Syria/Iraq – a time for cool heads


syria-britainA blog which started in April 2014 with concerns about young British men journeying to Syria with a variety of intentions – from charity work to the pursuit of adventure – has now to contend with a more serious development: the emergence of videos by adventure-seeking mavericks and useful idiots pledging allegiance to militia groups in the Syria-Iraq chaos.

 It seems that before setting off on their mission, Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar found it necessary to place orders with Amazon for those invaluable scholarly treatises, Islam for Dummies, The Koran for Dummies and Arabic for Dummies. Hilarity aside, there is something important to be noted here.

First, these 22-year-olds were obviously not the products of some extreme mosque which had drilled them in Islamist fundamentalism. In fact, they were so untutored in the religion to which they were nominally affiliated that they had to equip themselves with a crash course in its basic principles. Nor had they come from families which were inclined to endorse their terrorist fantasies. Indeed, their own parents were so horrified when they learned of the men’s activities that they turned them in to the police. So we need to ask, as a matter of urgency, where it came from, this bizarre determination to be inducted into a campaign of seditious murder that (we can assume from their decision to plead guilty to the terror charges) they fully intended to bring home with them. What causes young men to risk their own lives, and those of who knows how many others, for a cause about which they know so little that they have to mug it up before they catch the plane?

Actually, this kind of thing is not unprecedented: romantic death cults involving nihilistic violence and garbled philosophy have a well-established attraction for the young. (Even suicide is a form of power, to choose your own death being the ultimate expression of omnipotence.)[...]  Janet Daley in The Telegraph

Aseel Muthana, for example, insisted to ITV News that he didn’t discuss his plans with imams at his local mosque in Cardiff or his parents because “we knew it would [have] brought us trouble”. Similarly, the father of Abdullah Deghayes, a jihadi from Brighton, insisted his son and his associates were not encouraged by anyone around them. “They went of their own free will,” he said. “They went without taking consent from their parents [...]

For jihadis, the narrative is that Islam is the true faith and that it is threatened by a hostile, kafir world. Given that millions throughout history have died to defend their religions, we cannot dismiss those who do the same now as simply deranged. What’s more, living in a country with a lot of anti-Islamic feeling, there is plenty of positive reinforcement for their feelings of persecution.

But of course, people’s beliefs are rarely determined by good evidence and sound reasoning alone. There are all sorts of psychological biases that make us more ready to believe some things rather than others. Young British Muslims who believe they are seen as nobodies in their own country are bound to be attracted by the idea of being heroes elsewhere. And once inside the bubble of an online network dedicated to the same cause, all their pernicious beliefs are reinforced.” Julian Baggini in The Guardian

A well-informed  Farooq Siddiqui - a former regional manager on the CT Prevent programme – has raised an issue of double standards: while “Britons were free to join the Israeli Defence Force and return to the UK without censure”, those taking up arms against what they viewed as a tyrannical dictator, Assad, faced arrest.  He argued that the same measure should apply in both cases –  albeit his statement was made before the ISIS atrocities in Syria and Iraq were public knowledge (Observer, 29 June 2014).

On 3rd July 2014, a coalition of imams and community leaders published an open letter calling for cool heads:

 

The month of Ramadhan is a time of reflection and compassion for humanity.  The ethos of this month is to demonstrate generosity and solidarity especially towards those who are less fortunate.As the crisis in Syria and Iraq deepens, we the under-signed have come together as a unified voice to urge the British Muslim communities not to fall prey to any form of sectarian divisions or social discord.

Ramadhan, the month of mercy, teaches us the value of unity and perseverance and we urge the British Muslim communities to continue the generous and tireless efforts to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq, but to do so from the UK in a safe and responsible way.

The Muslim communities have already generously contributed over a hundred million pounds to the Syrian relief effort. We welcome the British Government’s commitment to spending £600 million to support the Syrian people.

