The British press has been in a frenzy recently over nineteen-year-old Shamima Begum and her desire to return to the UK from the refugee camp in Syria where she currently resides. There are probably very few people in the UK who are unaware that Shamima travelled from the UK to ISIS territory in Syria at the age of fifteen, where she married an ISIS militant, conceived and lost two children before giving birth to a third (who also passed away) in the refugee camp in Syria she currently calls home.
It is also unlikely that many people in the UK are unaware of her apparent indifference to the atrocities committed by ISIS, or the fact that she justified the terror attack in the Manchester Arena by pointing to the bombings in Syria. The tabloid media was, and is, baying for her metaphorical blood by advocating that she should have her citizenship revoked, and to hell with her.
Whilst there are some prominent dissenting voices, very few commentators have pointed to the fact that Shamima is a symptom of ingrained institutional failures that must be addressed if Islamic terrorism is to be countered. The media discussion about whether she should be permitted to return to the UK is a distraction from the entrenched structural violence within our society, which we should be focusing on instead.
Shamima’s inarticulacy and defiance in interviews with journalists has not endeared her to anyone. She’s undoubtedly an idiot. ISIS is a group for whom the worst of everything should be reserved, but we should not forget that Shamima and her friends were deliberately targeted and groomed by ISIS members – who are skilled predators. Happy, confident teenagers who feel they are a valued component of society are not susceptible to being groomed. The individuals who groom on behalf of ISIS know exactly who they are looking for: the vulnerable, the marginalized, the demonized and the alienated. With this in mind, both the UK government and media are ISIS’ most useful recruitment tools.
In 2016 the Independent reported on how British media is responsible for the rise of Islamophobia in Britain by printing misleading headlines and poor reporting, with corrections buried deep in the small print of later editions. It also reported that only 0.5 per cent of journalists in Britain are Muslim. The effect of this biased and often sensationalist reporting is a type of insidious hysteria. For example, Muslims comprise less than five per cent of the British population, yet in 2016, a study showed that more than half of Britons see Islam as a threat to western democracy. Alarmingly, over thirty per cent of young children think that Muslims are ‘taking over England.’
How have we come to the stage where parents are pressing this crap upon their children?
The media and scaremongering rightwing politicians have a lot to answer for. Continuous irresponsible and misinformed reporting by the press serves to constantly communicate to British Muslims that white British people (for this demographic is usually the author and connoisseur of such rubbish) don’t view them as either British or welcome. According to a recent UK government report, between 2015 and 2018, there were 39,000 incidents of religiously motivated hate crime each year, of which Muslim adults were most likely to be the victim.
All of the above can only have a traumatizing effect on young British Muslim minds, and is bad enough taken in isolation, but Shamima and her friends also had the pleasure of attending school under the watchful and bigoted eye of the PREVENT strategy – the counter-radicalization programme that has been mired in controversy for years. Rather than intervening in a sensitive manner to help young people who are vulnerable to radicalization, PREVENT demonizes and alienates Muslim students, potentially increasing the number of students who are susceptible to being groomed by extremists. PREVENT has succeeded in further sowing division and suspicion, simultaneously reinforcing the message that “you are not one of us and never will be”.
Recent PREVENT failures, including a teacher reporting a student for mistakenly believing that the student was wearing a t-shirt with an ISIS slogan on it, another student being reported to PREVENT for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ t-shirt (we should all have one of those in our wardrobe), and a counter-terrorism student being questioned by PREVENT for carrying a textbook entitled ‘Terrorism Studies’.
I’m pretty sure terrorists do not make a habit of strolling around with a copy of the latter tucked under their arm.
Is it any wonder that a handful of young British Muslims fall prey to extremist groups? Given the daily barrage of alienating messages communicated at all levels of society and in all public spaces, I wonder how more young Muslims are not becoming radicalized. I’d take a guess here that it is the families and Muslim communities who support and raise these young people who should take the credit for the latter, because the government is failing abysmally.
