As Isis continues to dominate our collective consciousness, most recently with the crucifixion of a 17-year-old boy, the government appears to be fumbling in the dark for new ways of stemming the blood from an old wound which refuses to heal; only they seem to be thinking about bigger plasters, which probably won’t do the trick. Meanwhile, somewhere in the UK, another jihadist is born.
I documented the birth of one particular jihadist in my BBC3 film My Brother the Islamist. The film charted my attempts to reconnect with Rich, who happened to be my stepbrother, to try to understand the new world he had become a part of. Ultimately the shared journey drew us closer together, but a year later he would be arrested for attempting to join the Taliban in Pakistan…
…From the moment he converted, Rich was talking about fighting western oppression and dying a martyr. In a sense, the writing was on the wall. Violent jihad was something he and his “brothers” constantly talked about. When Rich pleaded guilty to preparing to commit acts of terror in 2012, he had been planning to travel to Afghanistan to cross the border and join the Pakistani Taliban.
But I never saw Rich as a terrorist, and didn’t see any of the people he surrounded himself with as terrorists either. What I saw were, and I hate to say it – vulnerable young men – with massive great chips on their shoulders. With their radical new status they felt empowered, superior and perhaps most annoyingly for me, righteous…
…Yes, charismatic ideologues play a part in the radicalisation process. But deep down, for those who are vulnerable, it’s not really about religious conviction or saving the world from oppression or defeating the evil west – these are just emotional vents; justifications for appeasing the deep lonely spaces of the human condition. It’s about feeling important, valued and ultimately, having a stake in the world surrounding them.
So these people simply exist. If they happen to live today, the era when Islam has come to the West, they turn to Islam. In an earlier age they might have become attached to some other radical cause (such as Communism or anarchism), or become simple criminals. It is not society’s fault. That is at lame an excuse as it gets. In fact, there is likely nothing we can do to stop this. People like his brother have always existed and always will. Perhaps in a simpler society there was less of this, but are we going to return to the Stone Age over it?
Meanwhile, Islam is indisputably attracting these people. Some might be turning to other religions, but if they are, they are not making the news, or bothering other people, because they are not violent. The sanction given to violence in Islam is a powerful attractant. There is no reform of Islam without a complete repudiation of violence. Notice the significant uptick in violent converts since Islamic State began dominating the news with beheading and the like. But I think there is no interest among most Muslims to repudiate religious-driven violence.