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New Statesman Book review: “Refusing the veil” by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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You can read the original here on the New Statesman website.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a woman who prides herself on bridging worlds, denouncing racism at west London dinner parties while opposing religious bigotry down at the mosque. A committed anti-racism campaigner, she has been an almost-lone Muslim voice in the mainstream British media arguing against immigration scaremongering and retaliating against sweeping stereotypes of Muslims as anti-British terrorists. Her latest book, Refusing the Veil, part of a series entitled “provocations” for Biteback Publishing, is a passionate treatise against what she – as a Muslim, feminist and liberal – considers to be submission to a misogynistic symbol of women’s inferiority.

“The veil,” she argues, “in all its permutations, is indefensible and unacceptable”.

But this is no theological treatise aimed at challenging the textual validity of “veils”, though Alibhai-Brown does also question that. It is a fundamentally political treatise on the place of Islam and Muslims in Europe, in which Alibhai-Brown contends that Muslim women are exploiting “the weaknesses and vulnerabilities at the core of free societies”.

The book opens with her bemoaning the “bullying” of schools over the right of female students to wear face veils, arguing that “veils are now ubiquitous”, something she refers to as a “depressing and scary development”. The bullying, we are told, is happening from radical Muslims allied with well-intentioned liberals, who misunderstand the meanings behind the face veil. While the face veil has become a source of tension in certain contexts, namely schools and court buildings, establishments have typically found a compromise between upholding security requirements or other societal obligations and the freedom of religion of individuals. Sadly, discussions of mutual accommodation, itself a manifestation of the very integration allegedly at stake here, are entirely absent in favour of a confrontational binary between entitled radical Muslims on one hand and beleaguered liberal institutions on the other.

Nor is the underlying argument particularly original. Abandoning the veil as a renunciation of the “backwardness” of traditional religions has its earliest permutations in the Sixties and Seventies in Muslim majority countries, where reformers sought to emulate the west’s “success” through the wholesale adoption of European mores and habits. In Iran, this involved the forced imposition of bowler hats in place of turbans by the then Shah. Elsewhere, it manifested as a move away from the headscarf and traditional clothing in favour of European-style skirts and suits. Since then, postcolonial critics have argued against linear view of these developments, promoting instead the idea of multiple modernities, within which traditional symbols can and are inverted to produce new meanings. Contemporary academic studies of veiling widely recognise it as one such example, with multiple meanings ascribed to a garment – the significance of this is open to evolution as part of Islam’s discursive tradition. Although Alibhai-Brown quotes the academic Leila Ahmed approvingly, Ahmed’s most recent publication is a refutation of these views, in which Ahmed asserts that many women who wear the hijab, or headscarf, “now essentially make up the vanguard of those who are struggling for women’s rights in Islam”.

Indeed Alibhai-Brown seems out of touch with contemporary debates among Muslim women surrounding the significance of veiling, not least as a feminist principle aimed at challenging the very patriarchy she claims underpins it. Contemporary arguments examining how the global south has re-appropriated traditional symbols as a means of resistance and national cultural reassertion are all but lost in favour of simplistic arguments concerning the veil as a sign of commitment to backward values. This is a view buttressed by support for the views of intellectuals like the Egyptian thinker Qasim Amin, who believed in the superiority of European civilisation, or the dubious feminism of the late nineteenth century colonialist Lord Cromer who, while he did reject the veil as backwards, simultaneously opposed the suffragettes back in the UK.

Of the many critiques which can be made of this book, its lack of conceptual clarity is surely the most glaring. To pen an entire book on “the veil” without clarifying what exactly one is referring to at any point lacks intellectual rigour. This may well be the desired objective, to lump all Muslim women’s religious attire together under one problematic term – except that these varied manifestations of faith, and sometimes culture, are motivated by different worldviews. There is no single, monolithic, misogynistic worldview underpinning all of them, (although such motivations may exist among individual wearers) and consequently her objections are united by one common theme – the problematisation of the visibility of Europe’s Muslim population. This aligns Alibhai-Brown’s voice with the Swiss ban on minarets, the French face veil ban and the Danish ban on halal meat, which are all reflections of European crispation in the face of a more confident and assertive Muslim identity.

