It’s always a mistake to listen to BBC Radio 4 before going to bed, and yesterday evening’s The World Tonight had me ranting like Bruno Ganz. The programme was on the subject of Jihadi John, revealed to be Mohammed Emwazi from Kuwait via Maida Vale, and the reasons why he decided to go around chopping off people’s heads.
The BBC gave a large amount of airtime to a spokesman from the advocacy group Cage, who argued that Emwazi had been hassled by the security services when he went off on an innocent holiday to east Africa and so was forced into radicalisation. Jihadi John was such a nice young man that he even brought expensive baklava to the Cage people when he saw them. What a sweetie.
Why do people find it strange that someone can be nice and friendly to them and yet do awful things to someone else? Even a murderer doesn’t murder everyone he meets. I used to work for a company that employed a man who had murdered; while he was always pleasant and polite to me, it would be absurd for me to rush to his defence based on these small niceties. We judge people by their highest and lowest actions.
Only later in the programme did an expert on terrorism point out that, if you hang around a lot of known terrorists, as Emwazi did, then the security forces are going to trouble you.
The reality is that, as the reports in today’s paper show, Emwazi enjoyed a lifestyle far more comfortable than that of the vast majority of his contemporaries in poor Iraq and Syria. Courtesy of the British taxpayers, he had received free social housing in a nice area, a free education and free healthcare. Despite this, he grew up to hate Britain.
I say “despite this”, but “because of this” might be more accurate. Islamism is a product of globalisation and the alienating process of mass immigration, which is dangerous for young men from authoritarian conservative societies who are thrown into highly permissive and morally uncertain ones.
The idea that people are radicalised because Britain isn’t progressive enough is absurd. Many young Muslims drawn into extremism do not like the Left’s progressive agenda, and are repulsed – as well as fascinated – by liberal Britain’s hyper-sexualised culture. They want a mirror image of what some white conservatives want: cultural dominance and the comfort of people like them. That’s the attraction of Islam, both in its more benign and violent forms. But the alienation these men feel is not primarily spiritual; radical Islam is, in fact, a political movement that has latched on to a religion. French professor Olivier Roy has called Islamism “a negative form of Westernisation”. He argues that “fundamentalism and radical violence are more linked with Westernisation than a return to the Koran”.
The phrase “Islamofascism” may be loaded and simplistic, but in its appeals to thwarted masculinity, a return to ancient values and a rejection both of reactionary parents and decadent contemporaries, Islamism’s appeal is similar. Like Fascism, fundamentalism is itself a mixture of the radical and reactionary, opposed to both tradition and liberalism. Fundamentalists are disconnected from traditional cultures and so look to the comfort of certainty given by ancient texts. In its rejection of arranged marriages, which fundamentalists regard as a Hindu custom, and its embrace of Western gang culture, Islamism is a recognisably modern response to the great age of movement and disconnection. It is growing in the West because the religion of the Second World is clashing with the secularism of the First.
Meanwhile self-hatred, expressed in the casual anti-Western atmosphere of universities, also effortlessly feeds into Islamism. Many of the most dangerous radicals in Britain were politicised in higher education, and a Home Office report in 2011 concluded that campuses were major recruiting grounds for radical Islam.
A sense of alienation is common to many immigrants. Living between two cultures can often inspire wonderful introspection and, in the strong-willed, talented or wealthy, it can produce great art, literature and comedy. But most people are not especially gifted, and those same forces of uncertainty can also lead to mental collapse, manifested in higher rates of schizophrenia, suicide and extremism.
Hassan Butt, a former spokesman for the Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun, has said: “When I went back to Pakistan I was rejected. And when I came back to Britain, I never felt like I fitted into the wider white community.” Neither British nor Pakistani, many young men instead latch on to other, pan-national identities.
Emwazi is a classic example of 21st-century globalisation. He is taking part a very globalised war in which thousands of people from around the world are flocking to kill in the name of an imagined community based on faith. I just feel sorry for the people of Iraq and Syria, few of whom ever had the great privileges he enjoyed.
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