Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 12 August 2015
A small band of religiously inspired fanatics travels from Britain to the Middle East and brings destruction and mayhem. They rejoice in cruel punishments and persecution over others, which they uphold as their divine right to inflict.
Eventually they are defeated, and few right-thinking persons seek to justify their actions any more.
But enough about Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades. Or centuries of Western colonialists. What about the present day?
Newspapers abound with opinion-mongers asking why some young Muslims in Western nations have chosen to give up the democracy and safety of their homes to go and support, and even die fighting for, violent jihadist groups such as ISIS.
A vogue which recently led to Assad Uzzaman, a 25-year-old British-Bangladeshi from Portsmouth, reportedly becoming the 50th UK volunteer for ISIS to have been killed fighting in Syria.
Lately, this trend has become high profile enough to compete with the UK media’s regular hand-wringing about lewd behaviour by inebriated British tourists abroad.
The latter phenomenon was simultaneously celebrated and mocked in the 2011 film of The Inbetweeners, a sitcom about four English adolescent males in their late teens who struggle through high-school life, constantly thwarted in their desires for drink and girls by their own social awkwardness, and the indifference of parents and teachers to the bullies that prey on them. Frequently puerile and reveling in bad taste, the series is in its own way very funny and touching.
In the less appealing film version, a distinctly British take on Hollywood tales of college-age high jinx, the quartet are transported from their mundane suburban habitat to a Mediterranean holiday resort. Their hopes for sun, sea, sand, and sex come even more askew as women barely glance at them and bullies run free amid a bacchanalia of drunken debauchery.
It’s a curious mixture — a depressing vision of young people going wild combined with humour at their failed sexual encounters and sympathy for the bar-owners and hoteliers who have to clean up their mess.
While it’s tricky to get inside the heads of young Westerners who turn to violent jihad, it is not a stretch to imagine that some consciously object to the hedonistic right to party ingrained in series like The Inbetweeners.
Many Western jihadis are precisely that. Individuals deeply steeped in western culture and society, sometimes native converts; they are often not outsiders. They demonise the West not because they have not been exposed to it, but because they are actively choosing to fight against its values.
The critical difference between real life Inbetweeners and alienated jihadist volunteers is not that individuals in either group do not have the capacity to grow up and settle down. Age, responsibility, and work usually take care of that.
It’s that violent jihadists, like other iconoclasts throughout history, act on the arrogant belief that they can use violence to impose their codes on other people.
By definition, they are a self-selecting bunch, whose methods are self-defeating in winning over others and have to rely on brutality to secure control. With a few exceptions, they should be of more interest to psychologists and sociologists rather than the nexus of security analysts and terrorism consultants who are the Kremlinologists of our day.
It should be obvious that many large groups of people, not just Muslims, may be influenced by or sympathise with the global political causes which violent jihadists adopt as their own. And that very few such people in Western democracies, who disagree with their country’s foreign policy or oppose oppression in other nations, ever resort to criminality.
It actually takes highly individual combinations of alienation, quests for identity, and peer pressure to push individuals like Assad Uzzaman towards violence.
Yet, Western politicians still fall into the trap of making glib generalisations about the diverse Muslim populations in their midst. It is not as if that there aren’t deep-rooted challenges of cultural barriers, self-segregation, unemployment, and societal discrimination facing immigrant Muslim communities in the West. And yes, these should be talked about.
It’s just that solving those problems alone is not going to stop some people brainwashing themselves towards violent jihad. Worse, by intentionally, or otherwise, singling out Muslims for talks about terrorism, politicians can give succor to racists who indulge in Islamaphobia as cover for their antipathy to other ethnic groups, while also feeding the perceived sense of victimisation which Muslim extremist groups rely on to hook supporters.
The media’s tendency to simplify issues only confuses the picture. Airtime on Muslim related issues in the UK is habitually given to an inglorious mix of self-appointed community leaders, religious extremists, and ex-extremists who have recanted their views for think-tank funding. Sometimes, the same person may have been all three. Ordinary British people who rub along side by side quite peacefully enough thank you very much, whatever their faith, ethnicity, and sexuality, don’t get much of a platform.
It is little surprise then, that ever narrower fundamentalist definitions of who is and who is not a Muslim have taken root as stereotypes.