And yet, Alibhai-Brown is unwilling to recognise the continuity of her discourse with that of the far right, whose increasing presence on the European political scene has allowed them to dictate the terms of national discussions, including on this very issue. Her sole acknowledgement of this overlap is a single line when she states “these people don’t matter”. Sadly, that isn’t entirely accurate. Just this year, the French Front National (FN) captured its historic first senate seats, following a strong showing at the European elections in May. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned the FN is “at the gates of power”. Polls even suggest that FN leader Marine Le Pen could easily make the run-off in the 2017 elections and even win if up against Francois Hollande. In Germany, anti-islamisation protests, which have nothing to do with the far right, are growing. Here in the UK, the rising popularity of the xenophobic Ukip can hardly be divorced from a broader climate in which Muslims are regularly the focus of national ire. Consequently, and according to new research, Muslims are facing the worst job discrimination of any minority group in Britain, with Muslim women up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts. According to Dr Nabil Khattab, of Bristol University, the situation was “likely to stem from placing Muslims collectively at the lowest stratum within the country’s racial or ethno-cultural system due to growing Islamophobia and hostility against them.”

Alibhai-Brown herself has been the victim of this growing racism, writing recently of how she was spat at by a middle-aged white woman who shouted at her “bloody paki“ on a bus, a fact which only makes her blind spot on this all the more troubling.

The book links the veil to problems of integration and national identity, yet ignores the broader dynamics of integration – the reception offered to migrant communities, unemployment, racism, ghettoisation. The veil becomes the focal point for societal ills because, it is claimed, it represents a commitment to backward values, rather than the progress epitomised by western societies. This teleological view of progress underpins the entire book. We are given the sense of a besieged liberal Britain under attack from fanatical veiled hordes.

Alibhai-Brown claims not to want to ban the face veil, but provides all the moral arguments necessary for precisely that. Whether she supports the legislation directly or not, her arguments complement a growing tide in Europe which seeks to criminalise Muslim women, ironically in order to free them – despite themselves! Amnesty International has condemned moves to ban face veils as “an attack on religious freedom”, in recognition that restrictions on women wearing the veil in public life are as much a violation of the rights of women as forcing them to wear one. But Alibhai-Brown doesn’t even engage with the arguments concerning the co-opting of feminist rhetoric and the language of human rights in order to mask a growing tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.

The complexities are numerous – some Muslim women, such as the granddaughter of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who wears the headscarf out of conviction, also object to state imposition of the headscarf. Award-winning Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, an outspoken critic of the “veil”, believes “It is surely a basic human right that someone can choose what she wears without interference from the state”.

In a Foreign Policy article discussing the headscarf, one woman explained: “I wear it for the same reason as my Jewish friend wears a yarmulke,” but there is no discussion in YAB’s book of whether all religiously associated garments are to be problematised – the Sikh turban, or the Jewish skullcap, say – rather the entire focus is on the uniquely troubling item worn by Muslim women. This is a view that feeds into this view of Islam as distinctively troublemsome, and as somehow singularly oppressive to women.

This assumption of coercion permeates the book over and above than the myriad voices of the women Alibhai-Brown consults and who offer up a range of motivations for their sartorial choices, from resisting consumerism, to spirituality, through to political solidarity. And this simplification of Islam is recurrent in the book – elsewhere, she falls into classic orientalist depictions of over-sexed Muslims, as the reader is told “Muslim men and women spend an inordinate amount of time thinking, talking, regulating and worrying about sex.”

For all its pleas of defending liberalism, this is a socially conservative book dressed up as a liberal feminist manifesto. It expounds an intolerance regarding the visible difference of others which is distinctly at odds with core liberal principles and their very British articulation in the shape of “live and let live”.

Its feminist credentials are equally questionable, especially given that any explanation articulated by “veil”-wearing women is delegitimised through an appeal to arguments about “false consciousness” and brainwashing, denying Muslim women agency in their decisions and reducing them to passive recipients of male intent. Muslim women are described as “severely controlled”, and “hard” Muslim men, we are told, “want to banish Muslim women from shared spaces”. Although the existence of controlled women and controlling men, Muslim or otherwise, is undeniable and a serious cause for concern, the suggestion that this is the predominant case when it comes to women and “veiling” is not only at odds with academic studies (Scott, Ahmed, and others) but confirms precisely the sort of stereotyping Alibhai-Brown has spent so much of her life denouncing.

