Last Thursday night I attended a performance of the verbatim play Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State. Hosted by the National Theatre it centred on the recruitment of young European Muslims by Islamic State. Performed before a packed, mostly white middle class, audience it was, at 90 minutes, a somewhat protracted (for my liking at any rate), and in parts soporific, affair but judging by the numbers that stayed on for the post-performance panel discussion a captivating one nonetheless.
The opening scene re-enacted IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s inaugural address as the soi disant Caliph of the Muslim Ummah. For heightened dramatic effect this was preluded by imagery – splashed across a mosaic of video screens – of the original footage featuring Friday congregational prayers in Mosul’s grand mosque. As the crowd’s stentorian chants of ‘Allahu-Akbar’ resonated across the confines of the incommodious hall, as the newly anointed Caliph ascended the pulpit, I listened attentively, as an actor began to recite those words I had heard almost two years ago:
“Soon, by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honour, being revered, with his head raised high and his dignity preserved.”
“Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.”
This dramatic opening intended to impress upon the audience the extraordinary significance of Islamic State’s June 2014 declaration of a Caliphate. The ancient notion of dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb, of a clearly chalked out fault line between the abode of Islam and the rest of the world, for almost a century the preserve of history books was now once again a political reality. Amongst the Muslim communities of Western Europe the repercussions of this act would be acutely felt over the months to come.
The play focussed on the experiences of three mothers of Islamic State elopers from the impoverished Molenbeek district of Brussels and three schoolchildren from the inner city Bethnal Green district of London. Their narratives were interspersed with the commentary of a select company of experts viz. Dr. Shiraz Maher of Kings College, Charlie Winter of Georgetown University (formerly of the Quilliam Foundation), Moazzam Begg from the advocacy group CAGE, Tasnime Anukjee a lawyer who has represented families of Islamic State runaways and John Allen, the US general in charge of directing the military response to Islamic State.
Constructed as a series of discrete short scenes interrupted by Islamic State video clips the play struck its most concordant note with the testimonies of the three mothers. Insightful and affecting their stories proved to be the play’s saving grace, constantly reigniting interest when it seemed to be waning. Their soliloquys unravelled a powerful tale of alienation and rejection, of social deprivation and despair – all of which inexorably contributed to their children’s youthful sense of defiance and search for identity. The latter provided the common thread linking all three accounts. A yearning to be accepted by society, to be honoured and respected for being Muslim (with all that entails) rather than humiliated and reviled shone forth as the single most powerful factor contributing to the ensnarement of young Western Muslims by Islamic State. Closely linked to this was the appeal to the Islamic notion of Ummah – the global Muslim community that transcends nationality and race – something which features prominently in Islamic State appeals. Hearing the testimony of the mother of Belgian IS fighter, Anis, genuinely moved me to tears, serving as a powerful reminder that the motivations of many of these young men was, initially at any rate, honourable and commendable even if hopelessly naive.
I found the narrative of the Bethnal Green students predictable and clichéd. Apart from reiterating the obvious (i.e. the perception of being victimised by the media and wider society) it contributed nothing much in advancing the audience’s understanding of what has lead up to the current crisis confronting Britain and Western Europe. The concluding remark that “we are just the same as you” seemed especially incredible given the recent Channel 4 commissioned report into the beliefs and attitudes of the British Muslim community. That’s not to say that most Muslims aren’t genuinely disgusted by many of the actions of Islamic State – especially their wanton slaughter of civilians on the streets of Paris and Brussels – but to deny that there is a significant disconnect between the contemporary liberal mores of most Western Europeans and the religiously inspired social conservatism of many immigrant Muslim communities is deceitful. Quite clearly Muslims are not “just the same as you” and a free and frank discussion on how then a liberal society can accomodate fundamentally illiberal ideas has been long overdue.
