Saints, jihadis and online Foxe


In a week when the PM and the Home Secretary have been making speeches in Slovakia about terrorist recruitment (at a wonderfully resonant conference called GLOBSEC), it’s odd and pleasing how serendipity stacks up complementary inputs into our thinking. This week I have been at an Open University seminar on Religious Violence and the Social Media, and then at another organized by the Islamic Studies Centre at Cambridge on Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes. In between the two, I saw Deeyah Khan’s fascinating documentary, Exposure: Jihad – a British Story. The three fit together to tell a powerful story that is amplified by thoughtful press coverage (though not necessarily by speeches at GLOBSEC, which seemed to be trying to turn the focus back onto the culpability of Muslim communities themselves).  In the background, this week has seen a family of nine, women and children from Bradford, slipping off to the ‘Caliphate;’ a teenager from Dewsbury murdering several Iraqis at Baiji with a bomb with which he also killed himself; and a convert from rural Buckinghamshire killed while taking part in a terrorist attack in Kenya. There has followed all the usual heartbreak, breast-beating and finger-pointing.

The question of ‘Why?’ is ever-present and urgent, but I don’t think we really begin to grasp the answer.  Answers are almost by definition simplistic, because the influences, pressures, perversions and deceptions that lead to mass murder, using oneself as a bomb – or to taking infants to a bloodthirsty, solipsistic enclave in the Middle East – can only be hugely complex. Furious rebuttals of each suggestion are even more simplistic, and generally focus obstinately on exceptions: the reason can’t be British foreign policy because lots of people who don’t like British foreign policy don’t join Daech. It can’t be poverty because lots of daechi fighters come from relatively comfortable backgrounds. It can’t be lack of education because many jihadis are well educated. Quite. Simple answers get simple rebuttals, and the whole conversation is pretty short on meaning.  There is presumably a kaleidoscope of reasons that form themselves into different patterns for each individual, a kaleidoscope that includes all of these and many more. In Slovakia the spotlight is being turned back onto Muslim communities and the shape of their religiosity. This too is one of the small pieces of glass in the kaleidoscope, but it isn’t in itself an answer.

One of the speakers at the OU workshop was the Manchester University ancient historian Professor Kate Cooper.  Her current field of research is the early church, and what she spoke about was martyrdom. What was the background to Roman kids – particularly girls – in Late Antiquity  going off and allowing themselves to be eaten by lions, chopped up, burned, dismembered, broken on the wheel?  She picks out three repeating scenarios: unjust suffering and moral heroism; inter-generational conflict; and ‘the marriage plot,’ and she calls these “key concepts to watch for in thinking comparatively about identity, idealism and religious violence.”  The first is about the charged nature of the stories of martyrdom, their readiness to go viral: this has always been so, as the carefully cultivated corpus of martyrdom stories shows. And not just within the Catholic church: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the only book other than the bible in most English churches in the 16th and 17th centuries, was a vector of such stories more than a millennium later.  Indignation, as Professor Cooper pointed out, is very powerful emotion and unusually communicable.  “The meaning of [the martyrs’] death,” as she puts it, “could be manipulated in memory.” Indeed so:  Daech has put Foxe online, and the slew of online video footage of brutality towards Muslims and the pathos of martyrs, is carefully calibrated for maximum viral effect.

As for inter-generational conflict, the sense that “my parents don’t understand me” is universal and  perennial; and it is instructive to be shown close parallels between the way ancient Christian ‘father figures’ and modern Muslim ‘father figures’ insert themselves into this gap. They use the implication that parents really don’t understand what it is to be young, nor do they ‘get’ the truth of religion. Adult Christian ‘handlers’ “use[d] ideas of eschatology and revelation to allow the younger generation to legitimately withdraw obedience from their (comparatively moderate) parents,”  writes Professor Cooper, and ideas like this are particularly easily spread among adolescents, going with the grain of classic – and normal – family tensions. As Daniel Koehler puts it, of jihadi recruiters: “Recruiters need to build a wall within families to distance [their targets] from their mothers.” Eschatology and revelation help here too.

