Amna Ejaz Rafi

We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists is written by Raffaello Pantucci. Raffaello is Director, International Security Studies, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and his expertise are studies related terrorism and radicalization.

The book is an insight into the lives of British Muslims whose parents migrated to Britain in search of better living. Immigrant parents provided their children with good schooling and the kids had the opportunity to acquaint with the British way of life. However, there are three factors that explain the rise of Britain’s suburban terrorists. First is the issue of identity. Pantucci writes that the British Muslims born and brought up in the UK have the same accent as their British fellows and a university degree and all they want is acceptance from the British society. They have identity issues given that they are discriminated against due to their dark coloured skin which somehow makes them less British for some. The author quotes Anjum Choudary, leader of Al-Muhajiroun in the UK who believes that, “the overt racism of the earlier generations might have died down, despite the fact that you have just as many qualifications as the next man and have gone to the same universities, [but] there is still a feeling that you are disadvantaged or people are still discriminating against you.”

A child from Muslim parents, living in the UK, attends British school, also goes to the mosque and interacts with his relatives back home. These various platforms are opportunities to learn, however, the contrast in school and mosque, the difference in home and society and one’s own experiences triggers conflictual thoughts. The young British Muslims find it hard to strike a balance between their parental values and societal norms, between their mosque and the school. On the other hand, British Muslims, who adapted to the British way of life may at times also feel ill-placed and face racial discrimination. Pantucci writes that “you find someone called Muhammad, who grew up in the Western society, he changes his name to Mike, he has a girlfriend, he drinks alcohol, he dances, … after everything he gave up to be accepted, they tell him he is a bloody Arab, or a Paki.” British Muslims (unlike their parents) want to be a part of the society but the racial sentiment prevalent in the society makes them marginalized. It leads to social isolation which in turn provokes reactionary tendencies in young Muslim Brits who are facing identity issues. Young British Muslims in search of new identity try to build a connection with their parental lineage and become assertive by openly saying, “I’m a Paki”; “I think of myself as a British Asian Muslim”; “I’m a Muslim, I believe in Islam”; or “I think of myself as a British Asian.” Perhaps this is what gives them the sense of identity otherwise lost.

The Second thread that this book explores is the issue of grievance. The book draws attention to the narrative of ‘global Muslim identity’ and the magnetic pull it carries. Pantucci argues well that the religious education which a British Muslim receives from his parents aims at making him a conservative and may not necessarily be supportive of the global Muslim identity. However, the inclination towards the phenomenon of Muslim Ummah does exist. Muslims suffering around the world, in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, carry political dimensions and have greatly impacted the Muslims who live in Western countries. British Muslims have expressed their opposition to Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan war theatres even though their sentiments differed with respect to their ties to the suppressed communities. For example, British Pakistanis strongly resonated with their ethnic brethren in Afghanistan while for Iraq, the sentiment primarily revolved around suffering of the broader ‘global Ummah’ which is often seen through the Arab world prism. This sense of grievance which is generated through West’s involvement in the Muslim world through acts of war and suppression pushes young British Muslims to express solidarity with their Ummah unfortunately through extremist ways. How instrumental have these wars been in prompting radical leanings? The book explores this question in depth. Munir Farooqi, 40, resident of Manchester left for jihad in Afghanistan, was captured in Mazar-e-Sharif and was later freed. After his return to the UK, he “established a pipeline in Manchester sending young men to fight alongside the Taliban.”

The third inter-linked thread explored by Pantucci is the issue of recruitment of these young Muslim men and women by terrorists which thrives on both their sense of lost identity and grievance. In this regard, Pantucci discusses the role of ‘radical preachers’ in provoking anti-Western sentiments. Regular speeches by terrorists that get prospective recruits hooked rely on hate sentiments provoking the sense of dignity and connectivity with the oppressed Ummah. For example, Pantucci refers to a 2010 speech which called upon the Muslims to boycott elections, by saying that “voting is Kufr and Haram – voting would mean supporting a system which had allowed the invasion of Iraq.” The book talks about British Muslims who have travelled to Kashmir, Afghanistan and Lebanon in quest of peace and pursuance of jihad after being recruited by terrorists.

But despite all the pessimism that surrounds the reality of Britain’s suburban terrorists, Pantucci highlights that the British society is still rife with positives which still holds attraction for outsiders including Muslims. For instance, the justice system and the rule of law in the country is same for all. Medical and health benefits that the British society offers to immigrants from a developing country are worth appreciating.

Racism, however, is one real issue with which the society is struggling. It alone has created a real divide between the British and other immigrant communities (in particular Muslims) in Britain responsible for provocative behaviours that it invites. Extremist outfits exploit this polarization and have given a political dimension to this racial divide. There is no denying the fact that there is a level of White supremacy that does exist but justifying radical behaviour on the premise of discrimination is not a solution. To control this growing divide, parents alongside religious scholars need to play their due role. Pantucci identifies religious concerns of the immigrants and highlights that Muslim communities have brought religious clerics from their ancestral homes to impart religious education to their children at home. These clerics (Mullahs) are neither fluent in English nor are they well-versed with the British society. When questioned about belief, the rigid response snubs the “spirit of inquisitiveness that is fostered in the British education system.” Dilwar Hussain, head of the Policy Research Centre at the Islamic Foundation, and a second generation Bangladeshi, told Pantucci that “asking questions in the mosque … seemed only to inflame the tempers of the impatient, doctrinally rigid imams.”

The tendency for young British Muslims to join the ranks of extremist organizations could be a reflection of a politico-religious mindset. But the puzzle remains: how come a fraction of British Muslims are at odds with their values and are inclined towards violence? Pantucci asks whether it is the enthusiasm and ‘familial passion’ that motivates a youngster or social isolation? The likes of Mohammad Shakil, Mohammad Siddique Khan, Zeeshan Siddiqui and Omar Khyam were all British citizens brought up in a liberal society yet still joined extremist organizations. Pantucci advises Muslim parents bringing up their kids in the West to be extra vigilant, become involved and be aware of their children’s activities. On the religious front, they should not rely only on religious clerics to impart religious education but rather should take personal interest in shaping their children’s beliefs and value systems.

Pantucci brilliantly weaves these three threads of identity, grievance and recruitment of lone-wolves (by foreign extremists) who do not identify with the true spirit of Islam, are facing rejection of some form from the society in which they were born, finally finding refuge in bonding with the Ummah at some higher level driven by anger at the West’s treatment of their fellow Muslims around the world.

Amna Ejaz Rafi is Assistant Research Officer at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)