Assisting Radicalisation

Friday 20 February 2015

More British Muslims are members of the Islamic State (ISIS) than are soldiers in the British Army. ISIS has reached the height of its popularity: it has expanded into North Africa and it has replacements ready for when its fighters are killed (despite the inevitability of an internal power struggle). Less is known about the composition of other Jihadist groups in the region, like Jabhat al-Nusra, which Brits are also joining: regardless, it is indisputable that the danger of radicalisation in British Muslim homes is real.

On 13 January, the BBC current affairs television show, Panorama, screened an episode titled ‘The Battle for British Islam’, which I recommend going back and watching. It placed a lot of emphasis upon the grievance narrative perpetuated by non-violent, ultra-conservative, theocratic clerics as a reason for why radicalisation is a problem. This narrative is predicated upon the idea that Muslims are being persecuted for being Muslims, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Foreign examples put forward are the barrel bombing of Muslim civilians in Syria by the Assad regime and – a constant since 1948 – the plight of Muslim Palestinians. Previously, the experiences of Muslims in the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Bosnian War have been used. Injustice and victimhood can be forged from something as ostensibly insignificant as cartooning the Prophet Muhammad, which they say is an attempt to dehumanise a powerless and discriminated against group; hence, it is worthy of a march and a petition, which happened on Sunday 8 February. Last week the perceived under-reporting of the killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, caused both Muslims and anti-fascist groups to mass outside the BBC, screaming “Muslim Lives Matter,” as if the BBC was a well-known font of anti-Muslim bigotry.

Maajid Nawaz
Maajid Nawaz

The issue is that these grievances often build upon a grain of truth which Maajid Nawaz, the co-founder and chairman of the anti-radicalisation think tank Quilliam, calls half-truths. “[H]alf-truths aren’t the same as lies. It’s a lot easier to debunk a lie and to disprove a lie because it’s not based in fact,” Nawaz said in 2013, “they only pick on evidence that justifies their own narrative. They say America is at war with Islam and Muslims because Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Iraq. Muslims are dying everywhere – Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition to torture, waterboarding – these are all things that actually happened. …if one were to try and prove any one of these they can find ample evidence to say these happened and that’s how the young mind gets convinced, but, of course, it doesn’t tell the other side of the story.” The next step is to tell Muslims that they need to defend their faith from the other, the people wanting to destroy it. This is why demonstrations only occur when the victim is a Muslim and the perpetrator is not. One hundred and thirty two children have been massacred in a school in Pakistan? That’s not worth rallying over because those pulling the triggers said they were Muslims. A Jordanian Muslim man, Muath al-Kasasbeh, has been placed in a cage and burnt alive?  Better not march, apparently a Muslim lit the match.

It creates an ‘us versus them’, ‘in-group/out-group’ dynamic. Crimes committed by Muslims against other Muslims do not fit into this narrative, so they are ignored. Islamist clerics attempt to dehumanise non-Muslims to make any future action feel justified and less inhumane. “Part of being a non-Muslim is that they are liars. Usually, usually,” rants Abu Usamah at-Thahabi in the montage of Islamist clerics shown on Panorama. The other two screened are Murtaza Khan and Haitham al-Haddad. All three have said some despicable, antisemitic, misogynistic, racist things, hoping to remove any semblance of humanity from the out-group non-Muslims, thus deepening the fictional divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. This is identity politics at its headiest; calling on Muslims to identify with their faith first and foremost and protect it from inevitable outside attackers.

The worst part, and the greatest success of the Islamist movement in Britain, is that these hate preachers have been adopted by the media as the voice of the British Muslim community (as if such a coherent single group exists). This has allowed Islamists to call themselves mainstream and label anyone who says otherwise a racist or an Islamophobe – this includes liberal Muslims. Naser Khader, a Danish-Syrian Muslim and former member of the Parliament of Denmark, is quoted in Nick Cohen’s marvellous work, You can’t read this book (which I beseech you to read), discussing the opinion of mainstream society. Khader says that “They [mainstream society] take a minority in a minority to represent everyone.  When the minority in the minority demands the right to oppress the majority within the minority, they give it to them.”

