The British press are raging about the number of British youth who may have joined ISIS, the Islamic fundamentalist organisation, supposedly a break-away from Al-Qaeda, which is fighting in Syria and Iraq. Alarms are ringing about the political consequences of having these young men, radicalised and hardened by war and military training, returning to political activity in Britain. It has been estimated that the number of Muslim youth from Europe who have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq number at least in the hundreds.
Cressida Dick, assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police and head of its Specialist Operations, has issued a warning about the large number of these young men coming back to Britain.
"I'm afraid I believe that we will be living with the consequences of Syria – from a terrorist point of view, let alone the world, geopolitical consequences – for many, many, many years to come," she told BBC Radio.
This follows the release of a video by ISIS, which featured young British Muslims from Cardiff who went to Syria to fight for what they saw as an Islamic ‘jihad’. In the video they are seen to appeal for other young Muslims to do the same as they did.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the aims and political programme of organisations like ISIS have nothing in common with the traditions of the labour movement; their policies are in direct opposition to the best interests of the workers in Syria and Iraq. Such policies are openly reactionary, pitting Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims and people of other faiths, and they are opposed to all the fundamental democratic freedoms for which the workers’ movement has historically fought.
Moreover, the political ideas of these organisations are not supported by even the majority of ordinary Muslim men and women in Britain. Many Muslims in Cardiff, not least the family of those young men in the ISIS video, have been appalled that some of their young men have been seduced into going to Syria to fight.
Political movement in religious form
But the question that has to be asked is this: why is it that so many young Muslims are turning towards a radical and political version of Islam? For without doubt, a layer of young Muslims, both men and women, have turned in the last ten or fifteen years in that direction.
It is only necessary to walk around the streets in the East End of London to see changes. In the past it would have been rare to see a young woman wearing a niqab, the full veil; it would have been worn only by the older women in the Muslim community. But now it is a much more common sight, and it is the dress of choice for many young Muslim women.
But this is not so much a religious revival as a political movement in a religious form. The apparent growth in religious fervour is really only a surface reflection of the deep-seated political disaffection of Asian Muslim communities in Britain and Europe.
This disaffection has nothing to do with a new-found zeal for studying the Koran and Islamic hadith and everything to do with the state of political siege in which many Muslims find themselves.
The repercussions of war and imperialism
It is only by a supreme act of hypocritical denial that war-mongers like Tony Blair can argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq has nothing to do with the current crisis in that country. The Gulf War cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and thousands of lives of British and US service personnel. It cost US and British taxpayers over $1 trillion, most of which went in profits to the military-industrial complex. And the result of this monstrous waste of humanity and resources? An Iraqi state riddled with corruption and nepotism and propped up by an completely artificial system of sectarian divisions and political patronage.
Young Muslims in Britain, as much as other young people, are perfectly aware of the recent history of Iraq and the despicable role played by the established political leaders in Britain, not least Blair. But this war is seen by them as only the latest in what is seen for many Muslims as an ongoing ‘crusade’ by US imperialism and the European powers against Muslims, including in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Young British Muslims like everyone else can watch news on the TV and internet about events in the Middle East. Every day brings a fresh news story of the suffering of the Palestinian population who are without democratic or national rights, whose economy and daily life are strangled. British Muslims are well aware that the Palestinians, predominantly sharing the same faith as them, are daily humiliated, battered and bruised by an Israeli power which is actively supported by the British, US and European governments.
Harassment, racism, and demonisation
Not the least consideration is the on-going racism and harassment at home and the regular demonisation of Muslims by British media. In the same week that the British press were wallowing in a new wave of anti-Islamic fervour over schools in Birmingham, ten mosques in Bradford were invaded by uniformed thugs from the Britain First organisation. These gorillas gave out leaflets and intimidated worshippers, supposedly in the name of “British” and “Christian” values. As the Bradford West MP, George Galloway, pointed out, there was a deafening silence in the British press over the issue.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like”, he asked, “if two carloads of Muslim extremists in military uniforms had invaded churches, forced the Quran on people and distributed leaflets that claimed white society was a breeding ground for paedophiles?”
Defiance expressed through faith
For many young Muslims, as it is for all young people, British and European capitalism offers nothing but unemployment, austerity, zero-hours jobs and lack of housing - in other words, a nightmare without end. But for young Muslims, suffering racial oppression and seeing their communities demonised at home and slaughtered overseas, their response has been to express their defiance and their feelings of revulsion through their faith.
The niqab, the Koran and the Mosque have been welded into a defiant badge of identity, a rallying point and a mark of determined self-defence. Banging on about “Britishness” or banning Islamic dress, as the French government have tried to do, will have no effect whatsoever on disaffected Muslim youth. Indeed, trying to stamp on the issue will only make it grow.
No alternative from the labour movement
A key factor in this whole process, in fact the determining factor, has been the complete absence of a clear alternative lead from the labour movement. Young people in general are alienated from a political process in which all the party leaders seem to be the same people saying the same things. It is for that reason that a section of young Muslims are have been attracted towards so-called political Islam.
Ed Husain, in his 2007 book, The Islamist, described how young Muslim men were drawn into the circle of Islamic activists because they understood that so many things were wrong in society but they had no other alternative offered to them. The labour movement ought to have offered to them, as to other young people, the prospect of a struggle for jobs, houses and a better future; but in the absence of such a lead being given, many young Muslims turned to political Islam. Ed Husain described how, as members of the Young Moslem Organisation, young men could learn martial arts, attend meetings and were offered a goal and a sense of purpose.
The YMO members, Husain commented, “were as bad and cool as the other street gangs, just without the drugs, drinking and womanising.” It was political Islam, Husain wrote, which provided young men with “a purpose and a place in life”. He makes the point that many were radicalised by the war against Muslims in Bosnia. At some events he attended, the teachers argued that Bosnian Muslims were “white and blue eyed”, and had lived in Serbia for centuries, yet they were still massacred in their thousands. “What chance of survival did we have in Britain? The British Government had played a key role in colonising Muslims in India, Egypt and other countries: it was a sworn enemy of Islam. It would not tolerate a strong Muslim community in Britain. Among second-generation immigrant Muslims, that was a powerful argument.”
For the unity of workers and youth! For a socialist programme!
In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of the labour movement to offer a way out for Muslim youth and young people in general. We saw a glimpse of what is possible in the Bradford West bye-election two years ago. Here George Galloway, in spite of his inclinations to pander to Islamist tendencies, won a clear victory by running a clearly anti-cuts campaign. His Respect Party may have declined now, but at the time, the whole nature of their radical campaign had the effect of mobilised hundreds of local Muslim youth, with the result that the party won that bye-election.
It is only socialist ideas and socialist change that can offer any prospect whatsoever of jobs, houses, decent health and education services and a decent standard of living. That is true of Muslim youth, as for all youth and all society. The traditions of the labour movement are traditions of workers’ unity, joint struggle and unstinting opposition to sectarianism, racism and communalism. It is only the labour movement, mobilising youth generally for a change of society, that can cut across radical Islam by offering a meaningful prospect of a fight for a better society, which includes workers of all races, faiths and traditions.