The Blog

ISIS and Identity

Why are young people leaving Europe to fight for? They are looking for somewhere to belong.

Why are young people leaving Europe to fight for ISIS? They are looking for somewhere to belong.

According to some press reports, 500 Britons have left for Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS (Islamic State). Others put the figure closer to 2000. The number of European nationals who have left to join is estimated at 5,000-6,000.

Among the most recent were three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in London.

That so many have left the affluent West to join an oppressive, murderous regime in a developing world war zone is confounding. This is especially the case in situations where foreign fighters were born and educated (often to degree level) in Europe.

Agencies and governments are keen to understand how these (mostly) young people have been radicalised. Were they gullible? Did they have family issues? Did they feel disconnected? Were they angry?

I would argue the answer lies in variations of all of the above - but what lies at the heart of this issue is identity and belonging. I believe that what was once described as a 'culture clash' has become much more profound and encompassing.

Islam is an expansive religion. It accounts for almost a quarter of the world's population and is concentrated mostly in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and South East Asia.

Of the 2.8million Muslims in the UK around 60% are of South Asian heritage. Almost 40% are of Pakistani origin.

South Asian migration to the UK, to alleviate the post WWII labour shortage, increased materially from the 1950s to the 1970s.

My parents were among the early migrants, initially to Kent and then to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was born.

I grew up in a small town just outside Newcastle and knew, from a very early age, that I was different. We were the only non-white family for miles. That made us outsiders not only where we lived but also separate from the clusters of Asian communities where my parents had friends.

Racism was an issue we contended with daily and often it was violent: broken windows, 'gifts' through our letterbox, regular damage to my father's car and relentless verbal abuse. It was so commonplace, it felt like the norm.

Given that we had no other Asian people living near us, we didn't have community support or the option to resist through strength in numbers. All we could do was try to fit in as best we could.

What was clear was that my siblings and I were straddling two different existences.

At school, we were, to all intents and purposes, the same as our white peers. All that marked us as different was the colour of our skin. However, at home, almost everything was different. Our clothes, our food, our language, our religion - none of it was English or British, it had all been imported.

The values of the two cultures we moved between were distinct and dissimilar. And as I grew older the disparity became progressively more pronounced. Regularly I questioned where I belonged.

I felt more British than I did anything else. There was a familiarity with Pakistani customs but the country was foreign to me. I have only visited once and as a small child. But even then I was aware that I was a foreigner there too. The locals referred to us as 'the English'.

Heritage, in any event, for me, and for my peers, was distorted. Most first generation South Asian immigrants to the UK brought with them the values extant at the time they left. They clung to them as a way of holding onto 'home'. And these values didn't move on even though the place they'd left behind was changing and progressing.

So when their children visited, they experienced a jarring in terms of the culture and heritage they had been taught and what they actually saw. A time warp which would only add to questions of belonging.

Effectively there was a choice of two sides. Being a British Asian had to be weighted to one side or the other. The Tebbit test is an example of this.

I leaned and now believe I am unequivocally British. I think this is a function of my having had a more secular upbringing endorsed by my relatively liberal father who enrolled us in a church primary school and had friends from every walk of life.

The downside to this is that my British Asian counterparts often called me a 'coconut' and still do; brown on the outside, white on the inside. There are other similar terms - Bounty bar, choc-ice, Oreo.

It seems that one can't be both British and Asian and to be British is considered to have let the other side down. The argument is that Asians should stick together because white people will never really accept them. That might not be the case for all but I believe the majority is accepting.

But regardless, there's no win here. Choosing the other side still doesn't result in a sense of belonging. There is some level of solidarity or camaraderie perhaps but it's still life on the periphery.

This is the experience of the second generation.

For the third generation the connection with their heritage is more distant; with parents whose first language is now most likely English and where the gap in cultures has widened even further.

They should feel more British. However the influx in immigrants from white Eastern Europe who don't necessarily recognise brown British Asians as distinctly and categorically British can cause them to question their identity.

With the rise of UKIP and other anti-immigration or right-wing European parties this is even more pronounced.

