stage, those members may seek out – in madrassas or elsewhere – people who have contacts with “veterans of wars in Chechnya and Bosnia, or of the Afghan training camps”, who are able to provide the expertise to carry out effective acts of terrorism in their home countries.
This is one pattern only, on which there are many variations.
Some of those who become engaged in violent jihad will be well educated with the potential for material success. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a pupil at a small public school called Forest, and the murderer of Daniel Pearl, would probably have been a lawyer or accountant by now, had he not decided that it was better to become a revolutionary in Pakistan.
Jessica Stern, quoted in the New York Times yesterday, sums up the nature of the process:
For some, she said, “To be angry and rebellious these days is to be angry, rebellious and Islamist, and, unfortunately, to be violent.” In a previous era, she observed, they might have embraced Marxism….”They self-recruit, self-radicalize, and they go and find their own imam,”
Others, including Kings Cross terrorist Germaine Lindsay and shoe bomber, Richard Reid were converts: “Lacking any sense of Islamic tradition, and perhaps eager to prove themselves to their new peers, they are susceptible to extremism.“. Still others, including refugees from violent civil wars such as the Algerian “bloodbath“, may arrive in Europe alienated and possibly also radicalised, before turning to internal terrorism.
The solution in part is to build links with mosques who are rewarded with influence over aspects of domestic and possibly foreign policy. The UK Government has been attempting to co-opt the Muslim Council of Britain. The French have “groomed the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), elected via mosques rather than by ordinary Muslims, as a privileged interlocutor”
The dangers of this approach are clear:
First, to the extent that jihadism is seen as countercultural by muslims who embrace that path and retreat from the mosques, co-operation with mainstream muslim organisations may not help at all or even be counterproductive. As the Economist puts it, “consequently … the MCB looks to some like a toady of the government.“. Jessica Stern in the New York Times puts this concern starkly:
“So the picture that we have, that all we have to do is watch those fiery imams, or go into the mosques – well, those days are over”
The second problem is that many mainstream muslim organisations – in Europe more so that the United Kingdom – are simply manifestations of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are legitimised and brought further into the mainstream by the process of working with them:
“As liberal French Muslims see things, their government, in its haste to find Muslim friends, has needlessly given some crypto-fundamentalists a bigger say in the nation’s affairs than their numbers warrant. In Britain, too, the government has found that offering sops to the MCB ties them to policies (such as the bill to outlaw religious hatred that is going through Parliament) to which other citizens object.”
Islam and Islamism are not the same thing. But to assist in the takeover of muslim religious and cultural institutions by an organisation whose aim is to oppose secularlism and pluralism and promote a “soft” Islamist and separatist identity is potentially to lose a generation of muslims from the political mainstream. It will, in addition, be difficult to teach that the killing of civilians at home is a sin, when some of these groups teach that to target civilians abroad, is a virtue and a religious duty.
So, what is to be done? Mansoor Ijaz, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, suggests that muslims should:
Form community watch groups made up of Muslim citizens to reclaim Islam from terrorists – groups that are committed to contributing useful information to authorities. Britain’s tolerant political environment has transformed it into a haven for militant Islam. Communities joining together to compile and analyze data on Muslim fanatics for use by British authorities in official proceedings is the best way for moderate Muslims to prevent the state’s antiterror apparatus from appearing biased or being used inappropriately. It would also be the surest sign that British Muslims take their citizenship as seriously as their religion.
That is right and proper and necessary. The families of some of the London terrorists could have prevented their loved ones from killing themselves and others if they had realised that they were preparing themselves spiritually for acts of terrorism, rather that simply becoming a bit more devout. Had they learnt to recognise those signs, and thought of it as their duty to report them to the police, many lives might have been saved.
However, it is foolish to think that such “community watch groups” can be formed entirely without the assistance of the mainstream muslim religious bodies and social institutions, some of which will be engaged in promoting a softer form of political islam. Engagement with gradualist – rather than revolutionary – Islamists should be like the mating dance of the porcupine: conducted with extreme caution.
The process of working with with mainstream and moderate Islamist institutions should also be accompanied by, not only a recognition of the diversity of muslim cultural opinion, but an engagement with the broadest range of muslim opinion: including genuine religious progressives, cultural muslims who are secularists, or those who simply recognise a distinction between their faith and their political views.
For the reasons set out above, this is not a task which should be left to the Government alone.
We – as liberals, socialists and progressives – need to talk to our friends and colleagues who are muslims and explain why this fight must be won, for all our sakes.
If we fail to do so, we lose the battle.
Hat tip, in part, Greg Djerejian