The expert commentary provided some much needed context and nuance to the discussion although I’m not sure the musings of a US general were particularly relevant to the question of ‘radicalisation’ at least in a Western milieu at any rate. Perhaps the most insightful comment came courtesy of ex-Quilliam analyst, Charlie Winter who opined that Islamic State was much more than a militia; rather it represented the manifestation of an idea and one gaining considerable currency across the Muslim world. In the words of arguably the foremost expert on the subject of political Islam, Shadi Hamid, “the genie is out of the bottle” and there will be no putting it back – a disconcerting thought for all those foreign policy strategists in Washington, no doubt.
The post-performance panel discussion centred, naturally enough, on the government’s efforts to curb ‘radicalisation’ and to counter ‘extremist’ narratives. It comprised, Moazzam Begg and Dr Shiraz Maher (both featured in the play) as well as Dave Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation and was chaired by Helena Kennedy QC, a long time human rights advocate who has represented both IRA and Islamic terrorism defendants during her career.
I found the discussion superficial and tendentious all too obviously coloured by the preconceived agendas of the participants. I suppose it would have been naïve to have hoped otherwise but then, as we are lead to believe, hope does spring eternal.
Helena Kennedy’s hectoring of Moazzam Begg on the issue of Islamic State’s brutalisation of the Yazidis and on the question of which amongst the disparate participants to the Syrian conflict he favoured, was highly disrespectful in its tone and galling to behold. Having already made clear his disavowal of IS’ treatment of the Yazidis Mr Begg was then further asked whether he believed it constituted genocide or not. Her insistence that Mr Begg explain in detail his presence in Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks came across inquisitorial. His explanation that he was living openly in Kabul, on the same street as numerous white European non-Muslim NGO workers, performing much needed charity work (digging wells) was met with barely concealed scorn. In the finest traditions of inquisition it was as if the only answer she was prepared to accept was, “yes I’m guilty of all that you accuse me of and I beg your forgiveness”. Her contention that female surgeons were stoned to death by the Taliban – though she failed to cite a single instance – was left unchallenged by Mr Begg.
Ms Kennedy’s line of ‘questioning’ is more usually associated with right wing media pundits who see the ‘correct’ solution to all of the Middle East’s woes laying in the region’s adoption of secularism and liberal democracy married to a West-leaning and Israel-friendly foreign policy. The assumption that Islamic governance equates to systematic murder, rape and oppression is as misinformed as it is offensive; it belies the inherent racism so deeply ingrained in much of the Western intelligentsia. Ms. Kennedy’s browbeating of Moazzam Begg epitomised the old colonial mind set towards the colonised: supercilious lectures on civilisation and the sanctity of human life wrapped in an incarnidine mantle of unctuous hypocrisy.
With respect to the hotly debated PREVENT strategy there was little in the way of surprises. Both Dr Maher and Anderson QC accused the advocacy group, CAGE of sabotaging the programme without providing a viable alternative. Conveniently neglected – although tangentially referenced by Mr Anderson – was the chilling effect the programme was having on freedom of thought and expression. I was rather hoping somebody might have pointed out to them how last year, ironically enough, a theatre play on the same subject of Islamic State radicalisation was effectively shut down by the police under the auspices of PREVENT. They deemed it too “off script”. Although the Guardian covered the story it was noteworthy that many of those so vociferous in promoting the freedom of playwrights and authors to lampoon and denigrate Islamic sensibilities were rather more reticent and ambivalent in this particular instance.
The very real fear of many Muslim school children and university students that they might be blacklisted as “extremists” has led to their withdrawal from open, active debate on the topics of politics and religion. The effective criminalisation of many normative Islamic beliefs in tandem with a relentless push for governmental oversight and manipulation of Islamic pedagogy has led many to believe that claims of “preventing young Muslims from becoming suicide bombers” is merely a pretext for a more expansive programme of social engineering. I personally subscribe to such a view and I believe there to be considerable historical precedence to buttress it. It must be asked why Western foreign policy doesn’t feature as a potential radicalising factor in the government sanctioned counter-radicalisation programmes. Western support of brutal authoritarian regimes and their complicity and acquiescence in the subversion of democracy (e.g. Algeria and Egypt) has played no small part in propelling many young Muslims down the path of violence and ultimately terrorism. The redefining of Jihad (nowadays prefixed with the adjective ‘violent’) as terrorism when thirty years previously it was synonymous with “freedom struggle” is another hypocrisy not lost on those of us old enough to remember the SAS training of the Afghan Mujahidin.