With more than 9 million Syrians internally displaced and requiring help, 2.8 million living in refugee camps and 60% of the countries medical infrastructure destroyed, this is the largest human crisis since World War II.

The Holy Qur’an’s guiding principle states:

And they give food for the love of God to the needy, the orphan and the prisoner.  They say to them, “We give you food, only for the sake of God – we do not seek any reward or thanks from you.” (76:8).

click here for list of signatories.

 

Now back to the original blog:

The British parliamentarian Edmund Burke (died 1797) is famous for his statement

All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men to do nothing.

 

This is what inspired George Orwell and fellow Britons to travel to Spain in support of the republican forces fighting Franco and the right-wing nationalists. Five hundred lost their lives, and those returning in 1938 were welcomed back by Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour Party. It is the sentiment that inspired young British heros like Tom Hurndall, Rachel Corrie  and Iain Hook to work on humanitarian and peace-keeping projects in Jenin and the Gaza Strip and fall to snipers of the Israeli Defence Force. In the same self-sacrificing spirit, hundreds of young Britons ventured through the Serbian badlands in the early 1990s, taking aid to refugees and beseiged citizens – with charities such as the London based Convoy of Mercy opening up food distribution centres, rehabilitation clinics, dental clinics and children’s schools in the camps. The Syrian tragedy unfolding since 2011 too does  not allow people of conscience to remain idle.

The pros of taking action

Dr Saleyha Ahsan in the Guardian:…I was shocked to learn that the hospital I worked in last August with the British NGO Hand in Hand for Syria – which was filmed for Saving Syria’s Children, a BBC Panorama programme – is facing closure in four weeks because it is unable to secure an international NGO partner, and thus funding support. When I was there it received up to 40 badly burnt people, 23 of them children, after a thermal bomb had been dropped on a school nearby. I shudder at the thought of what would have happened if that hospital had not been there….it is against this backdrop, where little seems to be happening to genuinely help, that young British Muslims are going out to Syria. There is only one way to stop those intending to go, in whatever capacity: the international community needs to step up. Syria continues to burn, and countless civilians are caught up in the fire. In the eyes of a young British Muslim nothing is being done to end this. That is why they go, and asking mothers to stop them doing so is not going to help. The Guardian 25 April 2014

 The cons of taking action

I don’t know what I expected to see in Syria and it’s hard for me to talk about it. I think a part of me thought my British passport (I’m a dual national) would protect me, or that my presence there would make a difference. That was naive and wrong. It was impossible for me to be useful. I’d never done national service or any military training and I didn’t know how to handle a gun. After growing up in London I wasn’t even comfortable being around guns, which I had to get over quickly. My cousins didn’t want me to get killed and I spent most of my time at the base camp, which was in a building that used to be a school.

The Guardian

What are the real needs?

Statement of HandinHandforSyria.org.uk: “We’re always delighted to hear from anyone who wants to make a difference, whether you have a few hours to spare helping with a local event or you want to offer your medical expertise within Syria. Depending on the role, you could work either from a local office or from home – or anywhere that suits you. If you would like to volunteer with us, please fill in the application form below and send it in to us. It’s so dangerous in Syria right now that we can only consider applications from medical professionals. We do not offer volunteering opportunities inside Syria or in any of the neighbouring countries.”

Statement of  RRSOC.ORG, ‘The voice of the Syrian Community of Manchester’:

The UK Syrian community deeply appreciates the dedication shown by these young men in helping the Syrian people. However, we believe that their travel to fight in Syria does more harm than good due to several reasons including:

1. The Syrian armed opposition are not short of men. What they lack is weapons which are best supplied in an organised manner by governments rather than sporadically and randomly by individuals.

2. The political and military complexities of the Syrian situation are extremely difficult to understand for non-Syrians. As a result, many foreign fighters find themselves clashing with the Syrian people instead of helping them.

