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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)

SML surgeons SML jihadis group SML jihadis single

Written by Myriam Francois

November 24, 2014 at 10:40

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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

BBC London radio, Vanessa Feltz show: Boris Johnson, IS and civil liberties

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I discuss Boris Johnson’s flawed arguments in his Daily Telegraph column about how to deal with the potential threat posed by returning IS fighters – you can listen here (’35min in)

Written by Myriam Francois

August 25, 2014 at 11:21

HuffPost: British Jihadis – Turning Mothers Into Informants Is No Solution

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You can read the piece on the HuffPost site here


In the government’s latest Orwellian measure, mothers and wives of “would-be jihadists” are ‎being urged to report on their loved ones, avowedly to “prevent tragedies”. It won’t escape notice ‎however, that despite protestations to the contrary, a message emanating from the police carries ‎criminalising potential. ‎

This latest strategy to deter Britons from heading to fight in Syria comes despite evidence ‎suggesting most families are oblivious to their relatives’ decision. Abdul Waheed Majeed, who died ‎in Syria in February this year is one of a number of Brits who told his family he was going on a ‎humanitarian mission. Other parents, like those of Abdullah Deghayes were unaware their son had ‎even left the country until it was too late. Ensuring any extremist views acquired by fighters abroad ‎are neutralised when arriving back on British shores is as critical for Muslims as it is anyone else, but ‎relying on Muslim women to undertake the work of the security services is not only likely to be ‎ineffective, it also risks further undermining women in highly patriarchal settings as possible ‎‎’agents’, not to be trusted. ‎

Research in December from the King’s College-based ICSR estimated 1,900 people from western ‎Europe have travelled to Syria to fight, including 366 from the UK. In terms of the threat posed by ‎their return, Shiraz Maher from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political ‎Violence suggests around 1 in 9 returning fighters represent cause for concern. And yet this latest ‎advice suggests all Muslims contemplating travelling to Syria are a possible threat and goes on to ‎place the onus for our national security in the hands of the Muslim community, turning mothers ‎into informants. The call can be situated within an increasingly intrusive state of surveillance and ‎securitisation of the British Muslim community.‎

The Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse plot’ is just the latest indication that when it comes to Muslims, the ‎counter-terrorism lens is applied even before the facts of the case are established. In every facet ‎of life, from teachers and lecturers asked to spy on students, to healthcare workers on their ‎patients, youth groups whose access to public funding has been made conditional on sharing data ‎with law enforcement agencies, to university Islamic societies under pressure to divulge ‎membership lists – Muslims are well aware they’re being closely watched. Who knew even mums ‎would now be roped in! ‎

According to research by ICSR, the profile of foreign fighters is typically male, in their twenties of ‎South-Asian ethnic origin and with recent connections to higher education. Interestingly, this is also ‎the profile which overlaps significantly with those most likely to be unemployed – unemployment ‎among Muslims under the age of 30 is 23 per cent (compared to a UK average for young people of ‎‎17 per cent), stopped and searched, detained at airports , to struggle with poor educational ‎achievements, to be over -represented in our prisons. It is certainly telling that another British fighter, ‎‎23 year old Mohammed el-Araj from Notting Hill, had spent 18 months in prison before he was ‎killed in Syria in November last year. ‎

If you want to know the real reason the prospect of death can seem more appealing than life, then ‎look at the quality of life these young (predominantly) men are facing. Young men of that ‎demographic have a bleak future ahead – hit harder than most by austerity, they can anticipate ‎joblessness, discrimination, police harassment, possible incarceration. To many young men the ‎jihad may seem appealing because it provides ultimate meaning to a life which might otherwise ‎seem hopeless. ‎

The UK today has some of the most draconian “anti-terror” legislation in the developed world and ‎these disproportionately negatively affect Muslim Britons. Harassed and coerced into becoming ‎informants, what kind of a relationship do you expect young Muslims to have with a police force ‎which bulldozes its demands through dawn raids and indefinite detentions, yet seemingly fails to ‎tackle rising anti-Muslim hate crimes? What trust can you expect them to have in a system which ‎has demonstrated clear double standards in the extradition of Muslim British citizens and stripped ‎‎37 UK nationals – many of them Muslims, of their citizenship? Despite polls showing that British ‎Muslims strongly identify with the UK, you could hardly excuse a luke warm commitment to ‎Britishness from citizens who could essentially be stripped of that very identity!‎

Ifthekar Jaman, 23, a customer service rep, whose parents run a takeaway restaurant and who was ‎also killed in Syria described his feeling of disconnect from a society he felt rejected from in one of ‎his final posts on Twitter, he said: “It is better for the authorities to allow these Muslims who want ‎to migrate & do jihad. This way, we’re out of your way.”‎

Young people, Muslim or not, need a stake in the system. They need to feel that legal, mainstream ‎routes to success are open to them and ultimately they need to find a means of asserting their ‎self-worth. When such avenues are closed, other paths to criminality or extremism can begin to ‎seem more attractive. The UN’s counter-radicalisation programme advises “a package of social, ‎political, legal, educational and economic programmes specifically designed to deter disaffected ‎‎(and possibly already radicalised) individuals from crossing the line and becoming terrorists”. ‎Where are these initiatives?‎

In 2010, the communities and local government committee warned the Prevent programme was ‎backfiring and advised that the Department for Communities should devote itself instead “to ‎dealing with the underlying causes of all forms of extremism and division”. Instead of providing ‎young Muslims with new opportunities, the government has formulated a revamped PREVENT ‎strategy which Civil liberties group CAGE has described as “cradle-to-grave” levels of surveillance ‎and discrimination. ‎
In the Muslim community, we don’t need studies to tell us that PREVENT has been counter-‎productive in alienating, rather than engaging people. PREVENT is our bête noire. Muslims may not ‎agree on much, but the failure of PREVENT rouses surprising unanimity.

‎ According to Dr. Alex P. Schmid, Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI), “where (young) ‎people have alternative forms of expressing grievances and dissent, where they have other and ‎better occupational options than joining an armed, underground organisation, the appeal of ‎terrorism is likely to be smaller. ” The problem is the government would rather invest money in ‎counterproductive policies virtually designed to alienate the Muslim community than address the ‎need for better schools (clue: not through removing state regulation), jobs, opportunities and ‎more broadly a stake in the system. ‎

Polls indicate that Muslims are even more concerned than the broader public by the risk of extremism, ‎but the current breakdown in trust between the police and the Muslim community means ‎assurances about helping, not criminalising young Muslims are unlikely to be audible. If someone ‎you love is in jeopardy, you stage an intervention, you don’t add to their sense of alienation by ‎convincing them even their family members can’t be trusted. In other words, you rely on proven ‎methods of social work used for people in crisis. Not criminalisation. The asinine nature of this ‎latest ‘surveillance strategy’ is evidence of the problematic lens through which Muslims continue ‎to be filtered. In order to confront extremism, the police needs to forge trust with the very ‎communities they consistently casts blanket suspicion over, and ultimately we as a society need to ‎create sufficient stakes for young Muslim men to believe they have a viable future here in the UK.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 26, 2014 at 13:57