Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

July 23, 2014

The Home Guard, or Local Defence Volunteers, given official status on 17 May 1940 and stood down on 31 December 1945, had a remarkable birth. As fears of a German invasion grew in 1940, the force’s architect had to fight his own campaign against the scorn and suspicion of military top brass and cautious politicians. But his idea for decentralised self-defence militias caught on fast. By July 1940, it had attracted 1.5 million volunteers. Not only did the Home Guard stiffen morale at a time when Britain had no European allies against Hitler; its members took an active part in conflict by manning anti-aircraft batteries and downing many Luftwaffe planes.

Tom Wintringham, the strategist who had agitated for a Home Guard since 1938, outraged the Colonel Blimps with his polemic How to Reform the Army. He kick-started support for “people’s militias” when he opened a training school in guerrilla warfare at Osterley. The authorities tried (and failed) to shut down this nest of “Marxist hooligans”, but its principles had already taken root. Wintringham never secured a regular army commission. In 1942, he founded the left-of-Labour Common Wealth Party. But what would have happened today to this oddball soldier who inspired our beloved home-front warriors? As a former “foreign fighter” in an overseas conflict, he could have been subject to a sentence of imprisonment for life.

Then a member of the Communist Party, Wintringham had commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigades at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. At “Suicide Hill”, through an extraordinary combination of pluck and luck, the British volunteers played a bloodily decisive role in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. They were instrumental in holding back Franco’s rebel forces in their advance on Madrid and so helped to safeguard the capital for the Republican government. Although Madrid would fall in 1939, Jarama arguably counts as the most significant armed rebuff for international Fascism until the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. The human cost proved enormous. In Unlikely Warriors, his definitive account of British and Irish fighters in the Spanish Civil War, Richard Baxell calculates that “of the 630 men who had gone into action on 12 February, only 80 were left unscathed when the battle ended”.

Heroes? Not, since 2006, according to British law. Some 2,300 British volunteers fought against Franco in Spain; more than 500 were killed. Although history tends to remember the writers and intellectuals – George Orwell and John Cornford; Ralph Fox and Laurie Lee – most were working-class trade unionists in their late twenties, with 200 Welsh miners among them. In 1996, the government of Spain paid the ultimate tribute to their contribution by proposing an offer of citizenship to every surviving member of the International Brigades. George Orwell wrote a personal account of his experiences and observations during the Spanish Civil War.

A decade after that, and just before the grant of citizenship to every veteran entered Spanish law, Tony Blair’s third administration passed the Terrorism Act 2006. Section Five, as presently interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service, makes it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a “political, ideological, religious or racial motive”. The legislation appears to forbid all training or action in a foreign combat. If so, its provisions would have criminalised every Briton who fought in Spain. It would have turned Lord Byron, whose commitment to Greek independence led him to arm and lead a raggle-taggle regiment prior to his death at Missolonghi in 1824, into an outlaw. As for the 6,500 veterans of Wellington’s armies who went off after Waterloo to fight against Spanish colonial rule in the battles that led to freedom for Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, how could the courts have processed such a lawless throng?

The 2006 legislation currently targets UK citizens deemed to have fought with Syrian rebel groups. Estimates of their number vary wildly but a figure of around 400-500 has gained currency. At least eight have died. The fear of radicalisation, with any link to al-Qaida-allied units and above all to Isis treated as a communicable virus, has propelled the hard legal line. In January, 16 Britons were arrested after returning from Syria. Further arrests have followed since.

“Potentially it’s an offence to go out and get involved in a conflict, however loathsome you think the people on the other side are,” affirms Sue Hemming, the head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service (London Evening Standard, 3 February 2014). “Our Government chooses to have legislation which prevents people from joining in whichever conflicts they have views about. We will apply the law robustly.” No sane observer will whitewash the motives and methods of the al-Nusra front or the newly rebranded “Islamic State”. If, until mid-2014, some foreign recruits could dupe themselves into thinking that Isis stood for a dogmatic but authentic war for faith against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, then the surge into northern Iraq which began on 5 June has blown that façade clean away. Everywhere from Mosul to Tikrit and the gates of Baghdad, the forces of the “Islamic State” have massacred Muslims, prisoners and civilians alike. Now they threaten genocide to Christians. Yet this sectarian mass slaughter may make it more vital than ever to clear a path back to normality for the drifters, dreamers, malcontents and bedroom zealots once attracted by the Isis cult. The risk of an indiscriminate criminal stigma might give the doubters and waverers a reason to stick with the fanatics.