Refusing the Veil might be a revolutionary title in Iran or Saudi Arabia where it would signify opposition to a legal imposition on women. Here in Britain, where despite the undeniable existence of community pressures on women, most adult women have a considerable margin of freedom concerning their sartorial choices, it is just another call for policing women’s clothing.

In the book, Alibhai-Brown slips fluidly between Saudi Arabia and Hammersmith with no attention to the differing contexts and consequent meanings each place carries. While the Saudi government undoubtedly uses clothing as items of subjugation, it is wrong to assume that women in the UK are experiencing anything like the same subjugation. This a problematic conflation of Muslim female victimhood, which perpetuates stereotypes of passive, voiceless victims.

Alibhai-Brown presents herself as the middle ground, referring disparagingly to veils, while denouncing other women’s clothing as “tarty”. Yet the patriarchal impulse underpinning any public call to define what should constitute appropriate women’s clothing remains. In a section in which she seeks to debunk the idea that covering will protect women from rape, she doesn’t address the worrying assumption that rape itself is linked to clothing, and that discussions of rape in terms of women’s attire only confirm the view that women are somehow complicit in their abuse.

Alongside the fluid use of the term “veil”, other, disparate phenomena are put in the same bracket. Honour killings and domestic violence both end up linked, through reference to personal anecdotes, to women wearing the “burka”. It is worth stating with force that neither so-called “honour killings”, themselves a form of domestic violence, and domestic violence more broadly are in fact a “Muslim” phenomena and sadly exist across cultures. Burkas may well cover bruises, but so does make-up – neither can be causally linked to the violence itself.

According to Alibhai-Brown, the main culprit behind the rise in “veiling” is the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam promoted by Saudi petro-dollars – but the truth is while some women who cover their face certainly are Wahabi-inclined, others may well be traditionalists or Islamist, and some even claim feminist motivations. It really can’t be overstated how problematic it is to attribute meaning to people’s choices without ever even enquiring as to the basis for those choices.

Too often discussions about the meaning of religious coverings are undertaken – as was the case of the French face veil ban – without involving the voices of the women who choose to wear the items. In her book, Alibhai-Brown sees a woman in a full face veil pushing a pram in the park, and proceeds to impute a whole series of ideas to her, without even stopping to speak to the woman – her defence? Her face being covered made it impossible to communicate. But the truth is, to quote Arundhati Roy: “There is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately unheard.” Alibhai-Brown could have just as easily approached the woman and struck up conversation, particularly if, as she claims in her book as grounds for opposing the “veil”, she is that concerned that under every face veil could lie a battered body. In the modern age, so much of our interaction occurs without being face to face, without eye contact or the ability to read facial or body language. While you might prefer eye contact, it can hardly be said to be an absolute impediment to any form of interaction.

Many of the arguments in the book are emotional – why are babies or young girls being dressed in headscarves? Burkas hide bruises! Solidarity with women who are forced to wear them should make you remove it! Where will you get your vitamin D?! None of these are particularly original and many are completely nonsensical. For a start, solidarity with women who are legally coerced into wearing certain types of clothing might arguably be better served by supporting women’s right to make informed choices, whether in Saudi Arabia or in France. Secondly, evidently not wearing burkas isn’t the solution to ending domestic violence, with 30 per cent of British women – most of them not wearing burkas – experiencing domestic abuse. As for arguments about vitamin D deficiency, they hardly warrant a rejoinder but to note that like any vitamin deficiency, a supplement – not a political debate – is a more apt response.

A final, salient critique of the book, is its middle class bias. That the veil offends the sensibilities of west Londoners out on walk on Ealing Common should hardly provide the basis for a repudiation of a garment which, whatever its symbolic ascription, is often worn by a strata of women already facing many different challenges. To claim to do so out of a feminist concern for those very same women, while actively contributing to their dehumanisation through the use of terms like “cloaks” and “masks”, to legitimate “revulsion” by empathising with such reactions towards them, is to give credence to the very same racist and discriminatory attitudes which Alibhai-Brown has made her name opposing.

