By Daniel Hannan
August 22nd, 2014
"The experience of many ages proves that men may be ready to fight to the death, and to persecute without pity, for a religion whose creed they do not understand, and whose precepts they habitually disobey."
So wrote Thomas Babbington Macaulay, the Whig MP, historian and poet, in 1848; and, as usual, he was spot on. A leaked MI5 report on the profile of British jihadis made the same observation in more pedestrian prose. "Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly."
Mehdi Hassan has a fascinating piece in the Huffington Post, in which he reveals the books that two Brummie Muslims had ordered from Amazon before heading out to join the insurgents in Syria. Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, had not bought works on politics or advanced theology, but Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. Dummies indeed.
An alarming number of our young men – boys born and brought up in the United Kingdom – are involved with extremist paramilitaries in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. There are credible estimates that more British Muslims are fighting with Islamic State (formerly ISIS) than serving in the Armed Forces. As Douglas Murray writes in the current Spectator, this isn't even the first time that a British Muslim has arranged for the beheading of an American journalist.
What is pushing these youths into violence? Is it something in their religion, something in their socio-economic circumstances, something in their character, or something else entirely?
There are evidently several factors at work, and we should be wary of oversimplifying, but one observation made by almost all the experts who have studied Western-born Islamic militants is that they fit the classic profile of the terrorist down the ages: male, typically in their twenties or early thirties, with some education, narcissistic, lacking in empathy, lonely, unsuccessful with women, often with a history of petty crime.
What makes a terrorist different from other bellicose young men is that he has found a cause that validates his anti-social tendencies – a doctrine that teaches him that he is angry, not because there's something wrong with him, but because there's something wrong with everyone else. Islamic State thugs, like Baader-Meinhof gangsters, IRA gunmen, Red Brigaders or nineteenth century anarchists, are convinced that they can see things more keenly than others, and that this clarity of vision elevates and ennobles their aggression.
Consider Michael Adebolajo, who carried out the sickening murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. He matched the profile in almost every respect: a history of petty crime, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour, a conviction that he was better than everyone else, an obsession with violent video games, a streak of raw belligerence (neighbours recall that he once punched a girl in the face when she came to retrieve a ball). Whatever else we call such a lifestyle, it's hardly pious.
What seems to have drawn Adebolajo to murder is not religious dogma, but glamour. Like the British nationals in Syria calling for more volunteers, he had constructed a mental picture of himself as a soldier engaged in radical cause.
When critics describe the jihadis as "mediaeval" they have things the wrong way round. Mediaeval Islam was, by the standards of its day, tolerant and enlightened. The extreme form of Wahhabism embraced by the jihadis is, by contrast, a modernist philosophy. Like communism, fascism and every other -ism that promises a new dawn, it makes no concessions, either to past tradition or to human nature. It holds out a vision of something so pure that it can, in practice, never be achieved. This purity is precisely what appeals to a certain type of youngster.
Am I saying the violence has nothing to do with Islam? No, of course not. Western jihadis may be drawn by what one expert calls "a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends", but al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph, is motivated by more traditional religious enthusiasm, as are his local recruits. Such enthusiasm is rarer in non-Muslim communities: you won't find many Anglicans, say, going out to fight for their coreligionists in Nigeria. Still, it's critically important to understand the precise nature of the link. We must get our diagnosis right before we start prescribing treatment.
You often hear the argument that the solution lies in moderate Muslims speaking out more loudly against the terrorists. In fact, this is already happening: Islamic State is condemned in mosques up and down the country, and Muslim organisations routinely urge young men to join the police and Army. Several imams, indeed, have gone as far as to declare that any British Muslim who dies in the Queen's uniform, regardless of whether or not he was fighting Muslim enemies, is a martyr. But mainstream Muslims are virtually the last people the fanatics listen to. The jihadis regard them, rather as urban guerrillas regarded Social Democrats, not as allies but as traitors.
What, then, can we do? Well, for a start, we can stop taking these losers at their own estimation. Let's treat them, not as soldiers, but as common criminals. Instead of making documentaries about powerful, shadowy terrorist networks, let's laugh at the pitiable numpties who end up in our courts. Let's mock their underpants bombs and their half Jafaican slang and their attempts to set fire to glass and steel airports by driving into them and their tendency to blow themselves up in error. Let's scour away any sense that they represent a threat to the state – the illicit thrill of which is what attracts alienated young men trawling the web from their bedrooms.
At the same time, let's stop teaching the children of immigrants to despise the British state. Let's stop deriding and traducing our values. Let's stop presenting our history as a hateful chronicle of racism and exploitation. Let's be proud of our achievements – not least the defence of liberty in two world wars in which, respectively, 400,000 and nearly a million Muslims served in British uniforms.
The best way to defeat a bad idea is with a better one. Few ideas are as wretched as the theocracy favoured by IS; few as attractive as Anglosphere freedom.
I'm not saying that patriotism alone will finish the jihadis. Like the urban guerrillas in the 1970s, they must be treated primarily as a security problem rather than a political one. But what ultimately did for the Red Army Faction and all the rest was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the almost universal realisation that revolutionary socialism was no alternative to Western democracy. It comes down, in the end, to self-belief. Not theirs; ours.
Daniel Hannan is the author of 'How we Invented Freedom' (published in the US and Canada as 'Inventing Freedom: how the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World'). He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes the EU is making its peoples poorer, less democratic and less free.