Schoolboys to masked murderers. Photo: Getty
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I turned on the TV to find my old classmates had become Isis militants

How it feels to watch the news and see that your old school friends are jihadists fighting with Islamic State.

It's a spectacle that pushes all the right buttons to keep us in captive horror – British citizens going out to join a black-hooded death cult in Syria and Northern Iraq. The situation's grimness alone might be enough, but then there's how media-friendly Islamic State has been, too. Their macabre videos are intended to be as visually striking and fear-provoking as possible. They want to be perceived as something more than run-of-the-mill gunmen, a millenarian juggernaut that is willing to raze the Middle East to the ground and build their future on the ruins. A trigger-happy United States and a tabloid press obsessed with lurid death porn are often only too eager to fuel that characterisation. Because of that, we forget that the estimated 500 British Isis fighters could ever have been normal, once. I'm part of that, as someone who protested the Iraq war and is generally of the opinion that intervening does more harm than good, yet at times I have been pretty sanguine about airstrikes. But I saw a few of these so-called holy warriors in a very different context, five years ago. I was at school with them.

I found out what had happened a few weeks ago, when an old friend linked me to an ITV news clip reporting the death of one British jihadi and showcasing a recruitment video made by another. “It’s Mo,” he said, “and Hamza”, or words to that effect. I watched the clip a couple of times in disbelief. A few explanations ran through my head – it was a prank, the guy in the clip was a lookalike, some mistake had been made. But apparently not. I checked the Facebook profiles of the boys in question. Mo, who is now dead with a piece of shrapnel stuck in his skull, had last checked in at a popular curry restaurant in Notting Hill. The most recent thing on Hamza’s profile is birthday wishes from friends, who I don’t imagine had any idea what happened. In his list of likes is Barry from Four Lions, the black comedy send-up of Islamist terrorism. I've since heard that a third alumnus of my school has gone out there. Still, none of the rest of us can quite believe it.

I took a short video of our school leavers in Year 11. Mo’s on it, and the last thing he says is “Remember me. . . my name’s Mo”. That takes on a much more chilling dimension now. When things like this happen, it’s a cliché to say “I had no idea, he was always such a nice guy”. But it also happens to be true. I didn’t know Hamza all too well, but we did walk the same corridors for five years. Mo was a fairly typical teenager, and a wind-up merchant who delighted in annoying our teachers. He had a strong social conscience (even intervening to stop me getting picked on once) and an infectious cheeky grin. Neither were especially religious, as far as I knew. We had a big Muslim community in the school and they certainly weren’t at the devout end of the spectrum. In any case, my school was the sort of place where being culturally heterogeneous was not something that could last for long. It was the only comp in England’s richest borough, hunkered in between Edwardian mansions and collapsing council estates, in the town of the Notting Hill Carnival, Portobello Market and Kensington Palace. We had just about every race, religion, class background and gender you could think of, and while there were “communities” that stuck together, the boundaries were porous. They had to be.

I say this because we have this image in our head of extremism as something that grows up enclavised and isolated. The right might fulminate at immigrants who don’t integrate and look suspiciously at the most devout or socially conservative Muslims (who ironically probably share similar views to your average Mail reader). The left might talk about disenfranchisement, poverty and social exclusion creating fertile ground for the wrong kind of radicalisation – and these are fair points. But if you’re looking for crippling social exclusion and Luton-style ethnic tensions, don’t go to North Kensington (although it is fair to say that Islamophobia and the politics of reaction can be found anywhere if you look). Regardless, the tenor of public debate has it all wrong. The politicians and the papers stoke up fear of “Trojan horse” scandals (a friend of mine reminds me that some of the Trojan Horse allegations aren’t all that different to what she experienced at Catholic school) and extremist parents. Our school was about as far as possible from junior-jihadi training camp as it is possible to get, and the families are as shocked and disgusted as everyone else is about what has happened. “That’s not my brother,” Hamza’s brother says tearfully on the ITV news clip. He’d lied to his parents and told them he was going to study in Germany.

Mehdi Hasan made the point that a lot of this is about rank stupidity, not extremism. These are the “jihadis” that learn their trade from Islam for Dummies, compare themselves to the rebel alliance from Star Wars and get into Twitter rows about Jumanji and The Lion King. While the core of Isis might be firmly “old guard”, the bulk of their expat fighters – and rumour has it the British are among the most vicious – seem to be young men treating it all like a gruesome gap year holiday. Of course stories such as that of the Isis soldier who posted a picture of himself with a severed head and the caption “chillin with my homie” are disturbing to the core – but it’s also a sign of childishness, not professional guerrilla warfare. At some point we need to break past the mythos of terror and see these ignorant man-children for what they are. We have to stop assuming that “religious extremists” are actually genuine religious extremists. If they were, they might have noticed that most of the world's Muslims are lining up to condemn them. We also need to ensure that Muslims with dissenting opinions who engage in politics aren’t demonised, but that’s another story.

Isis appears to be new, to have sprung from nowhere – largely thanks to foreign fighters. Its destructive and brutal nihilism seems to have grown out of the apocalyptic conditions of the Syrian civil war, and an Iraq bloodied by invasion and sectarian battles. Among all of that, we have the phenomenon of the angry young man. History is littered with adolescent males socialised into cultures of machismo, with tension and energy to burn. History is equally littered with military leaders who take advantage of this, corrupting the minds of such young men and sending them to their deaths. When Isis’s recruiting sergeants twisted the minds of my schoolmates and turned them into killers, they’re repeating an age-old process. The people that are callously butchering aid workers and journalists aren’t doing so, to my mind, out of unreconstructed medieval barbarism, but out of arrogance and foolishness made dangerous by the weapons and power handed to them. Understanding that must be part of the key to being better able to prevent them from preying on our young people.

They are our young people. Britain can’t simply burn passports and refuse to let Isis fighters back in. The ones who come back legally with the same names and passports are unlikely to be the ones planning to blow something up. We have to take responsibility. At the simplest liberal level, British citizens should face British justice, no matter their crimes. If someone turned these average teenagers into killers, something can turn them back. Already reports abound of disillusioned would-be fighters wanting to come home. By now it could be a post-December 1914 moment, where these young men are realising that running around killing people is not actually half as fun as their recruiters made out.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. I still don’t know how a friend I hadn’t spoken to in five years went from schoolkid to masked murderer, and paid the price with his life. Above all, I’m still shocked and deeply saddened by it, and these are collected thoughts rather than a coherent response. But I don’t think any of us are going the right way about finding out the answers, either. 

This article first appeared on nathan-akehurst.blogspot.co.uk, and is crossposted here with permission

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.