This book is a validation of quiet, middle class prejudice, the type which dare not speak up for fear of being accused of being racist, but as Alibhai-Brown herself reveals in the book, feels deeply uncomfortable with “the veil”. Rather than challenging that prejudice, Alibhai-Brown provides the ultimate insider’s reassurance that such emotions are warranted and legitimate. For such a pivotal anti-racism campaigner, it is a sad capitulation to anti-Muslim prejudice.

Written by Myriam Francois

December 12, 2014 at 16:27

BBC News global “Jihad special” panel discussion, 11/12/2014

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BBC “Jihad” Special based on a report by Peter Neumann from Kings University, in conjunction with the BBC, looking into the numbers of those killed in various Jihadist attacks around the world. Panel included Prof Tariq Ramadan (Oxford university), Dr Usama Hasan (Quilliam Foundation), Myriam Francois-Cerrah (New Statesman and PhD researcher, Oxford) and Dr Aliou Musa – aired 11/12/2014

You can watch the full clips of the discussion here part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

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Written by Myriam Francois

December 11, 2014 at 22:47

BBC Daily politics: Veil debate: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Myriam Francois-Cerrah

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Writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who published her thoughts on whether Muslim women should wear the full veil, debated this with the writer and broadcaster Myriam Francois-Cerrah.

They spoke to Jo Coburn and guest of the day Ken Clarke on Tuesday’s DP. — at BBC Millbank.

You can watch the video here (for 7 days)

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Written by Myriam Francois

December 2, 2014 at 15:30

BBC Sunday Morning Live: Surgeons/transparency, returning jihadis and the meaning of Christmas

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Should performance rates of surgeon be published?

What should we do about jihadists who want to return to Britain?

Have we lost the meaning of Christmas?


Panellists include:

Benjamin Zephaniah (poet), Douglas Murray (HJS), Henry Marsh (neurosurgeon), Myriam Francois-Cerrah (journalist) and Anne Atkins (novelist).

You can watch the show here (for 7 days)

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Written by Myriam Francois

November 24, 2014 at 10:40

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New Statesman: Theological explanations are a diversion when looking at the rise of Islamic State

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You can read the original piece on the New Statesman site here

In a “post-ideological” West, the “East” is persistently filtered through the lens of ideology, and, specifically, through the lens of Islam, with the latest moral panic over Islamic State (IS) its most recent manifestation.

For all the talk of ideology, our knowledge of IS is actually extremely limited. As Professor Alireza Doostdar points out, “We know close to nothing about IS’ social base. We know little about how it made its military gains, and even less about the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various groups — from other Islamist rebels in Syria to secular Ba‘athists in Iraq.” The fact is, much of what we take as “knowledge” about IS is gleaned either from their uncritically reproduced propaganda videos, which aim to present the group’s narrative as coherent and substantiated, or from Western devotees to the cause who in fact, make up only a small proportion of the group’s estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters and who’s motivations for joining might have far more to do with our representations of the group – as a counter-cultural challenge to the supremacy of Western ideals – than what the group is actually about. IS is certainly “anti-Western” in its outlook, but its objectives are local — controlling land and resources in order to establish a state in which a previously disenfranchised group will experience pre-eminence.

Given that a majority of recruits are in fact local, it is worth questioning the notion they’ve all undergone an ideological conversion before joining a group, which is just one of many arguing for the mantle of legitimate struggle and leadership in the region. Rather than ideas – because let’s face it, Al Baghdadi’s view that the world’s Muslims should live under one Islamic state ruled bysharia law is hardly an intellectual innovation – perhaps it is the group’s strategic and tactical abilities which have won them repute among fighters seeking a united leadership. Or in some cases, the calculation may simply be financial, with salaries reportedly ranging from $300 to $2000 per month.

The ideological narrative also implies widespread Sunni Iraqi support for IS which, less than a newfound commitment to radical ideals, is more likely often a reflection of political calculations in an extremely precarious climate. The populations within IS controlled territory are in many cases victims many times over of a systematic use of extreme violence to force population compliance. Why else do IS display severed heads on town railings? As useful as essentialist arguments for bloodthirty barbarians may be, the truth is violence is usually a strategic calculation to advance political objectives, in this case widespread docility of terrified locals.

