Thomas Hobbes said: “The privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only”. As the events of the last few months, weeks, days unfold in front of our eyes, I cannot help but conclude that we, Muslims and non-Muslims, are living in an age of absurdity, in a myriad of complexity, travelling at an uncontrollable velocity, losing sight of balance and ration. For those that feel like me, perhaps we need to stop, reflect and collectively deconstruct and contextualise the irrational, to construct a rational structure and framework from which to move forward.
So we begin with “Jihadi John”, aka Muhammad Emwazi, and the problematic narrative of a “beautiful young man” driven to the edge and forced to the dark side by the British state; prevented from travelling abroad; spurned by fiancees; rejected and isolated; victimised and then radicalised by the British security services. Are we really to believe that he was driven to such desperation that the only solution for him was to land up in the Middle East as the ISIS executioner-in-chief? Herein lies the first layer of absurdity. Let us be clear and rational – Jihadi John has nothing to do with Islam; his actions are despicable, criminal and heinous in its truest sense. And even if all the facts about the British security services are true, so what? Our faith teaches us to be patient and righteous in the face of adversity. Our faith teaches between right and wrong; it teaches us that we are accountable for each and every action. As humans we make our choices, and we can choose to do right or wrong, and in doing so, we are responsible for our choices and actions. In a world of complexity, this is one simple truth for all.
But then we come to layer two of this absurdity. The British security services. The accusation made by CAGE that Muhammad Emwazi was in fact radicalised by the British security services is a controversial and bold accusation, which has polarised opinion; on the one hand many Muslims have jumped up in support of CAGE for having the courage to ‘speak the truth’; whilst on the other many commentators have been shocked by CAGE’s position, accusing it of being a front for supporting extremists. Prime Minister David Cameron has described CAGE’s position as ‘reprehensible’, while Mrs Theresa May has defended Britain’s security and intelligence services by saying: ”You might not see the work they do. You might not know the risks they take. You might not be told about the plots they stop. These remarkable men and women are true heroes. And they deserve the support and respect of every single one of us.”. Putting emotion and rhetoric aside, there are two key points to reflect on. Every country has equivalent security and intelligence services, and for the most part their role is integral for preserving the national security in age old climates of hostilities and threats. If Muslims believe that the British security services are particularly immoral and a monolithic block of evil, then perhaps they should visit the Middle East or South Asia. For the large part, British security services have a clear remit to protect this country, and they operate in difficult circumstances where difficult judgements and decisions need to be made, with limited information. In the end, these men and women are no different to us all – they perform a job within difficult structures and parameters, they are fallible and they undoubtedly try their best. As Muslims, if we believe that the British security services are Islamophobic and flagrantly abuse their power against us, then perhaps we need to consider a more meaningful way to engage with them and hold them to account.
But while I acknowledge the work of the British security services and the necessity for their existence, it is time that we asked some difficult questions and performed a real, independent and honest review. We may not like the conclusions, but if we want to create a better society, based on trust and cooperation, then emotion and rhetoric must be put aside and we must embark on a deep level of soul searching. By virtue of their covert approach and wide ranging remit to protect Britain, the security services are entrusted with a significant amount of power and trust, with vast resources and what feels like legal immunity. For this very reason, it is imperative that the security services are subject to independent review and held to account for any abuse of power, that they are entrusted with. In his article in Open Democracy, Ben Hayes makes some interesting points about the role of the British security services in Ireland. An excerpt from the article follows:
In “Suspect Community: People’s Experience of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in Britain”, Professor Paddy Hillyard produced what remains the world’s most detailed ethnographic study of the impact of repressive laws and state policies on what we now call “radicalisation”. Hillyard had interviewed more than 100 people of Irish Catholic descent and provided unequivocal evidence that their everyday treatment at the hands of the British state had boosted support for Irish republicanism, acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA and fuelled “the Troubles”. Of course it wasn’t the only “radicalising” factor: Bloody Sunday, a shoot-to-kill policy and state collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries also played their part. As of course did the violence, propaganda and popularity of organisations like the IRA.
There is much we can learn from this example, and as the Muslim community finds itself in a similar position, it is more important than ever that we all learn from mistakes of the past and understand the multiple root causes of radicalisation. He goes on to say:
The human rights group CAGE produced a 3,000 word dossier detailing Muhammad Emwazi’s treatment between 2009 and 2013. This included, inter alia, the surveillance of his movements, the interception of his telecommunications, the orchestration of his arrest in Tanzania and transfer to the Netherlands where he was interrogated by MI5, attempts to coerce him into becoming an MI5 informer, harassment of his family and fiancé, and the prevention of his resettlement in Kuwait – all in the absence of any formal allegation, charge or prospect of official recourse. Let us be clear that whatever else may have transpired since this exchange, here is a credible allegation of state-sanctioned blackmail of one of our citizens. When this was raised, we seemed to jump on a bandwagon of condemnation and demanded that Muslims “get over themselves” and condemn acts of terrorism. And so it was that the sub-optimal Kay Burley of Sky News duly began her interview with a CAGE spokesman by asking “What level of harassment by the security services here in the United Kingdom justifies beheadings?” – clearly preposterous, as if Muslims believe that it is ever justified to behead anyone.
