The shocking beheading of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State (IS) has appalled many around the world, but especially audiences in Europe and North America. The fact that the executioner had a strong British accent has also generated cause for concern. This does not come as a surprise, though. Indeed, the choice to have a British national to carry out the execution is an obvious one, since the video was clearly made for a Western audience. It seeks to instill fear in the minds of Western policymakers with a view to deterring them from military intervention in the region.
Anyone who has been following this conflict, even fleetingly, should not be surprised by British jihadist involvement. According to the most recent estimates, there are around 400-500 British Muslims in Syria/Iraq fighting for groups like IS. These statistics don’t include the British jihadists that have gone to Yemen to join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Somalia to join al-Shabaab or the Afghanistan/Pakistan region to fight alongside Taliban-linked factions. They also miss out other individuals that are supportive of groups like IS but have not been able to join them in the battle field.
The bottom line, here, is that we have a significant problem with Islamist extremism in the UK that we seem to be reluctant to face up to. Even more worrying than that is the fact that our government does not have a coherent strategy for tackling extremism when it is at the non-violent stage, which means individuals and organisations doing counter-extremism work are not receiving anywhere near sufficient support from the government. What we have instead is a government that it is good at talking tough and promising action but then not following up. However, in the current situation, inaction is untenable.
It is important to note that jihadist groups like IS are not mafia-style organisations that rely on key personalities. Individual leaders and commanders, while important to any terrorist group, are easily replaced, with the brand remaining largely unaffected. We are dealing with ideologically driven organisations that routinely produce new leaders, strategies and tactics as they continually attract recruits. Their key strength, therefore, is their narrative. Shocking as it may sound, their ideas are attractive to some people to the extent that hundreds, born and raised with the comforts of life in the UK, are prepared to
desert loved ones and all that is familiar to risk their lives for such groups.
The manner in which we understand IS is crucial because it shapes our response to them. Put simply, they are an ideological movement that seeks to replace secular, democratic, dictatorial, or just non-Islamist governments with brutal jihadist rule. This helps us to understand their weaknesses, that theirs is a game of ideas. As such, to tackle it, we need to systematically discredit, expose and undermine the narrative with which they insulate themselves. There is really no alternative to deconstructing their narrative with a view to making it less appealing amongst impressionable young people.
Thus far, Islamist and jihadist groups have monopolised the discourse amongst vulnerable Muslim youths on issues such as the conflict in Syria. What is needed, therefore, is a much wider and inclusive debate that exposes young Muslims and others to alternative perspectives and narratives. This does not necessarily imply justifying Western foreign policy or offering a particular framework through which global conflicts can be framed. Rather it is important to ensure vulnerable youths are included in more mainstream debates about key issues and, thus, are exposed to other points of view as well as critiques of Islamist and jihadist ideology.
However, such work cannot take place if we don’t have a robust and bold civil society sector that does not shy away from contentious issues and feels empowered and supported by other sections of society to do this important work. Nor can this work take place with a government that puts its head in the sand and fails to develop a workable strategy to tackle extremism. Finally, we also need Muslim community-based organisations to do more and amplify their voices whilst challenging the conspiratorial and denialist thinking that dominates contemporary Muslim political discourse.
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