Half the foreign jihadists in Syria and Iraq come from Islamic cultures: Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The governments that they reject face a big problem. But the lure of the so-called Caliphate in Syria and Iraq for some young people in Europe is rightly considered a security problem for us. If and when they return, they are likely to have absorbed a pernicious narrative based on a perversion of Islam, plus lethal skills in perpetrating extreme violence. A cornerstone of this narrative is "al-wala wal-bara", meaning loyalty (to everything considered Islamic) and disavowal (of everything not considered Islamic).
But the lure of the so-called "Islamic State" and its ideology is also a political and moral problem for European societies. For how can this back-to-the-future dispensation based on barbaric conquest and Sunni former Baathist allies be appealing to modern young men and women mostly reared in perfectly normal European homes - where the only malady of the soul likely to be incubating is unemployment and boredom. Or putting the question the other way round, what is so bad about our values, our democracies, our concept of liberty, gender equality and sexuality, international relations and our practice of justice in Europe that the ISIS monstrosity looks better?
Perhaps the phenomenon of disavowal and misplaced loyalties is simply a religious equivalent of the socialism of the brave-hearts who went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War? Their hoped-for future was certainly utopian, but hardly back-to-the-future, the fighting cruel, factional and treacherous, though they hardly reveled in the killing. There are a percentage of idealistic young people in each country who go to the Middle East out of humanitarian concerns, several who feel a duty to protect and the ousting of Assad as a great cause, like the ousting of Franco. These are not the problem - though mistrust of their intentions may prevail over a more discriminating policy for return with predictably damaging consequences.
"Many foreign fighters prefer the Caliphate to what's on offer in Europe."”
This still leaves a hard core of hundreds of bigoted sectarians leaving Europe who, when it comes to a polity to live in, apparently prefer the "Caliphate" to what is on offer in Europe. And it does raise the question: should we not look more critically at what we are offering and asking citizens to buy into: the realisation of what we hold to be "British values" or "French laïcité" or "Hungarian nationalism" for example, and consider how a young Muslim, or in the latter cases a young Jew come to that, might find it problematic?
Commitment to democracy arguably is the defining principle, the touchstone of citizenship, the heart of the matter. It is certainly the "least bad" political arrangement on offer. But in both Algeria and Egypt, Muslims could be forgiven for thinking that the West did not actually believe in it. Or as the jihadists quickly proclaimed: "look, we told you so - our way is the only way, is Allah's way". As for China, which is more important for the failing European economy and its struggling governments, a prosperous China with over 7.5% growth or a democratic one. Answers on twitter please.
In democracy's flagship, the USA, you need huge sums of money to even begin to compete for political office, and the notion of a controlling "establishment" - a mix of different economic and professional elites - who manipulate the levers of power in most European countries is not totally fanciful. The disenchantment with politics and elites that leads to the rise of right-wing parties promoting xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and exclusivist forms of nationalism is one outcome of this popular perception.
A young Muslim might in addition notice that "Muslim" Turkey and Jordan, and mixed Lebanon, have taken in millions of refugees and made generous provision for them, in the case of Turkey costing to date over $4 billion for example, while "Christian" Europe discusses whether it should withdraw rescue services and allow boat-people crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to drown. They might notice that in Britain we are so committed to human rights that we have a Minister of Justice who wants to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act that incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights into British law.
"The point is, not to be tendentious, but simply to ask for the imagination to consider our complacent assumption of superiority."”
Enough of this role of devil's advocate, attractive as it is, and considerations of gender, sexuality and foreign policy. The point is, not to be tendentious, but simply to ask for the imagination to consider how our complacent assumption of superiority, even the reality of some necessary hypocrisy required by statecraft, might be seen in the back streets of Bradford and Rotherham.
This is not to excuse but to seek an explanation. Explaining is not condoning. The aim is different. Because unless we can understand motivations, all the counter-narratives in the world will not defeat the ideological power of the ISIS propaganda machine. There is a difference between being idealistic and being imprudent, getting things out of proportion, or plain misguided, and being bad and criminal. We need to consider these differences when we fight against religious extremism and the disavowal of our values. Above all we need to see what we hold dear turned into political and social reality, not turned into base coinage by nudges and words crafted for electoral gain.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.