Moving on from governmental failures at a national level, I’d now like to expand our exceptionalist and eurocentic field of vision, by referring to a comment Shamima made which understandably outraged many people. She stated in an interview (presumably because she’s an idiot) that the Manchester Arena terror attack was justified.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, between 183,030 and 205,514 civilians have been killed.
There are three points to be made here. First, there is never an excuse for the murder of innocent civilians. Secondly, Shamima has spent a significant period of time under ISIS rule, where critical thinking or expression of humanist principles is punishable by death. Perhaps she means what she says in her core, but she could also be engaging in a learned survival mechanism of adhering to what she is told to do by mindlessly repeating ISIS propaganda. It is likely that militants or sympathizers live alongside her in the Syrian camp where she currently languishes, and though she is not longer living under direct ISIS rule, that doesn’t necessarily equate to safety. My final point, which correlates with my first point, is to emphasize that there is never an excuse for the murder of innocent civilians – regardless of their race, ethnicity, colour, religion or place of birth.
British and Western hypocrisy is hard to stomach regarding this last point. The children killed in the Manchester Arena bombings are quite rightly mourned as victims – that attack was horrendous. But innocent Iraqi, Afghan or Yemeni children murdered by British armed forces or arms are referred to only as a numerical statistic used to demonstrate the extent of collateral damage caused by a British-supported war. Such collateral damage may be described as “unfortunate”, but more often it will be referred to as “necessary” or “unavoidable”. These innocent lives will largely go unrecorded and unspoken of. British media will not refer to them by name (if it refers to them at all) and few British people will be outraged by their deaths. The number of innocent lives stolen in British-supported conflicts in just three Muslim countries is immense.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, between 183,030 and 205,514 civilians have been killed. The numbers are so high, there is a dedicated website called Iraq Body Count.Can you imagine a scenario whereby there is a need for a monitoring group to establish a website called ‘British Body Count’? Why is it acceptable for one and not the other? In Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, over 40,000 civilians have been killed, with last year being the deadliest year so far. And finally, thanks to Britain selling arms to Saudi Arabia and supporting its ongoing attack on Yemen, we are directly complicit in the killing of over 6,000 Yemenis. The situation in Yemen is dire, with 8.4 million at risk of severe famine, seventy five per cent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, and 1.1 million people affected by the current cholera epidemic. Combine the alienation of British Muslims with the complete disregard for Muslim life in the Middle East and Asia, and it really is not hard to fathom how some young Muslims become radicalized.
Dr Anne Speckhard and Dr Ardian Shajkovci of the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism write that ISIS has a ‘strong “brand” in terms of selling the idea of bringing a fundamental change to the existing political, social and economic world order.’ If we are smart we will demand the same thing, but on our own terms. If we are serious about eradicating terrorism we need to focus on the root causes. We should demand an end to the prevailing neoliberal international order and its incessant capitalist war machinery. We should demand the right to build stronger communities and work towards them by promoting trust and cooperation so we can unite in the face of inhumane governance and divisive media. We should be working towards a global society that is free from both state and extremist terror, where poverty and preventable illness are no longer pervasive, and in which people can reach their full potential according to how they define themselves, rather than how we seek to define them.
Denmark has been leading the way in counter-radicalization and rehabilitation of extremists for several years, proving that by taking a creative, grassroots approach it can be done. The susceptibility of young British people to radicalization is indicative that as a society we are failing. We should bring Shamima back, rehabilitate her, and prioritize making fundamental changes to our society so that it works for all, regardless of religion, colour, gender or any other potentially divisive factor. This way we rise above the “eye for an eye” barbarism that we claim to oppose, whilst taking the first steps towards a safer future.
Author’s note: As this article has grown from the maelstrom surrounding Shamima Begum, Islamic terrorism was the focus, but this is not to detract from the growing and pervasive nature of right wing terrorism, the eco-terrorism carried out by big business, or the various forms of state terrorism (though the latter indeed intersects with this topic).
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