Ministers and security chiefs could learn a thing or two from Chris Morris’s black comedy Four Lions. Photo: Magnolia Pictures
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What the jihadists who bought “Islam for Dummies” on Amazon tell us about radicalisation

Pretending that the danger comes only from the devout could cost lives.

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? A copy of Milestones by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb? No. How about Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama Bin Laden? Guess again. Wait, The Anarchist Cookbook, right? Wrong.

Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”, the newspaper said.

For more evidence, read the books of the forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer Marc Sageman; the political scientist Robert Pape; the international relations scholar Rik Coolsaet; the Islamism expert Olivier Roy; the anthropologist Scott Atran. They have all studied the lives and backgrounds of hundreds of gun-toting, bomb-throwing jihadists and they all agree that Islam isn’t to blame for the behaviour of such men (and, yes, they usually are men).

Instead they point to other drivers of radicalisation: moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose. As Atran pointed out in testimony to the US Senate in March 2010: “. . . what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world”. He described wannabe jihadists as “bored, under­employed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men for whom “jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer . . . thrilling, glorious and cool”.

Or, as Chris Morris, the writer and director of the 2010 black comedy Four Lions – which satirised the ignorance, incompetence and sheer banality of British Muslim jihadists – once put it: “Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.”

Berks, not martyrs. “Pathetic figures”, to quote the former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove, not holy warriors. If we want to tackle jihadism, we need to stop exaggerating the threat these young men pose and giving them the oxygen of publicity they crave, and start highlighting how so many of them lead decidedly un-Islamic lives.

When he lived in the Philippines in the 1990s, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described as “the principal architect” of the 11 September attacks by the 9/11 Commission, once flew a helicopter past a girlfriend’s office building with a banner saying “I love you”. His nephew Ramzi Yousef, sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, also had a girlfriend and, like his uncle, was often spotted in Manila’s red-light district. The FBI agent who hunted Yousef said that he “hid behind a cloak of Islam”. Eyewitness accounts suggest the 9/11 hijackers were visiting bars and strip clubs in Florida and Las Vegas in the run-up to the attacks. The Spanish neighbours of Hamid Ahmidan, convicted for his role in the Madrid train bombings of 2004, remember him “zooming by on a motorcycle with his long-haired girlfriend, a Spanish woman with a taste for revealing outfits”, according to press reports.

Religion does, of course, play a role: in particular, a perverted and politicised form of Islam acts as an “emotional vehicle” (to quote Atran), as a means of articulating anger and mobilising masses in the Muslim-majority world. But to pretend that the danger comes only from the devout could cost lives. Whatever the Daily Mail or Michael Gove might have you believe, long beards and flowing robes aren’t indicators of radicalisation; ultra-conservative or reactionary views don’t automatically lead to violent acts. Muslims aren’t all Islamists, Islamists aren’t all jihadists and jihadists aren’t all devout. To claim otherwise isn’t only factually inaccurate; it could be fatal.

Consider Four Lions. Omar is the nice, clean-shaven, thoroughly modern ringleader of a gang of wannabe suicide bombers; he reads Disney stories to his son, sings Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” with his mates and is pretty uninterested in Muslim beliefs or practices. Meanwhile, his brother Ahmed is a religious fundamentalist, a big-bearded Salafist who can’t bear to make eye contact with women and thinks laughter is un-Islamic but who, crucially, has no time for violence or jihad. The police raid the home of peaceful Ahmed, rather than Omar, allowing Omar to escape and launch an attack on . . . a branch of Boots.

Back in the real world, as would-be jihadists buy books such as Islam for Dummies, ministers and security chiefs should venture online and order DVDs of Four Lions. They might learn a thing or two. 

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer, and works for al-Jazeera English and the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

Shazia Awan
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“I was nothing more than a tick-box exercise”: Ex-Tory candidate Shazia Awan on racism in the party

The former Conservative candidate for Leigh reveals how, as a woman from an ethnic minority background, she was singled out and made to feel unwelcome in the party.

I remember the exact moment that the Conservative party first captivated me. It was 2007. David Cameron had appointed the first Muslim woman to his shadow cabinet, in the form of Sayeeda Warsi. I thought: Here is a man promising to change the face and feel of the party – and delivering on it.

With Operation Black Vote – an organisation that fights for BME communities to have a place in British politics – by my side, I began to navigate my way through the murky world of the Conservative party. I stood as a parliamentary candidate in England, and became the first Asian woman to address a Conservative party conference in Wales.

In many ways I was protected by some senior Conservatives who took me under their wing. Looking back, I think they understood the very real, nasty side of the Conservative party and wanted to shield me.

Shazia Awan with David Cameron. All photos: Shazia Awan

But they could not always be there to protect me from the reality of it.

It has pained me to see the party that I have loved and admired since I was a teenager embark on a campaign that seems designed to divide and rule London. I never imagined that this party, under the leadership of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, would do and say things that are so fundamentally wrong, unacceptable and untrue. 

As a proud Welsh Asian woman, I have experienced racism and prejudice on many levels over the years. Sometimes the comments have been casual (“you don’t look very Welsh to me” or “yes, you were born in Wales, but where are you originally from?”). I was born in Caerphilly and raised in Cardiff. I feel nothing but Welsh and proud, and find it astonishing that this answer is not enough for some people. When pressed, I’ve told people my family are “East African Asian”, and within the Conservative party have often been met with the response: “You don’t look black.”

