ANYONE who has lived in Britain long enough is used to hearing apocalyptic warnings about the threat from Muslim extremism, but given their provenance—anonymous intelligence “sources”, right-wing think tanks and scaremongering tabloids—they are often met with a yawn. However, it is less easy to be so dismissive when the country’s most senior Muslim police officer decides to speak out—and on record as a Scotland Yard commander and the head of its community engagement programme in London—as Mak Chishty did last week. The Muslim community, he suggested, was in danger of sleepwalking into a new phase of extremism propounded by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, or I.S.), if it did not exercise greater vigilance, and those most at risk of radicalisation were children.
Children as young as six, including those from moderate and stable families with no history of extremism, were being influenced by the ISIS’ “powerful” propaganda. The threat was so serious that he worried about his own children, he said. “I am not immunised. If I feel the need to be extra vigilant, then I think you need to feel the need to be extra vigilant,” he warned fellow Muslims. Chishty’s warning, in an interview to The Guardian , came as the police said they were investigating the case of a 16-year-old London girl who had run away to become a “jehadi” bride. Radicalisation of British Muslims is not new. What is new, if Chishty is right, is that it is now spreading to schoolgoing children. More troubling is the scale on which it is claimed to be happening. Often, it happens at home via older siblings who have already been radicalised. It is not a coincidence that among those who have gone to join the ISIS several are brothers or otherwise related. Indeed, it has become every British Muslim parent’s nightmare that their child may be secretly plotting something.
“Every time I hear that another youth has fled to Syria or is arrested, I start worrying about my own kids,” said an East London Muslim bus driver. Chishty believes that the threat can be contained if parents intervene at an early stage by watching out for “subtle, unexplained changes” in their children—such as “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol, social occasions and Western clothing”. Parents must not only keep a closer eye on their children but also robustly “challenge” their behaviour if they find it suspicious, he said prompting criticism that this will lead to parents “spying” on their own children. Such “Stasi-style” surveillance, critics argue, could damage family relations besides proving counterproductive as children would become more secretive.
Chishty has also been accused of exaggerating the threat. Maybe he is. Police officers, even well-meaning ones, tend to overstate the case for the prosecution, but that should not become a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The important fact is that radicalisation is happening, and if someone better informed than the general public and ostensibly a friend of Muslims issues a warning, even if with a slight exaggeration to drive home the point, one should take it seriously.
In recent months, there have been several cases of teenage girls secretly travelling to Syria to join the ISIS, the most famous one being that of three East London schoolgirls—Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, dubbed the “runaway trio”—who disappeared from their homes earlier this year and ended up in Syria. A former female ISIS “commander’’, who deserted the group and is now on the run in fear of her life, has revealed that there is a systematic campaign to lure young women. The woman, who calls herself Um Asmah, said the ISIS had “a well-structured grooming system that can psychologically target vulnerable youngsters like the three British girls”. “They have educated people who know how to deal with [the] psychology of others. They have ways to attract people, especially foreigners. [The] I.S. has the ability to manipulate the minds of young people.” She said the London trio was “probably groomed by highly coordinated social media experts” whose job is to identify and brainwash vulnerable women. “The I.S.’ propaganda and grooming machine consists of foreign fighters working in Raqqa (Syria) Internet cafes in shifts which are coordinated to world time zones,” she said.
In the good old pre-ISIS days, Islamism was largely an all-male affair. Most often, women did not even know what their menfolk (husbands, sons, boyfriends, brothers) were up to until after the event. But the ISIS has changed all that. It runs a slick online operation specially designed to brainwash women into believing that it is their religious duty to help and support those “fighting” for Islam. A Frenchwoman gave an interesting account about how she was sought to be seduced by an online jehadi. She pretended to play along to find out how far he would go; when he suggested that she join him, she decided that enough was enough and dumped him.
Much has been written about why educated young men from stable families turn to violent extremism. Alienation from the wider society in which they live, a sense of adventure, their longing for a purpose in life, and backlash against Islamophobia are some of the reasons often cited. But there is no serious study on what makes academically bright girls want to become “jehadi” brides though some have suggested that it gives them a sense of “empowerment” and equality with men. A lot of the discussion on the ISIS’ appeal has centred round its extremely effective communications and recruitment operation: its glossy online magazine, slick videos and use of evocative language. But does this really fully explain its global pull? There is a view that its shock-and-awe tactics —“packaged as an online video game”, as The Times put it—are what really makes it attractive to bored young men looking for thrills. But this so-called “adventure theory”, boys high on testosterone rushing to the deserts of Arabia for adventure, completely ignores the role of religious extremism, which, in this correspondent’s view, remains the dominant pull factor. Broadly, there are three categories of people attracted to the ISIS. First are those inspired by its extreme interpretation of Islam and the idea of restoring Islam to its original glory by establishing an Islamic caliphate. This is the largest category and comprises people from across the globe. Then, there are those with specific agendas/grievances: anti-Assad, anti-Shia Iraqi regime, anti-Iran and anti-Saudis. They are drawn mostly from among Syrian/Iraqi exiles or their descendants settled in the West. The adventure seekers make up the last and perhaps the smallest category. Some also go for what is sold to them as purely humanitarian reasons such as helping with relief work, but once there they are drawn into extremist activities. One significant common element in all these cases, whether involving men or women, is that just before taking the plunge they suddenly become religious and start to drift away from their old friends. Whatever be the other reasons, religion remains the main motivating factor.
Finally, no discussion of Muslim extremism would be complete without a mention of anti-Muslim prejudice because it does shape Muslim attitudes. According to a study by an anti-racist campaign group, one-third of young non-Muslim Britons think that Muslims are “taking over” the country while another study reveals that as many as 52 per cent believe Islam is incompatible with British values. Yet, despite such sectarian misconceptions and biases, community relations in Britain in 2015 are markedly better than they were only a few years ago. And as someone who has lived through the worst phase of Muslim extremism and Islamophobia in the past 15 years or so, I should know.