A video by two young men from Cardiff roared through the British media last week. Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana talk about how they left the Welsh capital for Syria and Iraq, in order to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and demand that other British Muslims join them. It kicks off with an invocation to God, bismillah arrahman arrahim, goes into some broad grievances, and finishes by saying that jihad is the duty of every Muslim. We’ve heard this type of thing before. As a piece of recruitment propaganda, it really didn’t warrant as much coverage as it received.
Reyaad and Nasser hit a nerve, though. British jihadists who have left to fight abroad have become something of a cultural phenomenon. Despite the fact that MI5 believes that only about 400 to 500 British-born Muslims are currently fighting for ISIS, an atmosphere of paranoia (call it “Jihadmania”) has been directed against all 2.7 million of them. The result has been a fashionable question, best articulated by Tim Rogers for BBC Week In Week Out following a conversation with Nasser: “I suspect I am not alone in wondering how a young man who grew up in Wales became enthralled by the path to terrorism.”
It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Reyaad and Nasser were British, after all. How did they become radicalised? News reports have included details about their future plans and photographs of them with schoolmates, as if to ask, “how could such promising blokes turn into monsters?” The British media has been mostly reproducing this anxiety, rather than meeting it with critical discussion.
It was especially unfortunate to encounter the scaremongering BBC headline, “Man calls for ‘black flag of Islam’ over Buckingham Palace.” It was at once inaccurate (the West Yorkshire fighter said he wouldn’t return until that happened) and also irresponsible. Why did the person in question find that desirable? Was it even worth reporting? Whatever the answer, it was just another example of the British media playing to Islamophobia, rather than talking about the root causes of jihadism, as a political ideology.
The question “Why did Reyaad and Nasser go on jihad?” needs to be subsumed within a larger inquiry about violence in the United Kingdom, at present. It isn’t only a problem in Britain’s Muslim community. In 2011, disenchanted young people rioted across England for nearly a week (most notably in London itself.) The widely-publicized killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year caused a surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes across the country. Within institutional politics, the United Kingdom Independence Party is gaining popularity by rallying a fear of “uncontrolled immigration” in the white working-class. Saying that jihadism is only a Muslim issue ignores the reality. It’s just one of many extremist trends in modern British life.
Violent ideologies of supremacy like jihadism are most appealing when economic conditions are deeply combative. The Office for National Statistics reports that Britain’s wealthiest 1% currently owns as much as the bottom 55% of its entire population. It also reported that wealth in the southeast has been rising at quintuple the pace of the rest of the country. These findings have been echoed by Oxfam in its report A Tale of Two Britains, which reflected on how disposable income has disintegrated in most British households.
As inequality continues to deepen, the lower rungs of British society are responding by getting angrier. They’re feeling severe economic pressure, and are dismayed at the ineffectiveness of elected institutions to address social issues. This underlies the appeal of the far right, in every community. It doesn’t matter which manifestation of it ultimately captures their imagination. British members of ISIS are being spawned by the same Dickensian realities that are making UKIP more popular.
Security experts and elected officials have been slow to admit that inequality is a primary reason that radicalization occurs. The fashionable response is currently to argue that most foreign-born jihadists are actually middle class, so poverty doesn’t affect them. It’s more a matter of their religion, and culture. In October 2011, the Daily Mail published a classified MI5 file from Tripoli that discussed how more than 60 percent of British-born jihadists are from the middle class. It goes on to outline alternative driving factors like domestic abuse and prison sentences. It is true that jihadists have complicated pasts, and probably embraced violence for a variety of reasons. However, this is still an incredibly weak argument.
Such theories are based on the idea that the middle class is ideologically immune to economic crises – specifically, the pathologies they inspire. It’s a faulty logic, which doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. For example, in Britain, Thatcherism created a situation where the very middle class it is said to have empowered continues to feel embattled in the face of growing financial insecurity. It is not like those “middle class jihadists” magically came from households that were exempt of this logic. Besides, even if someone is wealthy, that does not exempt them from class conflicts, and awareness of social difference. Jihadism can appeal to these sensibilities, too. Particularly in terms of its distaste for both market-driven liberalism, and state socialism. This is one of the reasons for its widespread appeal, across social boundaries, especially in Diasporic Muslim communities like those in the UK.
Unfortunately, the MI5 take remains the most popular, if only because it allows the British to avoid taking responsibility for how their policies encourage trends like jihadism in the first place. Still, it’s something to watch out for, as the United Kingdom has one of western Europe’s older Muslim communities, and its security services positions appear authoritative to other European countries with younger Muslim populations, which aren’t quite as integrated, so to speak, as those in Britain.
To wit, jihadism’s ideological appeal is linked to ongoing social processes. It’s not about ideology, per se. Due to the persistence of the War on Terror, and the ongoing economic crisis, surveillance and racism are the norms of the day, making young Muslims like Reyaad and Nasser feel as though they don’t belong in countries like the UK, despite being natives. This nurtures a desire for acceptance that they find in radical groups like ISIS. It’s very similar to joining an inner-city gang, albeit a far more violent one.
This isn’t the only way to build community and confront social problems, of course. During the early days of the Arab Spring, many activists had the impression that the revolts would deliver the finishing blow to Islamic militarism. This isn’t because we thought that jihadists would be confronted directly. It’s because we believed that participatory democracy would simply be more appealing to people who wanted to transcend their alienation and fight for social change. At their best, movements like Occupy Wall Street are the perfect antidote to jihadism. They offer a sense of belonging while also seeking to substantively confront the racism and economic instability that form the root causes of radicalization in the first place.
Photograph courtesy of bixentro. Published under a Creative Commons License.