British Jihadis

At some 8,000 words Mary Anne Weaver’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “Her Majesty’s Jihadists”,  is the most detailed attempt yet to “understand the pull of jihad” for Muslims in the UK. The subtitle boldly states that more British Muslims have joined Islamist militant groups than serve in the British military. Why this is so is worth asking, I suppose, though one could alternately ask why so few British Muslims are willing to serve in a military that has, quite literally, been at war in one place or another for more than a century. As Guardian reported last year, “Next year may be the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews will not be engaged in fighting somewhere – the first time Britain is totally at peace with the rest of the world.” That belated peace was not to be as the British Parliament “voted overwhelmingly” to authorize air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. In our political culture we are not supposed to ask why individuals would willingly risk their lives for geopolitical or corporate aims. Their heroism has to be mindlessly celebrated.

In any case, Weaver’s article does not address that question. It wants to “understand the pull of jihad” for British Muslims. Her article is perhaps less interesting for what it says than for what it leaves out. There are interviews with scholars belonging to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), a man whose three son left to fight in Syria, and Moazzam Begg–an activist and a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Weaver begins her investigation by asking Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at ICSR, if he could draw a “typical jihadist profile” for her. Maher explains that the “average British fighter is male, in his early 20s and of South Asian ethnic origin” with “some university education and some association with activist groups.” Some go for humanitarian reasons and others are adventure seekers, “students of martyrdom,” and the “die-hard radicals.”

After offering various profiles of “typical” jihadists, Maher assures Weaver that the problem is not a lack of Muslim integration in the country: “We are one of the best integrated countries in Europe,” Maher says. “We have high-level Muslims in politics, including cabinet ministers; among opinion makers and journalists.” Unfortunately, Maher continues, “in the mid-to-late 1980s and the 1990s, we took in a number of dissidents, a new wave of Muslim preachers, who integrated into the heart of British Muslim life … They were the ones who opened the debate in the mosques on ‘What is the Caliphate? What role does, or should it play, in everyday Muslim life?’ A lot of young people who go to Syria today were infants when the debate began, so this is what they’ve grown up with; it was the mood music of their lives.”

We find out later that Weaver is not completely convinced about Muslims being integrated into British life. In East London she immediately realizes that she is “the only woman not wearing a hijab, or head scarf, or a full veil.” This makes her “self-conscious” and wonder about “the degree of assimilation, and integration, of Muslims here.” This bizarre association between hijabs and integration aside, there is something to be said about militant Islamism becoming the “mood music” in the late mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s. Maher traces this to Muslim preachers arriving in the UK and raising new religious questions which had, until then, been absent from the country. Crucially, he leaves out, the Cold War US/UK aim to counter nationalist and socialist movements in the Third World drove the British government to empower right-wing Islamist movements. In the UK itself this resulted in the state forming relationships with religious groups and individuals to circumvent independent (and secular) Muslim organizations.

Aside from assorted profiles of “typical” jihadists and Moazzam Begg’s explanation about the religious legitimacy the Islamic State enjoys, Weaver’s investigation into “the pull of jihad” doesn’t really go anywhere. The striking thing about Weaver’s article is that it provides no background on just who British Muslims are: their national and ethnic origins, class positions, political and religious beliefs, relations with various state institutions, etc. We learn nothing about British Muslims which may help explain their decision to leave the UK and join right-wing militant Islamist groups. We don’t, for example, learn about the British intelligence’s “campaign of blackmail and harassment” of Muslims “in an attempt to recruit them as informants.” Government surveillance of Muslims, hate crimes and routine discrimination against Muslims, record levels of imprisoned Muslims, material deprivation in Muslim communities, and countless other examples are nowhere in Weaver’s account.

What Weaver’s account in fact does is shift the terms of the debate onto an ideological terrain from which the political realities of British Muslims are almost wholly absent–realities which intersect in important ways with state policies. When the daily realities of British Muslims do enter the conversation they do so within a pop-psychological framework. This is not a novel approach. The controversial Rolling Stone cover story on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev–one of the Boston Marathon bomber–did much of the same. Family troubles is a more comforting explanation than US violence. Weaver’s article sought to investigate the “pull of jihad” for British Muslims and, following the footsteps of terrorism experts, neatly located it in an outside ideology. There is no need to worry about state policies and their consequences when one can safely point fingers outward.