‘We’ and ‘You’

Owen Bennett-Jones

  • Buy‘We Love Death as You Love Life’: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists by Raffaello Pantucci
    Hurst, 377 pp, £15.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 84904 165 2

I had my first brush with British militant Islam in Kabul in 1999. It wasn’t a great place for journalists. Government ministers, all mullahs who refused to be filmed, would shrug off any mildly probing inquiries with the stock reply that everything was in God’s hands. Across the city checkpoints enforced a prohibition on music. Streams of confiscated cassette tape tied to poles fluttered in the breeze. Much of the traffic consisted of Toyota pickup trucks crammed with ferocious looking, armed Taliban fighters, their faces framed by long beards and black turbans. On one occasion I was stuck behind one of these vehicles when my driver attempted a somewhat reckless overtaking manoeuvre. As he edged past, a fast-moving oncoming vehicle forced us to swerve abruptly in front of the Toyota. I looked back to see one of the Talibs giving my driver the finger and yelling ‘Wank-eeeer!’ in a thick Brummie accent. The reason for that young man’s presence in Kabul and for the similar journeys so many others have made has become the subject of a prolonged, charged and still unresolved political debate. But the fact that more British Muslims are fighting for Islamic State than for the British army demands an explanation.

As the debate about the radicalisation of some British Muslims has progressed over the last 15 years, the views of those in the government have tended to harden. A few weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference that people should keep in mind the common values of Jews, Muslims and Christians. ‘The true followers of Islam are our brothers and sisters in this struggle,’ he said. ‘Bin Laden is no more obedient to the proper teaching of the Quran than those Crusaders of the 12th century who pillaged and murdered, represented the teaching of the Gospel.’

By 2014 Blair was expressing a very different view. In a speech at Bloomberg’s headquarters in London he surveyed the various frontlines on which violent jihadists were fighting and argued that while each battleground had its own characteristics and complexities, ‘derived from tribe, tradition and territory’, such factors were of limited value in explaining what was happening. Western commentators, he complained, went to extraordinary lengths in their attempts to deny that these conflicts were about Islam, arguing instead that local or historic factors were more important. It was ‘odd’, he said, to deny that Islam was the central element of the various struggles.

David Cameron has moved in the same direction. The day after the 7/7 attacks, when he was shadow education secretary, he said that ‘the Muslim community in this country doesn’t support what is happening.’ Earlier this year he modified that remark, arguing that some Muslims, even if they do not use force themselves, agree with many of the ideas of the violent jihadists. He claimed that some Muslims who reject violence nonetheless have anti-Semitic views, are hostile towards Western democracy and share the ultimate goal of ‘an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of sharia’. The existence of such a mindset, Cameron argued, is the first step on the ladder that leads some to violent jihad. And then in July Cameron moved another step closer to Blair: ‘Simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work,’ he said.

It isn’t just politicians who are adjusting their positions. A Channel 4 poll shortly after 7/7 found that nearly a quarter of British Muslims didn’t believe that the four men identified as the London bombers were responsible for the attacks, and a similar number thought the government or the security services were involved. Such attitudes of denial have often been on display in the obligatory post-atrocity TV interviews of the relatives of violent jihadists. When Mahmood Hussain, the father of one of the 7/7 bombers, learned that his son was missing and had been filmed with the other conspirators, he responded: ‘No one has shown me any evidence that he did it.’

As jihadist violence has become more common, parents have become more willing to accept that their offspring were involved. A typical recent reaction came from the family of 17-year-old Talha Asmal, Britain’s youngest suicide bomber, who blew himself up earlier this year as part of an Islamic State assault on an oil refinery in Iraq. Talha’s parents accepted that their son had done it, but added: ‘Talha was a loving, kind, caring and affable teenager. He never harboured any ill will against anybody nor did he ever exhibit any violent, extreme or radical views of any kind.’ This seems to ignore some rather important developments in his thinking. The wider Muslim reaction to Asmal’s death suggests opinions are shifting. While some said the local council and the police were responsible for what happened to him, others blamed jihadi recruiters, likening them to paedophiles. ‘Isis is running a sophisticated social media campaign,’ one local imam said, ‘and the community is concerned their faith is being used by hate preachers and internet groomers to manipulate their religion.’

These issues present difficulties for anyone who doesn’t want to see discrimination against British Muslims in the form of ‘security’ measures that undermine civil liberties in general and are aimed at Muslims in particular. Common ground between British Muslims and the old multicultural, anti-racist elements of the left is bolstered by the fact that British Muslims tend to be socially and economically disadvantaged, opposed to modern forms of Western imperialism and to vote Labour. How far should support extend? Should a platform, for example, be offered to clerics who have faced discrimination and opposed neocon foreign policy but have also burned copies of The Satanic Verses and support cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers?