And finally, ‘the marriage plot,’ the escape from pressure to marry in accordance with parents’ wishes and impersonal agendas, by submitting to the alternative parenthood of a more understanding mentor.  An age-old and powerfully motivating icon of conflicting inter-generational agendas, and today an endlessly repeated crisis for families and communities making the rapid zig-zag movement between tradition and modernity in a generation or two.

All three ring true down the ages, and tell us a good deal about what is happening today. It seems to me very useful indeed to take this frightening pattern of contemporary seduction, which can all too easily be read as uniquely evil, or uniquely a result of the social media age, or uniquely Muslim, out of any of those specific frameworks, and to see it as the outcome of careful manipulation (‘grooming’ if you like, but this choice of word is deliberately intended to draw sexual parallels which are probably a distraction) of young people at particularly manipulable moments in their lives. In both cases the intrusive mentor uses religion: but for a millennium and a half the first story has been read as good, while the second today is read as evil. The parents of the early Christian martyrs themselves would have had sympathy with the Dewsbury family, and seen their daughters’ unkempt Svengalis as unequivocally bad; but in neither case does this stop the children’s stroies being stirred ruthlessly into a viral whirlwind of propaganda and proselytism.

Deeyah Khan’s film built very clearly on this. She interviewed a small number of Muslims who had been radical, and in some cases fought jihad, under the influence of a single man, Abu Muntasir, who was a jihadi himself, a charismatic preacher and a recruiter in the 1990s. Tall, handsome and eloquent, Abu Muntasir is the ‘father figure’ that Professor Cooper was analyzing, and is described in exactly those terms by several of his one-time myrmidons. They talk of isolation, a sense of rejection by the society in which they lived as young men, of a lack of communication with their parents.  To this one of them added a physical deformity that he also felt set him apart. What they all describe is a sense of alienation from the family, local and social context in which they had grown up – were growing up – and the finding of an alternative family. The warmth of their memories was consistent. They talked of the emotional and physical embrace of a new family, of feeling valued, needed and understood. Interestingly, though disillusioned, they remembered this experience with what looked like wry affection.  Most were now imams, and – in this obviously self-selecting sample – of a peaceful outlook, working to prevent others making the mistakes they made. This involved talking openly to young Muslims about family, religious difference, marriage and sex (which one described unsurprisingly as the major preoccupation of Muslim boys who cannot in principle have any sexual contact before marriage).  Even Abu Muntasir himself talked with emotion and apparent candour about his own role, admitting clearly that he had manipulated the young men, just as they described some of the techniques of manipulation. There were tears, apparently of regret, from Abu Muntasir; but what came across, perhaps surprisingly, from all of those interviewed, was that these are normal, pleasant, even attractive people, able to talk with an accessible realism about the wasted years of their own lives.

They illustrate implicitly, and in one case spoke quite explicitly about, what one speaker at the OU called “double alienation.” A younger man, not one of Abu Muntasir’s protégés, said “When I’m in Britain, they call me a Paki: when I’m in Pakistan, they call me a Brit.” Said with humour, because as he explained, a strong new religious affiliation had drawn him away from a life of petty crime and given him a manageable and comfortable identity. He, like the older men, pointed clearly to a strong sense of not belonging, of lacking the stabilizing gimbals of family and society to help navigate through adolescence.  There was, and is, no implication that the family weren’t loving – just they didn’t understand, didn’t grasp the pressures and insecurities of doubly alienated children. And then, under the influence of the new family, the new father figure, came the poisonous insinuation that the parents “weren’t proper Muslims.”

