Shooting ourselves in the foot: British Muslims and Syria

Hundreds of British Muslims are fighting in Syria

This article is a difficult one to write because it involves some criticism of Muslims and I don’t like doing that given that we are already a community under siege by government surveillance and an Islamophobic media, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.

Nevertheless I think there comes a time when we have to address our own failures with regard to the current furore over young British Muslims going to fight in Syria.

And given that this website is directed at Muslims and is overwhelmingly read by Muslims I think it is the right forum to do so.

As the British government and media propaganda about “British jihadis” has gone into overdrive these past few months, many respected Muslim commentators have likened jihadis going out to Syria to British leftists going to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

That argument is very popular in our circles and resonates with many, while my argument in this piece will probably resonate with much fewer. Neverthless I think these Muslim commentators are wrong.

Al Qaeda

I’m not an expert on the International Brigades but I am pretty clued up on al Qaeda, having followed this group’s trajectory since the late 90s. And while I admit that I initially supported al Qaeda’s grievances and goals (if not their indiscriminately violent methodology) I now view them as one of the greatest internal enemies this Ummah faces.

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Whereas once al Qaeda focussed their attention on expelling Western imperialists from Muslim lands, they have now changed their focus to fighting Shias and anyone else who disagrees with their black and white worldview.

And in doing this al Qaeda has become a source of huge fitna within the Islamic body; it constantly gives Western powers the excuse to intervene in our countries; it sullies the reputation of Islam in front of the whole world; it sets back the cause of Islamic unity and even Khilafah; and it directly assists Western foreign policy by helping to destroy our nations.

I should add that the above view is not only shared by anti-AQ commentators like me, but by many “Islamists” and “jihadi sympathisers” themselves.

It's thought that hundreds of British Muslims are fighting with ISIS
It’s thought that hundreds of British Muslims are fighting with ISIS

And of course al Qaeda (in its modern incarnation ISIS) is currently at the forefront of the war in Iraq and Syria and is the organisation that many young British Muslims end up supporting and joining.

So ultimately the British Muslims who travel to Syria may well end up fighting with a group which is actually harming the Ummah’s interests. They will be fighting in a war in which they are small pawns in a greater game which they don’t understand. And they will not have any ability to affect the outcome of the conflict.

Therefore, Islamically-speaking, is it responsible to encourage young Muslims to travel to such a battle-zone? Or to glorify their efforts? Personally I think not.

Moreover, many Syrian rebel groups have made it explicitly clear that they do not want foreign fighters who do not understand the local culture, language or conditions coming to join the battle against Assad. What they want is money and weapons.

So instead of glorifying this “jihad” I think British Muslim leaders should have been vociferously warning our young people against going out there. And the fact that we haven’t has played right into the hands of the British state’s foreign policy as well as its domestic policies towards Muslims.

British state

Now many of you may be suspecting that I am some sort of government agent because I am effectively arguing the same thing as Theresa May – that British Muslims should be warned against going to Syria. Well, all I can say is that while I do agree with the government on this one it certainly isn’t for the same reasons.

Firstly, we should acknowledge that the British government let Muslims travel freely to Syria via Turkey to join the fight against Bashar for several years after 2011. And I have also heard anecdotal (yet in my estimation credible) evidence that in some cases they facilitated that travel because they wanted to aid the uprising against Bashar.

So the sudden about-turn during the last six months in British government policy and media coverage of British jihadis is hypocritical to say the least. Personally I think it is down to the fact that the Brits now realise that Bashar will not be overthrown and the fact that MI5 is looking for more funding to fight the exaggerated “terror threat” at home.

MI5 headquarters in London
MI5 headquarters in London

That said, is what they’re saying plausible? Could British jihadis come back home and start blowing up stuff?

Well, while I think the state and media are deliberately exaggerating this prospect to justify their polices I also think that there is a reasonable chance that a radicalised, trained British jihadi coming back from Syria indoctrinated by visceral hatred of Shias and the West could well mount some kind of lone-wolf terrorist attack.

So instead of burying our heads in the sand and talking in romantic terms about “jihad” British Muslim leaders should acknowledge that fact.

The simple truth is that given the attacks against the West that have already taken place, the British authorities will not welcome back returning jihadis with roses. And we shouldn’t expect them to.

That doesn’t mean that we should physically prevent would-be jihadis going to Syria as many of them may well have good (if naive) intentions. But they shouldn’t expect to ever come back.

Shooting ourselves in the foot

Unfortunately for British Muslims this whole jihadi saga will have many negative effects.

Firstly, the government will use it as an opportunity to increase monitoring and harassment of Muslims at home. Secondly, the media will use it as an excuse to play up the threat of “Islamic extremism” and generally sully the reputation of Islam and Muslims. And thirdly, more young British Muslims will have their lives ruined for no good reason.

Yet all of this was rather predicatble and was predicted by many astute analysts several years ago.

But as usual British Muslims are forced to try and do damage limitation after the horse has bolted. We are once again in reactive mode, fire-fighting a crisis which we could have prevented in the first place.

This should have been an internal matter for the Muslim community. We should have recognised the signs that were all too clear that led to this crisis.

Without the state or media having to tell us what to do, we should have recognised that geopolitically the Syria war was a trap; and we should have twigged that the sectarian and violent discourse of a minority of British Muslims was getting out of control.

But we failed to address these issues before they became uncontrollable. And in doing so we handed the British state and media a big stick to beat us with.


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