Hence, the UK press prefers to focus on the three teenage girls from British-Bangladeshi families in London who traveled to Syria to become “Jihadi brides,” rather than on the three British-Bangladeshi women who were recently elected as UK MPs in the same city. It prefers to stir up moral panics about radicalisation at mosques attended by thousands of law-abiding citizens, rather than the more likely story of teenage girls rebelling against their parents, and seeing within Salafist-type ideals greater opportunity to make their own personal choice for marriage.
Perversely, for the women recruits, their perception, however mistaken, of increasing personal choices, appears to have been a motivating factor. Whereas for the young men, being simpler creatures like their Inbetweeners counterparts, martyrdom and the sexual motivation of multiple marriages offer more easy-to-draw explanations.
The obvious difference being, of course, that the women in the world of Inbetweeners, objectified though they may be, have their own agency and are happy to ridicule and reject their sex-obsessed suitors. This invites laughter, while tales of ISIL fighters kidnapping and raping women across the Levant bring horror and revulsion.
It is important to keep a sense of perspective here. At least 210,000 Syrians have been killed in the last four years of civil war. A third of the country’s 22 million population is reported to have been displaced, with well over 3 million becoming refugees abroad.
With its historically disempowered Sunni majority, Syria has inevitably drawn Sunni and Salafi extremist groups from around the world, adding to the huge difficulties faced by more democratic anti-Assad forces.
But the 20,000 or so estimated high-profile foreign fighters are really only froth on this conflict. And when you take away those with family ties to the region, or who have ancestral roots in North Africa, the Caucasus, and Pakistan, who may feel kinship to those areas’ well-established insurgencies and fighters, then relatively few of the 3,000 recruits from Western nations are motivated simply by an appeal to help the ummah.
As with the Inbetweeners, cheap air fares and the proximity of Western Europe helped grow their numbers across the Mediterranean. In an inter-connected age, it may be inevitable, perhaps, that these worlds will keep colliding. We may well see more lone wolves wreak havoc of the sort which saw an ISIS-inspired gunman murder 38, mainly British, holiday-makers at Sousse in Tunisia last month.
Needless to say, his innocent victims were hardly Inbetweener types, being of all ages and well liked by their hosts. But then one can hardly expect consistency and rationality among terrorists. Once someone makes the decision that violence is justified, the path is open to all manner of atrocity.
Even so, I am confident the world can expect the counter-productive methods of violent jihadists to eventually, and sometimes literally, burn themselves out, so that they don’t pose a threat to wider populations.
There is nothing to gain by exaggerating their menace. Notoriety only emboldens their propaganda. Panic and giving in to the temptation to overreact is exactly what they want to induce. Being ignored or laughed at, is what they truly fear.
So, I will return to the Inbetweeners — however overtly laddish their comedy may be, the viewer recognises that, deep down, the characters are aware that sexism, racism, and homophobia are wrong, and over-indulging in alcohol is rarely attractive.
You can be fairly certain that most of their real-life counterparts will grow up to be ordinary British adults. It is precisely this capacity of UK society to nurture the civility that allows diverse communities, containing both the devout and the profane to co-exist in relative peace and harmony, that fascists, of both the white supremacist and Islamist chauvinist types, want to damage.
This is why keeping calm and carrying on is generally the best way to deal with extremism.
But plain truths still need to be spoken.
In democratic western societies, devout Muslims can and do live freely alongside irreligious Inbetweeners, and can count on fair courts to uphold human rights.
But ISIS and its ideological sympathisers do not want to live peacefully alongside anyone they disapprove of, and it is from this intolerance that discrimination, brutality, and the oppression of violent conflict so freely flow.
It is the very antithesis of the justice and peace that ordinary people everywhere, whatever their background, seek and desire.
So much for the easy bit. The wider world, even its terrorist soulmates like al-Qaeda does not like ISIS, we all know that. Sooner or later, it will destroy itself.
However, until everyone, whatever their cause, faith, ideology, or motivation, appreciates the value of democracy and moderation, and countries get better at ending conflicts, violent extremists like ISIS will still find a way to brainwash new recruits.
Convincing everyone that mutual tolerance is the best way to protect everyone is the only way out. Live and let live is not too much to ask.