The focus on theological explanations also obscures what the polls tell us about popular opinion in the Arab world. How else are we to reconcile the allegedly wide pool of IS supporters in Iraq with the fact the entire region, Iraq included, has seen a decline in support for political Islam (including the non-violent, participationist variants) and that despite a fall in support for democracy in Iraq – likely the result of domestic factors – 76 per cent of Iraqisagree or strongly agree with the statement: “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other political systems.”

In fact, defining conflicts in strictly ideological terms is simply a way of relieving ourselves from any substantive assessment of the environmental factors at play. Forgotten are the discussions of the real causes of a country’s malaise – which in the case of both Syria and Iraq are manifold, and instead is a singular discourse focused on a theological argument for an Islamic State. To quote Jeremy F. Walton, what is missing in the current discourse is “an account of the decades of communitarian inequality and war in Iraq and Syria, where two Ba‘thist regimes — Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and that of the Asad’s in Syria—yoked political representation and economic privilege to sectarian and ethnic identity, Sunni Arab in the case of Iraq and Alawite in the case of Syria.”

This isn’t to say that ideology or ideas more broadly have no explanatory power in assessing groups like IS, but surely the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, the absence of viable, let alone representative and accountable governments, and the use of violence as a political tool by both governments, like the Assad regime, or militant groups across the region, should be afforded greater prominence than the ‘ideological’ outlook of a group who’s most sophisticated theological output so far has been a Friday sermon!

Our obsession with textuality – even when in this case the texts themselves are conspicuously absent – is indicative of the persistence of philological readings of events in the Middle East. This has allowed for a variant of the same argument – Islam is the problem – to be used to both exculpate all other factors, be they foreign interventions or domestic dictatorships, from responsibility, while pinning blame on the populations themselves for their state of woe. What transforms Ancient Texts into radical handbooks for justifying mass murder? The political conditions under which they are being read.

And just as texts don’t speak for themselves, neither do IS propaganda videos, specifically designed and edited to convey the impression of a coherent narrative. And yet, we see very little effort to unpick the discourse, the constructed self-definition, little effort to look beyond the smokescreen because it reflects back precisely the sort of organisation we expect to see emerge from the ME, ideology incarnate. History, politics, economics, all deemed irrelevant in the face of this Islamic “essence” which represents the consistent explanatory variable in the behaviour of Eastern folk.

A recent report by the Washington Post pointed to Camp Bucca, one of the Iraq war’s most notorious prisons, as having funnelled 100,000 detainees through its barracks, and described the center as “an opening chapter in the history of the Islamic State” with many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and nine members of his top command previously incarcerated there. These men had formerly been part of the insurgency fighting the US presence in Iraq and in prison, a convenient collaboration was to emerge between previously longstanding enemies, Baathist secularists and radical Islamists, united in a common purpose. There is no more telling evidence of the pragmatic accommodation of ideology to political necessity than the marriage of these two diametrically opposed and historically antagonistic outlooks, secular leftist and religious literalist.

The discussion of IS needs to move beyond both eschatological and philological diversions  – The roots of its violence isn’t cultural, but rather, as long argued by the scholar Mahmood Mamdani, political violence demands a political explanation.

Written by Myriam Francois

November 13, 2014 at 15:33

BBC Radio 4 Analysis: Conservative Muslims, Liberal Britain

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You can listen to my contribution to this discussion here (link expires after 7 days)

Below is the show description, though I should add that I disagree with the premise that Muslims somehow wish to “live separately” from mainstream society and moreover that polling evidence suggests Muslims strongly identify with British values  (whatever they are!).

The recent so called Trojan Horse dispute in some Birmingham schools shone a light on how separately from the liberal British mainstream a significant conservative bloc of British Muslims wants to live. Although some Muslim parents objected, most seemed happy to go along with rigorous gender segregation, the rejection of sex education and ban on music and arts lessons.
Why is it that so many British Muslims – especially from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds – seem to be converging much more slowly, if at all, on liberal British norms? Is this a problem in a liberal society and what are the future trends likely to be?
David Goodhart, of the think tank Demos, visits Leicester in search of some answers. He listens to many different Muslim voices from a mufti who advises Muslims on how to navigate everyday life in a non-Muslim society to a liberal reformer who is dismayed at seeing more women wearing the niqab.


