ISIS recruits are often portrayed in the West as having been ordinary people prior to some sudden moment of radicalisation, shortly before they carry out their attacks. This is sometimes a false impression. The Manchester bomber Salman Abedi was reported, after the attack, to have had a “wild youth”; but on closer inspection, it turns out he had been reported to the authorities five years before the attack. Not such a sudden conversion.
The researcher Mubaraz Ahmed, at the Centre for Religion and Geopolitics, found that 51 per cent of prominent jihadis had graduated to violence from organisations that were radical but non-violent – most especially, the Muslim Brotherhood. “Non-violent” in this context means not actually practising violence, but these organisations do tend to glorify and promote the concept of violence while saying that it would be politically inopportune at this moment in time.
What is more challenging: the trend towards terrorist violence is rooted in beliefs and attitudes that are quite widely shared among Muslims. The idea of suicide bombing was once anathema but was normalised when it was used against America (with the blessing of Shia clerics) and then Israel (when the Sunnis approved it, too.)
Such attacks came to be called “martyrdom” operations. It was seen as the only resort of a defenceless people: the Palestinians, whose sufferings were broadcast nightly into every Arab home.
Few were willing to condemn it; doing so was made to seem like a betrayal of the Arab cause. This tolerance bred a monster. Now suicide bombing has become the curse of the Muslim world, a blasphemous attempt to make the slaughter of innocents even more gruesome by invoking the name of God.
Just as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was what legitimised suicide bombing, the brutal Syrian conflict revived Sunni extremism and terrorism. Again, pictures of atrocities were pumped into Arab homes; again, a wave of anger empowered the bloodiest and most vicious of Assad’s enemies. And deep down, sad as it is to say, there was not very much concern for the victims, especially Shia and non-Muslim victims, of these terrorist groups. Even the anti-ISIS propaganda which one sees in the Arab world usually focuses only on their Muslim victims. The culture of respect for other faiths is skin-deep in most parts of the Middle East.
What can the Catholic Church do about this? It has no real influence with the extremists themselves. Pope Francis has done much to endear himself to the average Muslim, and no doubt this does cut away at the extremists’ support base, but ISIS still wants to kill him. Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio stood up for the victims of Assad, but was still kidnapped by ISIS and never released. These examples do count for something – besides their being virtuous in themselves – but they are not enough.
There needs to be a saner, bolder and better-informed debate around what should be respected as part of religious freedom, and what should be discouraged (or even banned) as ultimately laying the ground for hatred and violence. The British Government, in particular, seems to need some help with this. Dame Louise Casey, an adviser on community integration, suggested in January that Catholic schools should not oppose gay marriage (though she later backtracked). Might a belief in gay marriage then be forced on Muslims too? The quest to avoid violence could then become, in the hands of an ignorant government, a weapon to interfere with religious belief. And contrast this with the years that it took to put the radical cleric Abu Qatada behind bars, when he had specifically legitimised the murder of women and children.
There is a mismatch here, and the government does need to identify where religious belief genuinely does cross the line. The Church has occasionally had its share of violent religious radicalism, and can use its experience – and its many years of maintaining religious views more conservative than the society around it, while being politically loyal to that broader community – to help both the government and Britain’s Muslim communities to agree some kind of sensible compromise.
Gerard Russell is a former diplomat whose book on Middle Eastern religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is published by Simon & Schuster UK. He is a trustee of Aradin, a charity dedicated to preserving the culture of historic minorities in the Middle East