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On Thursday night, I watched the Channel 4 documentary My Son The Jihadi with my mother. We watched a lot of the programme in silence , listening to the dignified words of a mother in clear anguish.
"Would you still love me?" I asked my mother. "If I'd done those things? Could you still love me?"
She took a few moments to answer. "I would always love you" she said quietly. "But I would hate what you had done. And I would think you deserved to go to prison for the rest of your life."
It was the answer I'd expected- I would have been horrified to hear any other. But it highlighted the awful situation that my mother and I could barely imagine, and that Sally Evans, the mother bravely speaking of her terrible experience, must have never thought she'd find herself in-loving a child but being utterly repulsed by their actions. And therein lies the terror of the situation-her plight is now the plight of too many mothers who would never have imagined their children being lured into this horrific world.
Thomas Evans didn't seem, on the surface, a teenager likely to become involved in jihadi recruitment. He'd had difficulties in his life-his father had left, he'd suffered the breakup of a relationship, he'd been involved in petty crime as a teenager. But many teenagers face these difficulties. Not all go on to become radicalized. In one scene in the programme, an expert on deradicalization explained carefully how a series of seemingly unrelated events in Thomas's life could have laid the path for his brainwashing, as it was referred to by both Sally and another mother whose child had joined the jihadists-this child a young girl who had become Thomas's wife at the age of just fourteen. As someone who has cousins of the same age, it was difficult to watch and listen to the translated words of this young girl, following the news of Thomas's death, claiming that he was in paradise and that he had died as a martyr for Allah.
That was precisely the thing that meant this programme hit so close to home-Thomas Evans did not seem more likely than any other teenager to be converted to extremism. The home videos and photographs show a happy contented child, a little boy like any other. And that only highlights the insidious underlying message for parents-how can you be so sure this could never be your child?
Because surely, at some point, Sally Evans would have been sure too. When she speaks of her memories of Thomas as a baby, one only has to listen to her words to hear how strong her love is for her son. And one only has to look at her as she reads and hears of the atrocities the group he has joined is committing to see the hatred she has of his actions, the horror that it is her son who is participating in these crimes that so sicken everyone.
Prime Minister David Cameron has described the group calling itself Islamic State and the radicalization of teenagers as one of the greatest threats we fight in today's society. While, unlike many of the horror stories we are hearing, Thomas Evans was not indoctrinated over the Internet, his is depressingly familiar-his withdrawal into religion, his insistence that his family-the mother and brother who adored him-are, like all those who do not follow his particular beliefs, doomed to burn in hell.
Islamophobia has been prevalent since the 9/11 attacks-in recent years, especially with the news of terror groups such as ISIS, it seems to be rising in Western countries. But as was pointed out poignantly by experts on extremist radicalization in the programme, while so far they had found it far less common to find white British men joining the ranks of ISIS soldiers, it was not unheard of. Thomas Evans did not come from an extremist background. He did not even come from a Muslim background-by which I certainly don't intend to imply that children from Islamic families are likely to become jihadists. It was a chilling reminder of just how ridiculous Islamophobia is-no religion would ever endorse the horrors perpetuated by these terror groups and Thomas's story proved all too clearly that no child has to be from a Muslim background to fall prey to the dangers of extremism.
Sally's story will have touched every parent who has watched that programme, every parent who has glanced at their child and thought "That will never happen to them." She reminds us poignantly that there were no signs to pick up on, not a hint that her child's views were becoming extreme. We can never doubt her love for her son. Nor can we doubt her horror at the situation. At one point, she says it would be easier if he were dead because then he could never harm anyone. "God forgive me" she says, trembling, in a moment that must have left every parent doing much the same.
When it is discovered that her son is dead, along with other members of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, Sally Evans has to look at images of her son's body on social media. She has to accept that the child she knew and loved is truly gone, never to return, to repent. The tiny glimmer of a chance of ever seeing the boy she used to know has vanished. And then she has to listen to a chilling report of her son brutally, calmly and cold-bloodedly slaughtering innocents. There was absolute silence in our living room as she sat, her face almost completely still in horror, listening to the actions of the child she loved and raised. At one point, the camera lingered on a shot of a smiley face painted in a childish hand-a piece of childhood artwork by Thomas Evans, the smiling, innocent-faced boy who would grow up to be the killer who rejoiced in the murder of innocents.
When Thomas's wife, brainwashed and completely indoctrinated into the dogma of the terrorist group, claims he is in paradise, reaping the rewards of his martyrdom, Sally Evans says, very quietly "He'll be burning in hell for what he's done." The acceptance of this fate for her child is clearly something she will always struggle with-though not nearly as much as the horror of knowing what actions her son undertook. His younger brother, voice cracked, explains how the rest of the world will only ever know Thomas Evans as a terrorist, but for them, they will also always have the memories of him as a son and a brother. It was a chilling reminder that for each young person lured into this horrific world, there is a family left behind-in most cases, struggling to comprehend their child's actions.
With Sally Evans taking the incredible step of reaching out to anti-radicalization organizations and sharing her story, she earns nothing but respect. Her story is one we should all listen to because it's one that brings home a truth that none of us have really wanted to hear. Of course not every child in the UK is in immediate, constant danger of being brainwashed by terrorists. But Sally Evans' story has brought home the age-old cliche-if it could happen to them , it could happen to anyone. In her speech at a conference she describes how she can still remember holding the baby boy who would become the same child she now misses, mourns and whose actions will always haunt her. "Tommy Evans" she describes calling him. "Tommy Evans." The terrible conflicting emotions she will always have to bring together-the love and the horror, the heartbreak and the relief, the baby boy who was cradled and the killer who is hated. The terrible conflicts that, like so many parents, she thought would never be hers' to face. The terrible conflicts that, it is dreaded, so many unsuspecting parents could still face.