Young people volunteer for foreign combat for a variety of reasons. Heartfelt belief in the justice of a cause fires many, as does solidarity with those of a similar background or outlook. For others, a simple itch for adventure or boredom with life at home will supply the push. From Wellington’s grizzled veterans in the Andes through to the last-ditch defenders at Jarama, British history gives us ample opportunities to understand the urge to go abroad to fight. The long-term significance of an overseas adventure for anyone may not be apparent to them, or to others, at the time. But every present or past volunteer in Syria now knows they bear an invisible brand marked “potential murderer”, stamped by the agencies of surveillance. In a BBC radio analysis, one British fighter thought it a “slightly surreal” notion to “go back to the UK and start a jihad there”. For him, at least: “As to the global jihad, I couldn’t tell you if I’m going to be alive tomorrow, let alone future plans.” Over the past six weeks, Isis has shown to the world its bloody stunts. They will have deterred many secret faint-hearts, already in too deep. However, if the near-certainty of UK criminal sanctions closes down your road to reintegration, why not rise to the fanatics’ bait? What have you then got to lose?

In both Spain and Syria, idealism, escapism and sheer youthful bravado will have been pretty evenly mixed. After such an episode, you would expect young men to develop in many ways. The Spanish volunteers did. One veteran of the International Brigades became a champion of neo-liberal economics and a mentor to Margaret Thatcher: Sir Alfred Sherman. Another would become Britain’s most prominent mainstream trade-union leader: Jack Jones. A third quit all politics to flourish as a character actor: James Robertson Justice. It is hard to imagine a better way to kill off such varied careers than by marking every foolhardy youth, whatever their motives, with a lifelong criminal brand.

British Muslims’ right to fight in Syria backed by ex-adviser on radicalisation

June 28, 2014

A former senior government adviser on tackling radicalisation and extremism has defended the right of British Muslims to travel to Syria and fight. Farooq Siddiqui, a former regional manager for the government’s controversial Prevent strategy, said it was acceptable for Britons to “walk the walk” and travel to Syria to fight the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Siddiqui, defended the right of an individual to be called a martyr if he took up arms against Assad, and questioned whether those who fought against the Syrian president should face arrest upon return to the UK. However, intelligence officials consider jihadists battling Assad’s government forces in Syria to be a potential threat. They estimate that up to 300 fighters have already returned to the UK from Syria. Scotland Yard has warned that Britain will live with the terror legacy of the Syrian conflict for years to come.

The foreign secretary, William Hague, believes as many as 400 British citizens may be fighting in Syria, recently confirming that security measures are in place such as the option of withdrawing leave to remain, cancelling passports and arresting UK jihadists who have been fighting in Syria or for terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which has seized control of swaths of northern Iraq.

Siddiqui, who ran Prevent in the south-west until 2012, pointed out that Britons were free to join the Israeli Defence Force and return to the UK without censure, while those taking up arms against what they viewed as a tyrannical dictator, Assad, faced arrest. He says he knew “nothing about” Isis at the time of the online conversation in February. He does not support the group, writing on Facebook, referencing the situation in Syria, he said: “If a man describes himself as wanting to help the oppressed and dies, in that case he is a martyr.”

Siddiqui told the Observer that he would be happy to endorse security measures on combatants if they applied to others returning from fighting abroad, not just Muslims. “As for people fighting in Syria, if they go with the intention to defend the civilian population from a dictator – a population we have abandoned – I accept their conviction until proven otherwise.”

 

TAGS: Public opinion and Islam in the media, and Issues in Politics and Immigration and Integration

Dispelling myths about British Muslims

June 21, 2014

Many people have come to regard Muslims as a backward group of religious extremists estranged from wider society and incapable of coming to terms with what it means to be British. This impression has been heightened by misleading press reporting and inflammatory statements from senior politicians. The so-called “Trojan horse” controversy concerning an alleged Muslim takeover of Birmingham schools – based on what looks like a fabricated document – has brought fresh ugliness to an already putrid public debate.

There are elements of truth in the popular narrative about British Islam, but much of it is based on ignorance. A 2011 Demos survey showed that Muslims are more patriotic than other Britons (83 per cent said they were proud to be British as opposed to 79 per cent of the general population), and are more integrated than is often thought to be the case. So the publication of these two books could not be timelier. Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen and The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani.