Mustafa Malik, Director of the Pakistan Youth and Community Centre, Leicester
Saj Khan, Leicestershire businessman
Mufti Muhammed Ibn Adam, Islamic scholar, Leicester
Riaz Ravat, Deputy Director, St Philip’s Centre, Leicester
Dilwar and Rabiha Hussain, New Horizons organisation, Leicester
Gina Khan, human rights campaigner
Myriam Francois-Cerrah, journalist and PhD researcher
Jytte Klausen, affiliate professor at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University
Producer Katy Hickman.

Written by Myriam Francois

November 11, 2014 at 22:57

MEE: “The riddle of the UK’s young jihadis”

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You can read the piece on the Middle East Eye website, here

Of the many questions raised by the young British Muslims joining Islamic State, one has been why “middle-class” Britons would leave the trappings of their comfortable life for near-certain death in a foreign conflict.

According to intelligence sources, most British jihadists are in their 20s, are university-educated and are Muslims of British Pakistani origin. Much has been made in the media about university offers, comfortable homes, and in the case of Aqsa Mahmood the fact she “listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter”.

But why does their so-called “middle class” status seemingly render their choices any more incomprehensible than, say, if they were working class? Is it to do with the underlying suspicion of the working classes and their always latent potential for revolt? We don’t expect middle-class kids to turn bad because we expect “middle class” to mean accession to all that society has to offer and well –  what more could anyone want?

Well for a start, it is not entirely clear that many of the fighters are indeed middle class by any measure of the term. As Shiraz Maher, a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, points out: “British jihadis may be much better off than Muslims from the continent, but they’re not ‘middle class’ by UK standards.”

A brief perusal of the most high-profile cases suggests they are individuals from modest backgrounds –  a former car-park attendant, a Primark supervisor, or unemployed; many are from some of the UK’s most deprived communities and from some of our poorest cities (Cardiff, Portsmouth) and neighbourhoods.  As the rapper turned fighter L Jinny, aka Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary, described in his music prior to joining IS, financial concerns were not entirely irrelevant to his life: “I’m trying to change my ways, but there’s blood on my hands, and I can’t change my ways until there’s funds in the bank.“

The discussion pertaining to the social class of these fighters also ignores two important considerations. Economic dislocation can also affect the middle classes, many of whom have high aspirations and find these thwarted once they enter the job market. What’s more, being middle class doesn’t mean uncritically accepting the parameters of one’s society, which might be perceived as dealing unjustly with those one identifies with the most – the poor;  immigrants; co-religionists at home or abroad.

Why do we imagine that being middle class should prevent someone from being vulnerable to an extremist ideology? If anything, history is replete with middle-class, university-educated social misfits who put their skills to the service of renegade groups.

Rather, what shocks our sensibilities is the question of how someone goes from “Nandos [restaurants] and PS4s [PlayStations]”, as one jihadi described life in the UK, to explosives and makeshift camps? If consumerism is the ideology that speaketh not its name, then how could these “middle-class” kids have slipped through the net and been open to an entirely other, oppositional ideology?

That those who are deemed to have reached the ranks of material success could turn their backs on it is utterly unintelligible because material success is the pinnacle of achievement in “free”, capitalist societies. Here, the term “middle class” serves as a shorthand for a sense of “Western freedom”, in which individual freedom is confused with and used interchangeably with consumer choice. The ability to consume should be setting us free –  why would anyone reject freedom?

Implicit within this discourse is that those who seemingly do not find their “peace” in the capitalist conception of freedom and happiness must somehow be resistant to our “ideals”. The renegade middle-classers then take on the role of a fifth column in our midst, those intractables who had it all could be turned; those trendy, party-going Muslims among you – even they represent a latent threat, a ticking time bomb of simmering anger that even shopping couldn’t cure.