3. The same set of complexities means that many fighters going to Syria are recruited by armed groups whose allegiances are unclear. The Syrian people believe that some armed groups are connected to the Assad regime itself as they have killed more opposition activists than regime fighters. Fighting alongside these groups is more like committing a crime than helping the oppressed.

4. Since the early days of the revolution, Assad’s regime has been claiming to be fighting against a group of foreign terrorists. Therefore, having a high number of non-Syrian fighters would support this allegation and thus strengthen Assad’s political stance under the pretext of fighting against terrorism.
5. The media coverage of the issue of Britons fighting in Syria is putting off many people from donating to charities active in providing aid to the Syrian people.

6. People going to fight in Syria are facing increasing scrutiny and persecution upon their return even though they may have not been in touch with any of the groups classified by UK authorities as terrorist organizations. Therefore, we appeal to the British Muslim youth to serve the interests of the Syrian people, as well as their own interests, by exerting every effort in support of the Syrian cause through the following channels:
1- Raising awareness amongst the British people of the Syrian crisis by explaining that what is happening there is a people’s revolt for liberty from a dictatorial regime rather than a civil war. This can be done by contacting British media as well as personal and group efforts

2- Exerting pressure on British politicians to do more actions than words in helping the Syrian people

3- Donating money to help the Syrian people through the several UK-registered charities active in Syria, as well as organising collections through these charities

4- Finally and most importantly, praying and supplicating to Allah to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people through achieving their goals of freedom and dignity

Analyses

Take our beloved Home Secretary’s decision to deprive British immigrants of their British passports if they go to fight Assad’s regime in Syria. Quite apart from the fact that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and his friends originally supported the armed Syrian opposition, there are problems with the passport story. Many British supporters of Israel, for example, have fought on Israel’s behalf in Israeli uniform in that country’s wars. But what if they served in Israeli units known to have committed war crimes in Lebanon or Gaza? Or in the Israeli air force, which promiscuously kills civilians in war. Are they, too, to be deprived of their passports if they were not born in the UK? Of course not. Robert Fisk in the Independent, 11 May 2014

Atif Iqbal, of the United Birmingham campaign, who travelled to Syria to deliver food, said clarity was needed about how people could provide humanitarian help while staying within the law. “What is the legal framework – that is what we need some clarity on. It’s very ambiguous, the goalposts keep changing,” he said.

The Guardian 24 April 2014

Dr Hani El-Banna OBE, founder of Islamic Relief, notes

The juxtaposition of comments on extremism [by Charity Commissioner William Shawcross] alongside points about funding and government cuts makes it appear to us that the Charity Commission is courting controversy to campaign for increased resources, choosing what will be a headline-grabbing issue to make the case. The casual use of the loaded word “Islamist” to refer to a very small number of charities who may have been abused by extremists will make it very difficult for the general public to distinguish them from legitimate Islamic charities…As a neutral entity that regulates the sector, the Charity Commission should lead on constructive neutral, independent and impartial dialogue with all charities regardless of faith: we are citizens not strangers. Ensuring that the good name of charity is not abused is an important task, and it is right that the Charity Commission should take it seriously. But it is also vital to do all we can to help people in desperate need, particularly those in hard-to-reach, conflict-ravaged places like Syria and Somalia. In some places local or international Islamic organisations are sometimes the only groups that can get aid through to isolated areas.At the end of the day, we are all dedicated British citizens who are here to build and reflect the diversity of our country, and serve humanity.