Innes Bowen, a BBC radio journalist, has written an admirable and clear- headed study which has much to teach anyone with an interest in British Islam. She explains the beliefs, historical background and political engagement of the main Muslim sects and organisations: Deobandis, Barelwis, Tablighi Jamaat, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Shia and Ismailis.

Bowman dispels a long list of myths about the role of Saudi teaching in mosques, the influence of Iran among British Shia (very little), the connection between the doctrines of Tablighi Jamaat and terrorism (none), and the alleged shortage of British-born imams (there are plenty). Bowen’s book is gentle and optimistic. She suggests that over time there is no fundamental contradiction between Islam and the modern Western state.

Arun Kundnani has written a very different kind of work. It is angrier and more polemical. Yet it too is grounded in research from both sides of the Atlantic. The case studies from the United States are shocking. He shows how Muslims there can be ensnared by the FBI into so-called plots which have been devised by the US government, arguing convincingly that Islam has taken over the role of public enemy from communism. It dispels myths, pointing out that “there is no Islamic doctrine of ‘kill the unbelievers’ as anti-Islam propagandists often maintain. Islam, like other religions, provides a broad moral framework for thinking about questions of violence.” Again and again this book challenges your assumptions. It is worth reading for its examination of the word “extremism” alone. Martin Luther King, Kundnani points out, was denounced in this way. Kundnani is fiercer and more pessimistic.

Isis rebels declare new Islamic state as Iraq tightens security around Baghdad

June 30, 2014

Isis militants declare an Islamic state, or ‘caliphate’ in an area straddling the border between Iraq and Syria. Iraqi government forces are increasing security around Baghdad, and launching attacks to try to claw back some of the territory gained by the rebels. Meanwhile families fleeing the violence take refuge in makeshift camps

At least 1,500 British nationals are likely to have been recruited by extremists to fight in Iraq and Syria, a Birmingham MP has warned. Labour’s Khalid Mahmood said that with the increased radicalisation of young British Muslims in the past two years, the number who “will come back” to launch attacks in the UK was “certainly more than we are saying at the moment”.

“Originally you had the British Syrians settled here who wanted to go back and play a part, then you had the Kurdish community, then almost two years ago you had the young British Muslim community going across – so if you add all that up you’ve got serious figures that we need to look at. Those will come back – certainly more than we are saying at the moment – and we do need to look at that.” Mr Mahmood’s warning came as senior British security experts warned that the UK could be suffering from the repercussions of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts for “many years” to come.

Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner and head of specialist operations, said Britain would feel the long-term consequences of the conflict, and young British Muslims who have travelled to fight in the war-torn country might commit violence when they returned.

Liam Fox, the former Defence Secretary, described the problem of fighters returning from the region as a “real worry”, and told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the government needed to reassess the funding and powers given to the security services with this threat in mind.

Sheikh Zane Abdo, imam of the South Wales Islamic Centre said a “platform” should not have been given to the recruitment video for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) adding: “I guarantee that many young people who are very susceptible to this type of message will have watched that video and maybe have been encouraged to now go and follow in the footsteps of Nasser and his brother, which is a real problem, the fact that a platform has been given to this video that really shouldn’t have been given.”

Haras Rafiq, from the anti-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation, told Good Morning Britain that the strongest influence on young men who end up going out to the region was the internet.

 

Sources:

The Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/jun/30/isis-declare-islamic-state-iraq-tightens-security-baghdad-video

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/30/isis-caliphate-revival

The Independent

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/iraq-crisis-youtube-pressed-to-remove-video-recruiting-british-jihadis-for-isis-9557758.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/iraq-crisis-isis-has-recruited-at-least-1500-britons-to-fight-abroad-warns-birmingham-mp-9556790.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-tracking-isis-jihadists-top-priority-for-security-service-9553599.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-isis-video-calls-on-british-muslims-to-join-in-jihad-as-cure-for-depression-9552937.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-isis-militants-release-video-to-recruit-foreign-fighters-9552142.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/iraq-crisis-up-to-450-british-fighters-have-joined-isis-militants-and-are-planning-uk-attack-spies-say-9547776.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-tony-blair-admits-removal-of-saddam-hussein-is-partly-to-blame-for-uprising-9557640.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/robert-fisk-the-old-partition-of-the-middle-east-is-dead-i-dread-to-think-what-will-follow-9536467.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/what-is-the-difference-between-sunni-and-shia-muslims-and-why-do-they-disagree-9536650.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/iraq-crisis-sunni-caliphate-has-been-bankrolled-by-saudi-arabia-9533396.html