These kids are our kids; they are products of Western culture, and we owe it to ourselves to ask what it is about our current culture that makes the appeal of joining a nihilistic anti-Western guerrilla group a more attractive prospect than remaining in the UK.

How are democracy, freedom and human rights being rejected in favour of an austere and violent understanding of Sharia law? The tendency is to locate the root of the problem elsewhere – within Islam, the fault of the misnomer which is religion, the last vestige of resistance to full integration within the capitalist dream of fashion consumption and reality TV dreams.

But even liberal democracies’ greatest advocates have argued that the 21st century has been a “rotten one for the Western model”. What if the values we claim to hold so dear have begun to ring hollow for many young people and more so even, for the young people targeted by Islamic State propaganda?

We can’t ignore the prevalence of recent “converts” (in the broad sense) among the fighters, young people with little knowledge of a faith they are then depicted as fighting in the name of. These individuals fit the profile not so much of spiritual devotees than that of young people attracted to an oppositional ideology, angry misfits emboldened by a pseudo-cosmic narrative.

It’s a virtual truism today to point out that young people are disillusioned with politics and wary of politicians. In the 2010 general election in the UK, only 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, the lowest turnout of all age groups and the apathetic subset from whence our young jihadis are drawn.

The same young people who have heard charades of democracy bandied about to justify Western interventionism, who have grown up experiencing the impact of the war on terror, and whose identity as Muslims has seen them labelled suspect citizens have little faith in the system.

The fact the actor turned social activist Russell Brand has created his own movement for “Revolution”, with alternative news (the Trews, with viewing figures to rival some mainstream news channels!), points to this broader state of malaise. Brand’s appeal is rooted in this wider cynicism with the vacuousness of the fame/money charade, which his personal narrative of megastar turning his back (!) on fame and fortune to focus on yoga and justice – embodies.

Brand offers young people a vindication of an alternative value system. His voice a vent for a smouldering resentment of the political class. But for those disproportionately represented in the overlapping circles of alienation – poverty, racism, politico-media witch hunts – is it any surprise this translates as a call for a more radical, violent revolution to create the “just” state.

Young people aren’t apolitical. The more mainstream appeal of movements such as Occupy and other grassroots political initiatives (Citizens UK) point to a very real interest in political matters outside of the Westminster paradigm.

But when alternative models of political expression are attempted, they are typically derided, ignored and even repressed, dismissed as the youthful folly of over-exuberant marginals, rather than recognised as the cri de coeur of a much broader segment within society which feels it doesn’t have a voice. These young fighters are merely the tip of an alienation iceberg.

For those left out of “success” as it has previously been defined, other ways of asserting one’s self worth are being sought. The “lost generation” has been blasted with fantasies of achievement and wealth but the reality is that a child from a modest background is less likely than ever to break the cycle of generational under-achievement.

As they find the traditional routes advocated to achieve that success closed to them, young people become deeply sceptical about society’s claims and more susceptible to a counter-narrative.

“The reality about the guerrilla group that arrogates the term “Islamic State” is, if you take away the word “Islamic”, what you have are young, disillusioned Europeans entranced by the concept of an idealised state, a utopia to rival the hollow claims of a system that has failed them.”

This isn’t to say Western or European cultures have nothing positive to offer. On the contrary, the fact that so many young fighters seem disillusioned with their foray into jihadism suggests they are beginning to recognise that for all the loss of democratic principles, for all the attempts to curtail civil liberties and erode basic freedoms, there is still much at good at home. But we mustn’t persist in the folly of assuming the appeal of anti-Western “jihad” has no connection to our current state of affairs.

In his book “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism”, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the liberal-democratic consensus of the modern age acts as a form of totalitarianism, impeding the imagination of alternative ways of being and doing.

For many young people who may have good reason to feel disillusioned with the current state of affairs, the oppressive mantra that liberal democracy somehow represents “the end of history” – something even Francis Fukuyama, author of the book of that title, has mitigated – engenders of a sense of a helplessness and apathy.

If this is as good as it gets, and we are not permitted to think beyond, then why bother? Or, as some clearly conclude, perhaps the system itself is the problem.

Written by Myriam Francois

November 5, 2014 at 10:06


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