Pantucci’s description of the jihadi plots that have been hatched in the UK concentrates on the question of what causes radicalisation in the first place. With the usual caveat that no single explanation seems adequate, he offers the analogy of a fruit machine. A jihadist recruiter looking for a new volunteer hits the jackpot when three drivers – ideology, grievance and mobilisation – all come together at the same time.

Jihadi mobilisation generally takes place online or, in a few cases, when a charismatic local recruiter manages to inspire young men in his area to take up arms. In both cases, Pantucci argues, recruitment relies on support for an ideology which seeks to impose a global caliphate by force and which generally holds that dissenters are deserving of death. He identifies two schools of thought – Salafism and Deobandism – as the source of many of these ideas. His (albeit brief) reference to Deobandism is welcome. Most accounts of violent jihadism since 9/11 have put the focus on Salafism. Explicitly regressive, the Salafists argue that since Islam was at its purest at the time of the Prophet, mankind would be better off returning to the social conditions that existed at that time. It’s the sort of thinking that allows Islamic State bureaucrats to say that those under IS control should not ask for electricity because people managed fine without it in the seventh century. With the Salafists especially strong in Saudi Arabia and Egypt – the home countries of Bin Laden and the current al-Qaida leader, al-Zawahiri – it’s not surprising that Salafism is seen as a key source of violent jihadist thought.

But in the UK Salafism is relatively unimportant. Increasing numbers of British Muslims have Salafist views, but they still represent a small proportion of British Islamists. Deobandis are far more numerous. As Pantucci points out, nearly half of Britain’s 1350 mosques are run by Deobandis. They trace their theological lineage back to a madrasa established in the town of Deoband, a hundred miles north of Delhi, in 1867. This madrasa brought together many Muslims who were not only hostile to British rule but committed to a literalist interpretation of Islam. The scholars in Deoband argued that the Quran and Sunnah (the words and deeds of the Prophet), as interpreted by religious elders, provided a complete guide for life. Although they opposed the creation of Pakistan because they favoured a pan-Islamic approach to restoring Islamic supremacy, many Deobandi teachers moved to the new country in 1947. They have been a vocal, often militant, element of Pakistani society ever since, and graduates from Deobandi madrasas formed the backbone of the Taliban movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They may only account for between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the Pakistani population but their willingness to take up arms – especially since they were encouraged to do so during the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan – has given them disproportionate influence.

Many of the UK’s leading Deobandi clerics are from India. A significant number come from business families who arrived in Britain from East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Well-educated, effective administrators, they set about establishing institutions to train English-speaking imams. Mosques looking for an imam often end up hiring graduates of these seminaries, giving the Deobandis a major role in the development of British Islam. Before 9/11, Deobandi mosques openly invited violent jihadis to Britain for speaking tours on which they encouraged young Muslims to head out east to fight jihad. Today such activities are more limited and more covert, but most of those convicted of terrorism-related offences in the UK since 9/11 have had significant Deobandi connections. Despite the huge scale of the media coverage of radical Islamism, the Deobandi British leadership has managed to remain remarkably low profile. The man generally considered the most senior Deobandi cleric in the UK, Yusuf Motala, who is based in Bury, holds sway over mosques attended by hundreds of thousands of British citizens. But he has never once appeared on a British TV screen.

On Pantucci’s fruit machine the ideological underpinning of violent jihad has to be aligned with a second driver: grievance. It is tempting to describe violent jihadism as an act of rebellion motivated by socio-economic factors. After all, British Pakistanis – like Muslims in much of the Middle East and North Africa – tend to be at the wrong end of poverty, education and health indicators. Pakistani and Afghan Taliban recruits could be seen as revolutionaries trying to overthrow a corrupt and entrenched feudal leadership. But Pantucci downplays socio-economic considerations, pointing out that many poor people with legitimate grievances do not engage in violent campaigns. Explanations of radicalisation that rely on economic exclusion also fail to explain why many jihadis come from relatively well-off families. To take three British examples: Omar Sheikh, one of those responsible for the murder of the Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, went to the London School of Economics; Ramzi Yousef, who organised the failed World Trade Center attack of 1993, studied electrical engineering in Swansea; and the would-be underpants bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was a student at University College London.