And now we turn to our Caucasian correspondent to hear how the Caucasian community feel about this development...
“And now we turn to our Caucasian correspondent to hear how the Caucasian community feel about this development…”

There are more similarities than differences between fascists and Islamists. They are closer in ideology to one another than either is to the Liberal centre, but Islamist groups are considered respectable and allowed a platform to air their views because they claim they speak for a minority. Spokesmen from Islamist groups are routinely asked to appear on news and current affairs programs. They speak as the voice of the British Muslim community, and the media takes their word for it. Far-right white racist groups often use a similar tactic when discussing a pure Aryan race as if they speak for all Caucasian people. The difference is that television executives, newspaper editors, and radio producers refuse to converse with white racists (and there will be no backlash if they continue to refuse), but they allow Islamist racists to air their grievances.

Two examples: in 2012, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) wrote that they disliked a Channel 4 documentary, Islam: The Untold Story, by historian Tom Holland. They called it “clearly biased,” amongst other things. You may, correctly, think: who cares? Well, the BBC then published a story featuring their press release, even though leading members of the iERA have made openly antisemitic comments, approved the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy, and have stated that domestic violence against women is acceptable. From there it snowballed: other groups complained, Holland and people at Channel 4 were threatened, and so, on 11 September 2012, Channel 4 cancelled a planned screening at its London headquarters and decided not to schedule it. They said it would only be available on 4oD.

When Brigadier Lee Rigby was publicly executed in Woolwich, Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK) went on television and said the government had to admit the “direct link” between Britain’s foreign policy and the death of Rigby. When the massacre at Charlie Hebdo happened last month, again Bukhari was on television exonerating the killers and indirectly blaming the deceased for their own murders. MPACUK has a very chequered history, not least its antisemitism and routine conflation of ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jew’, yet they keep being given air time. Supporters and members of groups like the iERA and MPACUK are part of a minority which do not represent the views of the majority of British Muslims. Yet, as their opinions continue to be sought, these groups are given a respect which they do not reciprocate or deserve. It is embarrassing that they are treated as if they speak for British Muslims. It is also problematic, because, by featuring on such a public, high profile medium, both the grievance and ‘us vs. them’ narratives are lent a legitimacy.

There is an ongoing ideological battle within British Islam to be rid of the ungainly concepts of grievance, victimhood and ‘the other’ for, mainly, two reasons.  First, it is fiction:

  • Islam is a religion. Religions are prone to schism. More than one sect exists in Britain and no one person or group speaks for all Muslims.
  • There is no Western war on Muslims. There are only people tragically caught in war-zones; though, that is not to say that there are no anti-Muslim bigots. Intolerance still exists and should be argued against and called out. Nonetheless illegitimate anti-Muslim bigotry is not to be confused with the legitimate stance taken by those opposing Islamism.
  • The majority of British Muslims – especially women – have a far better quality of life in the UK, than if they lived in an Islamist society. This is shown again and again, and is not dissimilar to the masochism of spoilt Westerners.

Second, these myths are pushing some Muslims toward Islamism and on to Jihadism. The media has been getting better – painfully slowly, I might add – at selecting liberal Muslims to appear, Maajid Nawaz for one. I hope that the days when Anjem Choudary will feature on Newsnight are gone (although he does still write for USA Today).

Islamists have been facilitating radicalisation by pressuring Muslims to pick sides in a fictional battle, occasionally through the threat of violence. If we want to help our liberal brothers and sisters fight radicalisation we can start by handling Islamists the same way we treat white racists. To do this we must argue them back to the fringes. This is not censorship; it is rationally debating them, convincingly winning, and then removing the oxygen of publicity from their discredited ideas. Those that shout the loudest get heard, such is life — but we do not have to listen. When tragedy befalls our society I do not want to hear Asghar Bukhari once again telling us that the West is to blame. Nor do I want to be told what I can and cannot watch on my television by theocratic fascists. To accept that these people must be given a platform as part of a balanced argument is masochism. Masochism offered to us by sadists. We need the Islamist ideology to be rejected by mainstream society like fascism has been since 1945.