Writing in Huffington Post, 30th April 2014

Joan Smith: “The parallel [of the Spanish civil war] with modern-day Syria is not exact, especially now that groups linked to al-Qa’ida are taking a prominent role in the battle against Bashar al-Assad. But I can understand why idealistic young people are once again being drawn into a foreign conflict. A handful of British citizens has already been killed in Syria, including Brighton student Abdullah Deghayes, 18, who died fighting in Homs. Abdul Waheed Majeed, 41, from West Sussex, appears to have become the conflict’s first British suicide bomber; he blew himself up outside Aleppo prison in February. It is easy to see why our government is alarmed by Majeed’s “martyrdom”. But I’m uneasy about the Home Office’s underlying assumption, which seems to be that anyone who wants to fight against Assad is a threat to the UK….Every generation throws up a conflict which horrifies decent people. The rest of Europe left Franco to murder his way to power, supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Assad is just as ruthless, and he’s supported by Russia, China and Iran. Of course I don’t want to see more British teenagers dying in Syria. But we need to think about how to keep them safe, instead of treating them all as potential terrorists. The Independent 27 April 2014

Sam Jones: “Since January this year, the Financial Times has contacted more than a dozen fighters in Syria. They come from all over the UK – from Bradford to London via Birmingham and Luton – and from Europe: Holland, Denmark and Sweden…All described watching the humanitarian crisis unfold for months from home before deciding to fight – following reports on Channel 4 News, sharing clips from the BBC on their Twitter accounts and consuming and distributing the huge amount of often violent raw material streaming out of Syria on YouTube.” Financial Times, 28 March 2014

Is this Criminalisation necessary?

Tom Whitehead: “The number of Britons arrested after returning from Syria has increased up to six-fold as police urge mothers and wives of would-be jihadists to report on their loved ones.Some 40 people were detained in just the first three months of this year for Syria-related activities compared with just 25 for the whole of 2013.” The Telegraph 24 April 2014

Sam Jones: “The police have embarked on a spate of arrests this year, with the most notable coming in late February, when Moazzam Begg, the former Guantánamo detainee, was taken into custody. Begg was charged with terror offences related to Syria earlier this month – at the Old Bailey via video link from Belmarsh prison. He was charged under two provisions of the UK’s sweeping 2006 anti-terrorism law for providing terrorist training in Syria and for funding terrorism overseas – offences that carry a 10-year jail sentence.Other, wider-ranging provisions in the same law have been used by police to arrest UK suspects too, in particular section 1 which covers encouragement of terrorism through direct and indirect means, including its “glorification”. Securing safe convictions under section 1 is recognised as a tricky task – one of the issues that has made police reluctant to use it if they can opt for more concrete breaches of the law.” Financial Times 28 March 2014

George Monbiot: “In January 16 people were arrested on terror charges after returning from Syria. Seven others are already awaiting trial. Sue Hemming, the CPS head of counter-terrorism, explained last week that “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 … We will apply the law robustly”. People fighting against forces that run a system of industrialised torture and murder and are systematically destroying entire communities could be banged up for life for their pains. Is this any fairer than imprisoning Orwell would have been?…Whatever you might think of armed intervention in Syria, by states or citizens, Hemming’s warning illustrates the arbitrary nature of our terrorism laws, the ring they throw around certain acts of violence while ignoring others, the risk that they will be used against brown and bearded people who present no threat. The Guardian 10 February 2014

Other developments

The launch of ‘The Adventures of Abdullah-x’ – about which Kim Wilkinson writes

Meet Abdullah-x, the new face of counter-radical speech on YouTube. He’s a young Muslim who is struggling with his identity, and has found the pull of online jihadist videos compelling. The creator of this animation, a representative from FIDA Management, was part of a panel at a counter-speech event held at in the YouTube studio at Google’s London headquarters, also attended by MP Keith Vaz, Victoria Grand (Head of Policy and Communications, YouTube), Professor Peter Neumann, and members of the counter-radicalisation think tank Quilliam. Abdullah-x features in YouTube videos such as ‘The Real Meaning of Jihad,’ and ‘Five Considerations for a Muslim on Syria.’…In some respects the counter-speech event seemed too narrowly focused. The latter part of the day had an obvious focus on Muslim extremism but extremism comes in all garbs, take for instance the English Defence League. It is not just Muslim extremists we should speak against, but extremism in all its forms, and racism and discrimination.

3. The case of Mashudur Chowdhury, click here

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