The film focused on men, but it’s very clear that unprecedentedly many of those going off to join the jihad are women – and that women play a particular part in recruiting, publicising, stabilising and perpetuating the daechi ‘Caliphate.’ What’s less clear is why, and here my day in Cambridge gave me a clue. It was a fairly downbeat day in that it showed the routine, demoralising harassment that many Muslims undergo. What I hadn’t expected (perhaps naively) was that more than half of all recorded ‘religious’ hate crime is against women – and that 80 per cent of female victims were wearing hijab or niqab at the time of the incident. These figures are very rough (the British Crime Surveys reckon that under-reporting is well above 50 per cent), but the overall pattern is clear. Anti-Muslim hate crime is predominantly a white (73.6 per cent), male (83 per cent), young (54.2 per cent of perpetrators aged between 25 and 29) activity, generally in a public place and more often than not directed at Muslim women. Many Muslim women report being spat at as fairly routine. So, many stay at home, or in their communities, isolating themselves in homogeneous urban areas with homogeneous schools and services. It wouldn’t be surprising if some felt intolerably persecuted, and open to the suggestion that there’s a better life elsewhere. Particularly if home life in Britain isn’t all that great.

So it seems that dislocation, doubt about one’s identity, alienation from society at large and discomfort with the habits and persuasions of one’s parents open crevices in the integrity and solidarity of family life into which the determined outsider can put his jemmies and begin to lever it apart.  Arguments about ‘fault’ are often irrelevant: it’s clear that many of these families are loving and supportive. They simply don’t understand what is happening to them and their children. Like the pagan (or passively Christian) parents of ardent young converts in late Antiquity they represent a culture that their children are being induced to reject.  They stand at the lethal intersection of cultural change and malign manipulation – manipulation which employs those contagious, viral stories of suffering, martyrdom and victimhood that are so very effective.

One more factor makes this cocktail lethal: the availability of instant gratification. Most teenaged boys down the ages have fantasies about saving the world, being a hero, attracting girls, blowing away injustice at gunpoint. Most teenaged girls harbour somewhere in their minds a Heathcliff fantasy, a longing for the sort of man their parents would find totally unimaginable. In previous generations we shrugged these fantasies off and went back to our homework. One or two young daredevils ran away to join the circus, or the gypsies. A few went, in the 1930s, to fight in Spain. Today, though, there are siren voices on the internet in the privacy of a child’s bedroom, and a ticket to Gaziantep or Istanbul is half a dozen clicks away. Today you can run away to join this circus and cross the last border 24 hours later. Wish fulfilment fits inside a half-term holiday, and without a chance – perhaps ever – for second thoughts.

Serendipity continued with a very good short piece in the Guardian this morning by Sadakat Kadri. He writes that “forces other than faith are at play. One of them is the dynamic that draws young men elsewhere towards gangs. Growing up in isolated immigrant communities, they might be more likely to view the group’s macho hierarchy as a force for stability.” And of young women, “Isis blogs and Twitter accounts are filled with questions from women curious to marry fighters – because an eagerness among good Muslim girls to hook up with bad jihadi boys is a strong part of the group’s appeal.” And finally, he summarizes very usefully: “Isis offers a way of escaping stifling familial expectations, the low-level racism of wider society, and communal customs  that many British Muslims themselves don’t value. In exchange, it promises a godly cause – the defence of victimised Muslims – that draws similarly passionate people from all over the world. Troubled young men imagine a land where they can start anew, commanding respect as upholders of God’s law. Unhappy women dream of attaining happiness …”

Plus ça change …



3 thoughts on “Saints, jihadis and online Foxe

  1. Thanks for this Martin. And warm greetings from Rabat (my last week here).



    NIMAR РJan Hoogland Directeur Nederlands Instituut in Marokko/directeur Institut n̩erlandais au Maroc mail/courier: adres/adresse: 9 Rue Moulay Abdelaziz, Rabat, Marokko/Maroc postadres/adresse postale: NIMAR-locatie 430 Rabat, Postbus 12200, 2500 DD Den Haag telefoon/t̩l̩phone: +212 (0)537 66 85 00 fax/t̩l̩copieur: +212 (0)537 76 84 07 mobiel/GSM: +212 (0)679 14 63 12 website/site web:

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    1. How excellent to hear from you. I hope our paths will cross again before too long – are you heading for the Netherlands, or elsewhere? Good luck with your move, and warm wishes from under a grey Cambridge sky! Martin

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