“Angry Muslims” and the radicalisation narrative in Syria

by Susannah O’Sullivan

The Today programme on Radio 4 asked this morning ‘what makes British men so angry that they want to fight in foreign wars overseas?’ With the British Army still currently deployed in a thirteen-year long war in Afghanistan, and the US perched to launch military strikes on ISIS in Iraq after an unsuccessful 8 year bloodbath of a war there last decade, it might seem like the BBC was asking a pertinent and critical question for once. What makes those suited men in Westminster and Washington so angry that they want to fight in foreign wars overseas, bombing schools and wedding parties in the lengthy process of destruction and reconstruction in the name of freedom? How did these guys become so radicalised? Perhaps there should be government strategy programme to tackle radicalisation and extremism in British public schools, a murky group of independent and under-regulated institutions where the majority of Westminster’s frontbench were educated.

Except that wasn’t the story on Radio 4 this morning. The presenter wasn’t introducing a searching piece asking about the reasons why a succession of British and US elites are willing to send young men and women to save/slaughter Muslim men, women and children across the Middle East and Asia. It wasn’t about the continual silent savagery of drone strikes which were re-launched last week after a brief hiatus, killing 16 ‘militants’ in two strikes in Pakistan. The question on Radio 4 this morning was about the concerns over the number of British Muslim men travelling to Syria, and now Iraq, to fight in conflicts there. Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, the former Security and Counter-Terrorism Minister and now on the National Security Council, said that “unfortunately the UK exports more young men to become jihadis in Europe than any other.” Not an export the UK government will be particularly proud of, and one which has given the recent omnishambles over radicalisation in British schools an added sense of hysteria and panic. If men are travelling to Iraq, they is a high risk, according to Neville-Jones, that a “sufficient number of Brits will be radicalised.” Last month former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg was detained in Britain facing terror charges after travelling to Syria. Begg works for human rights group Cage, which campaigns for the rights of those detained in the ‘war on terror’. His activities on this front may have riled the UK government, although his detention is part of a wider strategy on the part of the UK to control the events in Syria through determining the legitimacy of violence there.

Begg’s detention is symbolic of a systematic demonization of Islam, and Muslim men in particular in Britain which has historic roots in our imperial past but which has taken an increasingly extremist nature in the past decade of counter-terror. This demonization can be seen in the representation of terror suspects to the continual drip-feed of stories about the barbaric practices of halal meat, veiled women, forced marriages and honour killings. It plays out in a number of everyday spaces, from the stop-and-search of Muslim men in Britain to the surveillance of mosques in New York, to the risk management of British travellers to Pakistan. These are the mundane realities of an endless logic of counter-terror which has successfully othered and marginalised the Muslim population of Britain.

This logic informs the suspicion under which refugees from Syria are placed at the UK border, even after the UK government proposed an armed intervention last August to save Syrians from Assad’s tyrannical regime. It informs the logic through which British men travelling to Syria to fight or give aid are deemed threats to UK security even as the UK government campaigned to supply arms to the Free Syria Army, who are also fighting the Assad regime. This seemingly nonsensical discourse on the violence in Syria makes sense because counter-terror is a discourse that depends upon distinctions and differentiations. There is a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate violence, which although may shift according to intelligence on particular groups in Syria, remains over-determined by the UK government. The UK and US will retain the rights to determine who may commit violence in Syria, in which their own participation in the violent dismemberment of yet another country in the Middle East is never questioned. This is a colonial mentality which silently advances the God-position of the Euro-American core to make and remake the world, and destroy and reconstruct other people’s countries. This mentality is not dissimilar to that which informed the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, in which Syria, Iraq and Southern Turkey were partitioned into areas of British and French control. The legitimacy of European statesmen to trace a line over a map and control vast swathes of land at will was seen as self-evident by European elites, although the consequences of that imperial meddling are still being played out today.

At the heart of this distinction about who has the right to commit legitimate violence is a differentiation between whose lives are worth valuing. Counter-terror depends upon such distinctions, about whose behaviours are risky, about who may enter and leave the country freely, about whose religious practices are barbaric, and about whose lives we want to value as ‘British’. Gove wants more ‘British values’ in our schools. I wonder if that will include an honest and reflective account of the horrors of British imperialism and its legacy in the Middle East. I wonder if that will include a critical discussion about the reasons for immigration past and present, about the imperial legacy of Britain in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh amongst other places, and the lop-sided neoliberal orthodoxy that leaves many literally dying to work in the EU. The unsaid contours of legitimate subjectivity preclude serious reflections on these topics, as the rights of the British government to determine who can fight in Syria, who is a security risk, and whose lifestyles are ‘dangerously radicalised’ are presumed to be self-evident.

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