Guest-post – The opinions expressed in the article below do not necessarily reflect the view of Quilliam.
If you’re interested in writing for the Quilliam blog, please email your submission to [email protected]
The death of 17 year old British-born suicide bomber Talha Asmal in Iraq and the family of 12 from Luton who have travelled to Syria has highlighted an important issue in the rise of Islamic State (IS): what makes such jihadist groups so attractive to those that have grown up in the liberal democracy of countries such as the United Kingdom? There are numerous cases of in which Islamists, both those raised in the faith and converts – leaving Britain to join the IS on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Islamists are distinct from ordinary Muslims in that they argue for political change based on their interpretation of Islam. It is not hard to see the appeal of Islamic State in the area of its “caliphate” – it panders to a sense of Sunni persecution brought about by civil conflict in Iraq, and it is one of the most munificent employers in the region. But what persuades young Muslims to leave Britain to fight and die for the Islamic State in the Middle East?
Firstly, it has to be noted that those who leave Britain to join IS often come from disadvantaged areas, areas that are also often high on prejudice and racism – for example, Talha Asmal and the three sisters mentioned in the above paragraph come from West Yorkshire, where in 2011 an investigation found almost 1,000 reported cases of racist in primary and secondary schools. Therefore it may well be that for some people (and which people exactly we will come onto in a moment) the caliphate serves as a sort of escape; an escape, moreover, in which they have been brought up to believe as a favourable ideal. One of the defining characteristics of IS is its sense of eschatological urgency: the caliphate exists where it does in part because of demographics and military success, but also because this is the site of Sham, greater Syria, the place where in Islamic theology the struggle between Jesus and the Antichrist will occur. The black flag of ISIS is a reference to a saying in the hadith: “The people of my family will face trials and torture and rejection until a nation comes from the east that carries with them black flags. They ask for goodness and they are not given. And they fight and they become victorious.” It is however widely regarded by Islamic scholars that such hadith are notoriously fabricated fabricated. It is with such hadith that IS justifies and promotes its own existence with this eschatological urgency, this tradition of redemption which already exists within the worldview of some followers of Islam and has been adapted for a brutal military purpose. Thus young Muslims are being in part appealed to not with something totally new, but rather an intense spin on Islam.
This highlights the key role the IS media department, Al Hayat, plays in recruiting young fighters. There is a certain romanticism of the cause – as there is in any training video for the British Army – and constant references to the “hypocrisy” of living as a Muslim in a Western society: for example, one recruitment video asks how Muslims can pay taxes in a country which then proceeds to bomb fellow Muslims in the Middle East. These videos also highlight the “normality” of IS fighters, and how within the caliphate there is a “role for everyone” to play. This idea that no one is excluded, whatever their attributes or deficiencies happen to be, is a very powerful one. There is also a sense with IS – something which they are keen to emphasise, and something which the media cannot but help report – that the momentum is currently with them in the Middle East: IS has yet to meet with a truly significant setback. To quote Disraeli, “Nothing succeeds like success.” This brings with it its own sense of glamour and moral righteousness. Just as importantly, there needs to be more counter-narratives: currently, there are limited disillusioned ex-IS fighters talking about their experiences. On the other hand, there are an estimated 30,000 pro-IS accounts on Twitter. They are now considered by many to be the largest terrorist group in history.
As true as all this is, one must still be interested in becoming a jihadist in the first place: these propaganda videos are not mandatory to watch. So what sort of people, generally speaking, do jihadist groups appear attractive to? According to the American Psychological Association, those lured into terrorism often: feel angry, alienated, or disenfranchised; believe current political involvement does not give them enough power to affect real change; identify with the perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting; believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral; and have friends or family sympathetic to the cause. There is also the “terror management theory”: a theory that people use culture and religion to protect themselves from a fear of death, which causes them to cling ever tighter to group identities, leading to extremist tendencies. Above all, these young Muslims who leave Britain to join jihadist groups – and they are overwhelmingly young – believe that they are doing something meaningful with their lives – there may be a sense of adventure, but they also feel a strong moral pull to go there.
The appeal of IS is not a passive one. Through its sophisticated use of social media, propaganda, and the firm grounding of itself in Islamic teaching (however disputed their interpretation of that teaching may be) they actively sets out to draw Islamists from western countries into their state building exercise. Often adolescents, living in deprived areas, facing prejudice every day in their local community, feeling isolated and worthless – it is no surprise that some choose to leave to Sham, where “everyone has a role”. Of course, it is only every a small proportion of any Muslim community that chooses to do so. Yet they manages to appeal to young Muslims as no terrorist organisation has before: an appeal based on positivity, current success, and slick marketing.
To read more articles on our blog, please click here.