A professional student of radicalization at King’s College London, Shiraz Maher is concerned to understand why British Muslims are traveling to Syria to enlist as militants with the Islamic State.
In a voluminous article for the New Statesman magazine, Maher describes how, through the social media, he made contact with radicalized British Muslims operating in Syria. He evokes a generation apt to be far more responsive to extremist websites than to the preaching of British imams, many of whom come from outside the UK and possess poor English language skills. Such imams, he writes, stand little chance of rivaling the Islamic State’s millenarian propaganda, its “hyper-empowering” videos with their images of balaclava-clad young men parading their zeal for jihad.
Maher’s research indicates that many young Muslims feel as disconnected from their own families and communities as from the mainstream British society. It also indicates that there are now more British Muslims in the ISIS army of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi than there are in the UK military. Maher believes that together with hundreds of foreign fighters, British Muslim radicals have started a process that will not easily be halted. He warns that the British state is signally failing to influence Muslim communities and cannot hope to curb extremism by shutting down social media jihadist accounts, since no sooner has one been eliminated than another takes its place.
The value of Maher’s work needs no underlining. Yet its journalistic presentation runs the risk of stigmatizing a whole generation of British Muslims as militants, or potential militants, with no loyalty to the country of their birth. The unsensational truth is that most are no more likely to embrace jihad than Shiraz Maher, or indeed the rest of British youth. It is cause for concern, too, that, with its exclusive focus on the alienation and disaffection of Muslim youth, his findings may obscure the larger picture, the wider pathology of young people in the UK and other western societies.
If official Britain has made little attempt at constructive engagement with Muslim youth, it has been hardly less negligent with regard to this broader crisis, a crisis that has evidently deepened in the wake of the financial downturn of 2008. For a host of reasons — women’s independence, family breakdown, a culture that fetishizes the pursuit of money even as it jettisons old forms of long-term employment — young British men are increasingly prey to emotional disorders. The other day, the London newspaper columnist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, reported how, at a seminar on terrorism, an academic observed that while young British Muslims are traveling to the Middle East to kill others, at home in the UK unprecedented numbers of men under 40 are killing themselves. Could it be, conjectured the academic, that both trends have the same roots?
Shiraz Maher publishes his research at a moment when headlines in Britain have been dominated by the sentencing to life in prison of a white British teenager who earlier this year stabbed to death a much-loved teacher in the classroom of a Leeds school, subsequently maintaining that he felt driven to kill either her or himself. It would be rash to read too much into this particular unspeakable episode, which has no precedent in a British school. Yet the chronic, festering malaise of youth in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is a major and manifestly malign phenomenon, all too liable to spawn mental illness and psychotic behavior.
The feeling of many young people that their lives and concerns are systematically ignored has contributed greatly to the cult status of the stridently anti-establishment British comic, Russell Brand. Scornful of British democracy (he considers voting in general elections to be meaningless), Brand is the author of a provocative new book, Revolution, in which he looks forward to the overthrow of the existing system. In an interview occasioned by the book, which has rapidly become a bestseller, he even declared that he is prepared to die in order to rid Britain of its present power structure.
Many must wonder how seriously to take this multi-millionaire celebrity’s talk of martyrdom. What is certain is that it is not just radicalized Muslims who believe that the ascendant values of British society are not worth living for.