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Pantucci is more convinced by another oft-cited source of grievance: Western foreign policy. The US, Israel, the UK and France, the argument goes, face violent attacks because, for all their talk of human rights, they cause or allow the oppression of Muslims, whether in Iraq or Gaza. Their soldiers invade ‘Muslim lands’ and their drones kill innocent Muslim civilians. The complaints are not just about military action but extend to other aspects of Western conduct, from secretly reading people’s emails to torturing them. But the cause and effect isn’t as clear as many argue. Until 2012, for example, drone strikes in Pakistan were frequently cited as the main cause of Taliban anger and more broadly as the biggest single reason for the radicalisation of Pakistani society. Yet when the US suspended drone strikes for most of 2013, there was no sign that the jihadis were suddenly short of recruits or that anti-Americanism diminished.

‘We Love Death as You Love Life’ pays insufficient attention to the underlying factor that helps explain radicalisation: identity. The most instructive passage in the book quotes a bunch of 14-year-olds in Rotherham.

‘Do you like being called British Asian?’ Shakeel asks a group of friends. ‘I like Paki better. I’m a Paki. What do you think?’

Kiran replies: ‘I think of myself as a British Asian Muslim.’

Samina says: ‘I am a Muslim. I believe in Islam.’

And Shazad: ‘I don’t think of myself as a Muslim and I don’t think of myself as a Pakistani … I may be a Muslim but I don’t think of myself as a Muslim. I think of myself as a British Asian, that is what I think of myself.’

Pantucci interprets this exchange as a demonstration of the teenagers’ confidence in blending their various identities. To me, it shows their bewilderment. The mix of Islam, Pakistan, India, Asia and Britain leaves many uncertain where they belong. Faith schools, sensationalist media coverage, housing segregation and the visibility of the English Defence League add to the confusion. Strikingly frequent stories about the corpses of British jihadis bearing tattoos of English football clubs suggest unsuccessful attempts to resolve these issues. One of the most popular radical Islamist groups in the UK, Hizb ut-Tahrir, has been successful precisely because it offers a resolution of these questions by promoting an internationalist vision of political Islam, with nation-states abolished in favour of a caliphate.

The most heavily scrutinised suicide video recorded by a British jihadi was that of 7/7 bomber Siddique Khan. One passage in particular made an impact: ‘Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world,’ he said. ‘And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.’ Most people focused on the question of whether voting for or against a government that goes to war makes someone part of a war machine. But the most important aspect of the message was Khan’s constant reference to being part of a community opposing the West. In virtually every sentence he divided the world into ‘we’ and ‘you’. And with group identities come the prisms that allow those who identify with a group to view some victims of conflict as having greater value than others. The readers’ comments below newspaper articles on these subjects are telling: when, for example, Islamists complain about victims of Western-backed Saudi aggression in Yemen their critics often hit back with the case of Lee Rigby, the soldier killed near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich. In his suicide video Siddique Khan’s fellow bomber Shehzad Tanweer complained about the suffering of those in Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq. While some Westerners share his anger about what’s happened in those places, cultural filters may mean many are more disturbed by the fate of journalists and aid workers beheaded in Syria by Jihadi John.

The role Islam plays in forming the identity of violent jihadis is controversial. Some critics of Islam quote particular Quranic texts to suggest that violence is an essential part of the faith. They point out that as the Kouachi brothers fled the Charlie Hebdo offices, they yelled: ‘We have avenged the Prophet.’ Others look back to the violent history of Islamic expansionism from the seventh century on. Violent jihadis similarly claim that the holy texts of Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism are fundamentally violent, and may cite the Crusades or the creation of Israel. Many jihadis have little religious knowledge – like the young men who ordered Islam for Dummies before setting out from Birmingham to Syria – and this is often used to support the view that religion plays a limited role in the radicalisation process. Advocates of this view cite other factors, arguing that the speeches of Enoch Powell in years gone by and the current actions of the EDL have left Muslims fearful and defensive.

Many non-believing cultural Muslims in the UK, the Middle East and South Asia strongly share the view that the West is hostile to Muslim majority countries. Their attitudes underline the obvious point that religious belief is not a prerequisite for those who oppose Western policy. Islam is not the only common factor binding together violent jihadist movements: al-Qaida, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram (which means ‘Western education is banned’) share not only a doctrinal austerity but also a rejection of the West.

Even if we could reach a more widely shared understanding of the sources of violent jihadism it is not clear that there would then be agreement about the policies needed to deal with it. David Cameron wants people not only to have greater loyalty to liberal values but also to say so in public. But even if you could agree on a definition of British values, you can’t use legislation to make people believe in them. In fact, attempting to use the law to oppose extremist thought is not only illiberal in itself but risks deepening the divisions that need to be bridged.