Uncharacteristically I found Moazzem’s critique of PREVENT that evening a little superficial. Basing your counterpunch on scattered (and increasingly trite) anecdotes of overly zealous teachers and university staff doesn’t make for a particularly convincing argument in my humble opinion. What needed to be demonstrated was the manner in which PREVENT is attempting to criminalise and shut down alternative world views, conceptions of state and governance and any vocal opposition to British and Western foreign policy towards the Middle East and Muslim world. The recent revelations surrounding the involvement in PREVENT of secretive “Cold War” style governmental agencies operating under the aegis of the Official Secrets Act lends considerable weight to this assertion. Admittedly, given the time constraints in place, it wouldn’t have been possible to elaborate at any great length on this but nonetheless I felt slightly let down that it didn’t constitute the grist for Moazzem’s critique.
Dr Maher’s caricature of Hizb ut-Tahrir as a cult and the stinging criticism he directed at it betrayed an obvious deep seated animus towards his former group and comrades. As someone who was also affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir I can attest to his ascription of a certain doctrinaire attitude as well as the elevation of their founder’s writings to near divine status. Yet to describe Hizb ut-Tahrir as a cult is not only incorrect but fails to address why so many of its ideas, once the sole preserve of its acolytes, are now part of mainstream Muslim discourse. Another of its most vehement critics and ex-members has argued the same in several social media pronouncements over the previous months. Rather than dismissing them as a cult it might be more useful to understand why so many Muslims are readily imbibing their ideas even if they don’t join the organisation.
On the subject of PREVENT Dr Maher has previously expressed reservations surrounding its application and its remit yet it is clear that fundamentally he believes in the propriety of such a programme. Perhaps then I should have asked him if his recent hauling across the coals at the hands of some of its most ardent proponents, vis-à-vis his innocuous remarks on the Ahmediyyah sect, was a portent of things to come? If a respected counter terrorism expert, a man whose advice is sought after by governments and world renowned think tanks, can so easily be smeared as having ‘extremist’ inclinations – the not so subtle insinuation of several newspaper pieces on the ‘controversy’ – then what hope for the rest of us? I respect Shiraz’s erudition, the quality of his research and not least his willingness to engage with those of an opposing mind set yet on the question of PREVENT I fear we must agree to disagree.
Lastly I make mention of Dave Anderson QC, the man with the thankless (in my opinion hopeless) task of reviewing the most draconian terrorism statutes in Western Europe. Responding to a comment from an audience member about the seemingly double standards applied by the Crown Prosecution Service in respect of individuals who travel to fight for Kurdish militias and those returning from fighting alongside non-ISIS/AQ rebel militia groups he contended that the “public interest” test for prosecution might not be met in the former instances as juries would regard fighting against a vicious terrorist militia such as Islamic State a noble endeavour. The obvious question then arises as to why individuals who travelled to fight alongside non-proscribed anti-Assad rebel factions have returned to face double digit custodial sentences? Is fighting against an army (and its paramilitary auxiliaries) that commits industrial scale murder, rape and torture against civilians not a commensurately noble endeavour?
As a verbatim play Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State did what it was supposed to: it delivered the verbatim commentary of those whose lives are inextricably tied up with this organisation. Insightful and moving in parts I’m sure the mostly white, middle class, non-Muslim audience left satisfied that they had got their money’s worth. Personally, I thought it a failed enterprise – notwithstanding the deeply moving narratives of the Belgian mothers. As I have told others, Islamic State is merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise, one that has been festering for nigh on a century and that ironically can only be cured by the re-emergence of the Islamic State. That though is a subject for another day.