I have written in the past that we are not directly involved in this ideological battle, but we can help the morally superior side by aiding heroic organisations like Quilliam, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

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Conversion and Cults

Church of Scientology building in Los Angeles, Fountain Avenue

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Whenever I hear the word ‘cult’, Heaven’s Gate and the Peoples Temple spring to mind. These groups were involved in two of the most infamous mass suicides of recent times. In March 1997, not too far from San Diego, the leader of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Applewhite, convinced all 39 members – aged between 26 and 72 – to ingest a deadly mixture of phenobarbital and apple sauce, wash it down with vodka, and wrap plastic bags around their heads. This was, he claimed, “the only way to evacuate this Earth” and earn their souls passage on the spacecraft which was in the tail of the passing Hale-Bopp comet. The event orchestrated by Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple, occurred in Guyana at the eponymous Jonestown in 1978. It was facilitated by a large metal tub of grape juice flavoured with a deadly mix of four drugs (including cyanide), and took the lives of 920 people.

When tragic incidents like these take place the response is usually one of disbelief. Why did it happen? Could anything have been done to prevent it? This search for answers is then forsaken, and, so, in an attempt to reassure ourselves, the media labels the group as crackpot and unreachable. They tell us there was nothing we could have done. I consider this to be too simple. In this piece I wish to answer the following question: if somebody holds an extreme view can they be persuaded to change their mind? Ultimately, the answer is an overwhelming “yes, but” because it is both difficult and exceptional for an outsider to be the catalyst. More often than not, people change their own minds.

Cults continue to exist and be feared because they are easier to join than they are to leave. It goes without saying that they are not all death cults, not least because this would make their recruitment department’s job a bit fiddly. They have to give new recruits something tangible or the illusion of something tangible which the recruit feels they are missing. Creating this dependency gives people enough of a reason to stay. Scientology is no different in this regard.

John Sweeney
John Sweeney famously snapped during the filming of ‘Scientology and Me’ at Tommy Davis of the Church of Scientology. (Click for a Church condoned video.)

Started in the early 1950s by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology calls itself ‘a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being.’ If this was all there was to it then it would not be too dissimilar to mainstream religion. The Church, however, has had more than its fair share of criticism. This includes – but is not limited to – defrauding its members, brainwashing, splitting up families, and an overzealous desire to attack its critics. The attacks come in many ways, such as litigation, character assassination, and psychological abuse. For example, during the filming of the 2007 BBC Panorama documentary ‘Scientology and Me’, journalist John Sweeney was continually followed and harassed by members of the Church. The same practice was again used during the making of Sweeney’s 2010 follow-up. A quote from Richard Behar’s 1991 Time magazine article nicely sums the Church of Scientology up: it is ‘a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.’

Also like the Mafia, people defect from the Church every now and then. Even some of the most convinced believers alter their convictions and depart. For Tory Christman it was the Church’s insistence on curbing free speech that tipped her over the edge. Christman had worked in a subsection of the Church’s hierarchy called the Office of Special Affairs (OSA) since the late 1970s. In 1999, the mandatory Scientology censorship software on her home computer was removed by OSA agents so that she could monitor online material critical of the Church. Christman ran multiple accounts on several online forums and tried to quell debate about the Church by attacking its critics. In July 2000, the owner of one website reached out to her and explained his opposition, shortly afterwards Christman left the Church of Scientology. She is now a vocal critic of the organisation.

