SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – Islamic State or Isis have emerged as the most recent form of radical jihadism and we in the west feel bewildered by their ferocity and brutality, especially towards minorities. First, the Iraqi Christians, then the Yazidis – hundreds of them being forced to either convert or be killed.
The recent beheading of the American journalist James Foley is only one act of defiance towards US airstrikes, with threats of more reprisals. With Al-Qaida, Boko Haram and now Isis – never has it been easier to instil fear, it seems, into the most powerful nations in the world.
In the UK, the fear that Isis have attracted hundreds of British men to fight in the region has reignited the question of integration and radicalisation among younger British Muslims. But perhaps what is more chilling this time is the way many of these men, who have gone over to fight, have unflinchingly assumed the role of thug and tyrant given the first opportunity.
Their narrative may well be wrapped up in the familiar language of jihad and “fighting in the cause of Allah”, but it amounts to little more than destruction of anything and anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
Then there is the other problem: our own language and how we speak of these warring factions. We call them Sunni extremists as if they are a unified body of people made respectable through an affiliation with mainstream Islam; they are in fact marauding and warring groups, even if some were formerly Iraqi soldiers and can now commandeer heavy weaponry.
What, for instance, does a caliphate mean today, if anything? It is spoken of as an ideal Islamic polity, even though most young Muslims, especially in the west, have little knowledge of the word’s history and political complexity.
We don’t have the vocabulary to explain the political, religious and ideological mess that has engulfed so much of the Islamic world. But our language tries to categorise the rise of this group and its destructive mission as inextricably tied to the sectarian conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Here, we are in danger of focusing only on Isis, when it is quite likely that another group, perhaps a splinter group even more ferocious, might spawn from this current spate of violence. Sunni, Shia? Take your pick.
There is something else about Isis that has emerged as different from other extremist groups and that is their treatment of women and girls. Male violence against women is nothing new and unfortunately knows neither racial nor cultural boundaries. But the manner in which Isis are reported to be treating captured women and young girls speaks of another era.
There are allegations of women being sold into slavery or repeatedly and barbarically raped and even if some claims are exaggerated, there are too many terrible truths. Women, especially young Yazidi women, are being told to convert to Islam so as to marry Isis fighters. The mantra is that the caliphate needs new converts and children to spread; women can provide both.
This lethal mix of violence and sexual power, this deeply flawed view of manhood – is this what young British Muslims are drawn to? When religious narrative can justify this kind of oppression and moral blindness, everything suddenly seems simple and the cause appears even more worthy. Instead of oppression, they see honour; instead of killing, they see victory. Women who are victims of the Isis advance are losing their brothers, sons and fathers. You lose much in war but you can still hold on to your dignity. When women lose this, they might as well have lost everything.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to explain why the wars of the Middle East appeal to some British youth. It can’t be reduced to an Islam/west debate as the Isis advance wants to wipe out the Shia as well as other minorities; Muslims killing other Muslims for the sake of “pure” Islam is sadly nothing new.
Many young men see war as a drug, all powerful and mindblowing, with the thrill of donning a uniform and carrying guns. But we are no nearer to understanding the appeal of a nihilistic rhetoric among middle-class, educated young men other than it may be a way of unleashing all kinds of psychological frustrations.
This is not a failure of integration; there is a deeper malaise than that tapping into a sense of emotional unfulfilment when you have everything. I asked my 18-year-old son last week why he thought that some Muslim men would be drawn towards groups such as Isis. He said: “You don’t suddenly turn; you already have the desire in you, however deep down, through your upbringing. A lot of it comes from home.”
It sounds simple but I can’t help agreeing with this.