Somewhere again, in this world of absurdity, the real point has gone missing. Politicians have cherry picked CAGE quotes to condemn them; media outlets have continued their sensationalism; others have jumped to further embed their theory of the conveyor belt; and somewhere lost in translation is the key point that security services must be regulated. The financial crisis brought to the fore the need to better regulate banks, enhance governance and implement more stringent legislation. The phone hacking scandal raised the issue of press regulation and triggered the Leveson inquiry. Perhaps it is time that an equivalent level of thought is given to the security services. The beauty of Britain is that governance, rule of law, accountability and transparency are its cornerstone. It is time we exercised these principles and institutions for the betterment of society. And as Muslims, rather than obsessing on the foreign policy narrative, constantly blaming the world for our ills and inherently believing that we are victims, let us engage productively with the government, security services, NGOs, lobbyists and think tanks to root out radicalisation, to protect the human rights of all citizens (yes, that means Muslims) and to truly foster an environment of trust and cooperation.
And now CAGE. Up to date, CAGE have done some fantastic work from highlighting the injustices faced by inmates at Guantanamo Bay and other notorious prisons, to the strong critique of counter-terror measures such as Schedule 7 and the Prevent Agenda, both of which seem to have been enacted disproportionately amongst Muslims living in Britain. Amongst Human Rights campaigners their work is respected as adding value to the cause of International Human Rights, gaining kudos from prominent figures such as Clive Stafford Smith. The work CAGE chose to do was no doubt courageous; standing up for the rights of alleged terrorists and holding the security services to account is certainly not for the faint hearted; it requires an incredible amount of skill, strategic planning and above all, a thick skin.
But on the issue of Muhammad Emwazi, I feel that CAGE have made a strategic error of judgement. Jihadi John is known in Britain as the executioner of innocent British citizens, and his mere existence is an affront to British sensibilities. Any public comment on this matter must be contextualised and public sensibilities must be taken into deep consideration, in very much the same way that Muslims expect the British press to consider Muslim sentiments and not publish cartoons of the Prophet (pbuh) and let us not forget, that unlike European counterparts, the British refrained from publishing them. In not condemning Muhammad Emwazi outright and naively referring to him as a once “beautiful young man”, many British men and women felt a deep sense of insensitivity, albeit it was never the intention of CAGE to offend. Instead, what has happened is that the credibility of CAGE and its many years of work has been questioned by a sensationalist media, and the wrong individual has been chosen as CAGE’s poster boy, namely Muhammad Emwazi. Moreover, the issue of outright condemnation is also significant; sure, British Muslims shouldn’t be bullied into condemning heinous acts undertaken by individuals living in far-flung lands who have nothing to do with us. However the situation is different for CAGE, as it would be for any Human Rights organisation working closely with such individuals. By failing to completely distance themselves from the ideologies of those whom they advocate, they have opened themselves up to the criticism of acting as a front for extremists and they have conflated their Human Rights work with acting as spokesmen for the Muslim community.
CAGE is an important Human Rights institution, who conduct their work through legitimate due process and with the right intention to protect the human rights of those who seemingly have them disregarded. But as a wider point of reflection for the Muslim community, we need to become more adept in our public communications, in our approach with the media and in our level of emotional intelligence when engaging with other communities. Being considerate of other sensibilities does not make us apologists, nor does it preclude us from robustly arguing our points and seeking accountability – it simply makes us more considerate and thoughtful Muslims and shines the light of Islam to other communities, who still have so much to learn about us.
But this said, the deeper points raised by CAGE remain valid – radicalisation has multiple roots, and we all, Muslims and non-Muslims, need to ask ourselves deep and meaningful questions to understood these roots. In doing so, we will collectively reach a point of greater understanding and find a collaborative way forward. Not doing so will simply widen the already diverging paths of the different communities, and this vacuum will continually be filled by extremists of both sides, creating greater disharmony and distrust. After all, extremism breeds counter-extremism; and as we are finding out, extremism breeds greater legal measures of counter-extremism. And so the velocity towards absurdity will increase – as Muslims we need to step up and bring some balance and ration back to the narrative. We can only do this through greater engagement in the public sphere, with wisdom and insight, using the very principles of British society – governance, rule of law, accountability and transparency. Ernest Hemingway was right when he said: “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed”. We are all vulnerable and wounded right now and we need to collectively show courage, seek and speak the truth, make sacrifices, recognise the beauty of this world and fight to better it and preserve it.