Tory Christman
Tory Christman

Tory Christman’s conversion is what is sometimes called a Pyrrhic conversion. In effect, this is where the goal which one is striving for is considered too costly even if it is achievable. When she was tasked with censoring online criticism two strongly held beliefs came into conflict, so she had to decide between them. This is as clear a case of cognitive dissonance as one is able to find. Simply put, cognitive dissonance is where humans hold two contradictory ideas or positions at one time and, as a direct result, experience mental distress which forces them to solve the issue. Most of the time when we end up in this situation we confabulate an explanation as to how two or more conflicting ideas can coexist together in our mind, or we suppress and ignore the problem. On occasion though we end up picking our side and this comes at the end of a long process of inner, mostly subconscious, reflection on a subject. For Christman it came down to free speech or Scientology. Seeing as they are contradictory, she had to decide between the two and came to the conclusion that she favoured free speech, and thus left the Church. This explains how she quickly came to be a critic: because it went against what she believed in, what she holds close as a part of her narrative.

Christman was certainly not the first person to have this dilemma. In leaving, however, she is probably in the minority. The power of cults lies in their ability to provide their members with agency. Most members claim to have been searching for something before finding it in their cult. This can be as simple as a sense of security or constancy. Pulling out ones roots and disassociating oneself from the group which has meant so much is not easily done. “The 9th and lowest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors,” wrote Dante in The Inferno. The thought of being considered a traitor by those that were once ideological (if not actual) brothers and sisters can be enough to make one believe their actions to be Pyrrhic.

Renouncing a belief does not happen on a whim and is rarely the result of a snap decision, whether made internally or at the behest of an external force. Changing ones conviction, especially extreme convictions, is a lengthy process of inner reflection, meditation and promotion of disillusion with the belief. People do not perform instantaneous volte-face because the tendency of our personal narrative to defend our core beliefs is paramount by necessity. If you are trying to convince someone that their strongly held belief is mistaken, then the person you are talking to has to be open to criticism in the first place for you to make the slightest bit of difference. For this they probably have to be in a good mood and they must have done some prior personal reflection. If they haven’t then they will go into a defensive state which will only strengthen their conviction, quashing any progress previously made towards a conversion.

We are an incredibly stubborn species. How often have you tried to do things your own way, only to find that the person who was giving you the guidance you ignored was correct and that you could have saved yourself a lot of time had you just listened to them? Nobody likes admitting that they were wrong. Holding an extreme belief, such as being a member of a cult, is one of the most hardened positions one can take. Our in-group/out-group mentality gives us the belief that we know what is going on, but others – the idiots, the other – do not. A Scientologist sees non-Scientologists as sadly deluded. ingroup-outgroupImagine realising that, in actual fact, you have been the sadly deluded one. Facing this and admitting that you were mistaken is mentally analogous with submission. Solving cognitive dissonance in favour of the predating belief saves face for our personal narrative. It is easier to stick with the initial story, the cult’s story. It is easier to leave your thinking to other people and to invest total faith in a belief system which does all the thinking for you. It is the quest for a feeling of security; however, if it is attained by sacrificing freedom, then one ends up with neither.

Can racists be convinced of equality? Can a homophobe support gay marriage? Yes and yes. The lingering ‘but’ is that they need to have done a lot of the work themselves such that they are open to change. The grievance which led them to their current position, therefore, needs to have been resolved in some way such that they are strong enough to abandon the oddly comforting extreme belief. This leads to another question: how could the members of Heaven’s Gate and the Peoples Temple have solved their problem outside of the cult? These groups created a family unit: they lived on the same plot of land, they dined together, and they very rarely interacted with people who were not members. They did everything as an isolated unit. Nobody who wasn’t a member knew that they were going to kill themselves. A similarity they have with Scientology is that the latter uses isolation as a tool to bolster their membership. This is the difference between cults and everyday racists, sexists, homophobes and conspiracy theorists who are chiefly assimilated into society; hence, they may be easier to reach. Regardless, one still needs to have entertained the contradictory notion for a difference to be made.

(Dedicated to Inders. 02/12 – 12/14.)