All of this can give rise to internal, personal strife and, no doubt, a certain amount of anger.

And the situation, I believe, is much the same for North Africans in France or the descendants of Muslim immigrants into other European countries.

I believe this is why they turn to religion.

The key defining aspect of Islam is that it is unifying. It transcends culture, creed, language, colour, race.

Its prayers, recitations and holy book are in one single language. The rules are the same with no adaptation for culture or race. It has no hierarchy. And with almost 90% of Muslims belonging to the Sunni sect the religion also lacks the denomination and segmentation of many other religions, for example Christianity or Hinduism.

It has a single community - the ummah. The world over, Muslims refer to their co-religionists as brothers and sisters. There is a clear understanding that they have a responsibility to each other and that they should unite when tested.

I was at school when Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was published. The discussion as to whether he had insulted Islam's prophet and offended the world's Muslims continued into my university years. I remember many of my British Muslim university peers unequivocally calling for Rushdie's head. To call for a man's death is shocking and to do this without having read the book, i.e. with no evidence or testimony is frightening.

This serves to underline the power of the calling to unity among Muslims.

For those feeling displaced or disenfranchised it may very well represent the ultimate and singular place to belong. A place of genuine comradeship. And it is a meaningful place, made up of around 1.6 billion people.

It is perhaps no wonder that this is the religion chosen by Malcolm X and other African-Americans who have struggled with the loss of their heritage to slavery, their indeterminate position in society post the Civil Rights movement and where recent police shootings have shed light on continuing racial prejudice.

For recruiters of groups like ISIS belonging is the key nerve they tap into. They promise a real belonging and a genuine kinship.

Slot this in with the presumed struggle for what ISIS considers a noble, communal cause plus the promise of a wondrous afterlife and many would be seduced.

And teenagers are the most vulnerable as this is the period in life when we seek individuality and look to discover who we really are. It is also the point of dissociation with our parents.

ISIS knows this and uses it. It offers independent identity but within a familial framework.

It also presents its teachings to be the 'true, pure word' suggesting that misguided parents have presented culturally distorted or diluted versions.

This creates a credible and legitimate reason for teenagers to reject their families.

And for younger teenagers ISIS promises to allow for the continued indulgence of childish pursuits. For example the sisters from Bethnal Green were lured with images of the kittens they would keep.

This, no doubt, alongside the promise of freedom from western sexual objectification. They would become the lofty wives, widows or mothers of great, self-sacrificing martyrs.

ISIS is also fully aware of the power of social media and wields this impressively. Its large contingent of young techno-savvy men and women know how to connect with their peers.

They've mastered the power of imagery. The strong visual contrast of the orange and black in the execution videos was not lost on a generation in tune with Instagram and YouTube.

Their approach is also multi-national. It is no accident that they use English-speaking executioners and operate across numerous multi-language grooming sites.

All of this is what makes ISIS that much more widely appealing than say Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda always came across as exclusively Arab run by old men living in caves. Hardly appealing to most young people and certainly not to young Westerners who are used to more creature comforts.

Foreign ISIS fighters are rewarded with glory, houses, dedicated healthcare and their pick of Yazidi women and girls. Why wait for the promised afterlife?

ISIS is a sophisticated globalised network - well-financed, well-armed, well-organised and technologically connected.

The question as to what to do is too big for most of us to answer. A first step would be for all of us to more carefully consider the language we use to describe an ISIS fighter.

To westerners the term jihadi connotes bloodthirsty fanaticism. However for the Muslim community the word has an entirely different and powerful meaning; it is effectively a noble call to arms from their brothers.

The word jihadi is part of ISIS' propaganda terminology. To use this word inadvertently supports its campaign call for more fighters for its cause.

ISIS fighters are not jihadis - they are murderers, rapists, slavers, torturers, thieves, thugs and oppressors. There is nothing dignified in what they do.

In the age of political correctness there needs to be an open and frank dialogue.

The British writer and broadcaster, Trevor Philips, recently stated that there needs to be a discussion about race.

What we also need to discuss is identity. If we really belong, we'd have no reason to leave.

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