In order to persuade young Muslims that their allegiance belongs here, this country will have to question its own casual self-loathing.
In the midst of the deeply unfunny news coverage of the two young British jihadi volunteers who were arrested on terror charges when they arrived back from Syria, there was one moment of comic absurdity. It seems that before setting off on their mission, Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar found it necessary to place orders with Amazon for those invaluable scholarly treatises, Islam for Dummies, The Koran for Dummies and Arabic for Dummies. Hilarity aside, there is something important to be noted here.
First, these 22-year-olds were obviously not the products of some extreme mosque which had drilled them in Islamist fundamentalism. In fact, they were so untutored in the religion to which they were nominally affiliated that they had to equip themselves with a crash course in its basic principles. Nor had they come from families which were inclined to endorse their terrorist fantasies. Indeed, their own parents were so horrified when they learned of the men’s activities that they turned them in to the police. So we need to ask, as a matter of urgency, where it came from, this bizarre determination to be inducted into a campaign of seditious murder that (we can assume from their decision to plead guilty to the terror charges) they fully intended to bring home with them. What causes young men to risk their own lives, and those of who knows how many others, for a cause about which they know so little that they have to mug it up before they catch the plane?
Actually, this kind of thing is not unprecedented: romantic death cults involving nihilistic violence and garbled philosophy have a well-established attraction for the young. (Even suicide is a form of power, to choose your own death being the ultimate expression of omnipotence.) What is peculiarly dangerous about this version is that it has a global power base. This is not a handful of neo-Nazi fantasists plotting in a suburban garage, or a clique of misfit teenagers arming themselves for a school shooting spree. There are international, well-funded movements churning out professional recruitment videos designed specifically to invade the daydreams of the credulous Ahmeds and Sarwars of Britain and lure them into annihilation.
There has come to be something of a consensus that this is a problem that only the moderate Muslim community can deal with through its own moral authority. But parents as courageous and civically responsible as these two would-be jihadis had are not going to be ten-a-penny. And it is unfair for the society at large to wash its hands and leave it all to the families and the neighbours, most of whom are as new to all this as we are. If too many young Britons are drawn to a hateful, barely understood dogma because it seems to bring some magical sense of belonging, then something is clearly wrong with their lives in this country. There is apparently nothing on offer here that can compete with the promise of exaltation that is available for the price of a plane ticket.
Contrary to all the educational shibboleths of our time, young men are motivated by aggression and power: their dreams are of glorious triumph over rivals. If they are denied these things – even in the ritualised forms that used to be provided by an education system that understood how dangerous male adolescence was – then they will seek them wherever they can be found. Gang violence, with its criminal initiation rites, or Muslim fanaticism can fill a void, offering not just a licence for brutality but for banding together into hostile tribes. There was a time – before characteristically male behaviour was devalued in favour of the female virtues of empathy and conciliation – when these proclivities were dealt with quite effectively by combative team sports and military cadet corps. Institutionalised aggression was supervised by adult authority until the young men grew up and became responsible for their own impulses.
But now that the Western powers are clearly withdrawing from the global policing business, what point could there be in the quasi-military training which provided such a useful outlet for youthful male energy? As the great Atlantic nations recede into domesticity and quieter recreations, what are young men likely to do with their ungovernable instincts? Look abroad, presumably – to somewhere with which they can feel some plausible identification, even if that relationship does require a bit of homework. And that path is made particularly compelling by the self-flagellating guilt with which Britain (and much of the West) regards its own history. Most of what is taught in school about the British past is designed to induce remorse – over colonialism, imperial exploitation and vainglorious nationalism. It is not utterly beyond the bounds of reason to conclude from this, if you are searching for a cause, that you are morally justified in avenging the historic wrongs that were inflicted on your race.
There has been – until very recently – a carefully considered educational policy of encouraging pride in minority ethnic identity. The assumption was that pressuring pupils to be wholeheartedly British would be not just “racist” (because it implied that British was better) but disorienting to the child who needed to identify with “his own community”. So here we are – with a generation of British-born young people eager to identify with a community that it isn’t really “theirs” at all, and which they know so little about that they need to study the crib notes in order to fit into it.
All of this coincides rather too neatly with the decline of the West as a global force. That retreat from power has an impact on this phenomenon on more than one level. It downgrades our effectiveness in dealing with the foreign forces who are seducing these recruits. Our wilful helplessness in the tumultuous throes of Middle East power play, and apparent indifference to the suffering being inflicted in Syria by the Assad regime, must make it so much easier to see our side as defunct and defeated. We must seem to be conniving at our own humiliation – almost to be suggesting that we are the losing side now and that we deserve everything that militant Islam can dish out.
If we expect law-abiding, loyal Muslims to handle this problem, we are going to have to give them a lot more help. The parents and the mosques and the communities can condemn as much as they like – and to their credit they have done a great deal of that over recent months. But these are displaced people themselves who need support in order to understand the values of British culture. In order to persuade their sons (and some of their daughters too) that their allegiance belongs to this country, Britain will have to question its own casual self-loathing. And the West will need to consider the larger consequences of its cynical isolationism.