This is the everyday racism that, as someone from an ethnic minority, I am used to and equipped to deal with.

Shazia Awan with Margaret Thatcher.

There have been times in my life when I’ve experienced racism – sinister and ugly, divisive by design, with the sole purpose of intimidating and making one feel inferior. It was this sort of deep-rooted hostility behind the scenes at the grassroots level of the Conservative party that eventually prompted me to let my membership expire.

I realised this when I had become immune to the casual racist slurs from some white Conservative men, who I felt wanted to exert a form of ownership over me.

The Conservative party has a detailed selection process, which involves writing essays, interviews and in-tray exercises. I was thrilled to have been approved onto the list of prospective candidates for the party. I applied and was called for an interview at a Welsh association.

But I didn’t get far. I suspect this was less about my ability, and more because I looked different.

How else could one explain why a Asian woman was asked by a panel of old white men: “What are your views on the rule of the British Raj?”

This vile question was not the end of my ordeal with the Conservatives. I have also been asked: “Why does the National Black Police Association exist? Do you people really need it?”

I’ve yet to figure out how the rule of the British Raj has any bearing on the Conservative party's selection process, or indeed why my views on non-white police officers are relevant to the process of selecting a parliamentary candidate.

Looking back, I believe the questions were designed to rile me, to upset me, to make me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome and to exert a false sense of white superiority over me.

Shazia Awan with William Hague.

That experience toughened me up and opened my idealistic eyes to the harsh realities of politics in the UK if you are from an ethnic minority and/or a woman. So much so that, when the British National Party plastered photos of me from a Conservative party trip to Bosnia on its website homepage, saying Conservative party push forward black female candidate, I took it in my stride.

What I saw in the Tory party had taken away my ability to even feel affected by the destructive and racist rhetoric of a group as vile as the BNP. I was labouring under the misapprehension that I was part of the Big Society that David Cameron talked of.

That casual brand of racial stereotyping from my selection interview has now bubbled up into the upper echelons of the party in 2016. We see it in the mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan. We see it in Boris Johnson’s reference to Barack Obama as a “part-Kenyan president”.

Johnson also left me feeling disappointed and angry when he said, “In Islam and the Labour party there is a struggle going on, and in both cases Khan, whatever his real views is pandering to extremists. I don’t want him running our capital.” From this, I can only infer that Johnson does not want a British Asian Muslim man to head up City Hall.

The events in recent months have shown me that the Conservative party has not changed, is not ready for change, and ultimately deserves its “nasty party” epithet.

“Some Tories have tried to make political capital by demonising minorities instead of showing confidence in all citizens of our country,” Home Secretary Theresa May told party conference in 2002. “Some people call us the ‘nasty party’, I know it’s unfair but it’s the people out there we need to convince.”

She would have done well to recall this speech when news of the Home Office’s “Go home or face arrest” vans came out in 2013.

Shazia Awan with a Tory Vote for Change slogan poster.

Many decent Tories have reached out to tell me they are in utter dismay at the current state of their party and will be letting their membership lapse. I think the Conservative party has lost all touch with public opinion, and this will be its downfall.

The way that senior Tories have tried to legitimise discrediting Sadiq Khan tells me that there is no place for ethnic minorities in the Conservative party. I felt I was nothing more than a tick-box exercise for them: a young, articulate Asian, Muslim woman. One senior Tory even asked me: “It would be too good if you batted for the other team, wouldn’t it – you don’t do you?” I was baffled by this question. “No I don’t,” I said. In a very matter-of-fact tone, the reply was: “Well, then you’d really tick every box for us.”

The biggest failing I see is from the very man who first inspired me to want to become involved in the political process, the man who made me believe the Conservative party was a place for everyone: our Prime Minister, David Cameron. He has allowed this hate-filled campaign to flourish. And when he spoke of Khan as if he were an extremist sympathiser in the Commons, it made it clear to me that they are fighting Sadiq Khan for being Muslim first and Labour second.

Britain is not a country where we want to import the baseless and scaremongering politics we see from Donald Trump. Our Prime Minister has forgotten his own messaging about the community cohesion that once seemed to be his priority.

I cast my mind back to 1964 in the West Midlands constituency of Smethwick, which saw a Conservative politician Peter Griffiths elected on the slogan: “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour.” A bit like Goldsmith, Griffiths arrogantly refused to acknowledge that his campaign could be harmful.

But there is one startling difference between 1964 Smethwick and 2016 London. In the Commons, the prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson, called on Griffiths to be disowned. In contrast, Cameron has used the chamber to enthusiastically back Goldsmith’s campaign.

Shazia Awan with Lord Ashcroft.

The Tory smears are no longer coming from the grassroots, as I experienced them back when I was first getting into politics. They are coming from the very top of the Conservative party.

From Enoch Powell to Boris Johnson to Zac Goldsmith, I feel the Conservative party has exploited racism rather than opposed it. I can validate that from my own experience of being singled out because of my background. I feel that David Cameron should issue an apology to the British Asian community for the disrespectful rhetoric of this destructive mayoral campaign.

I am not afraid to speak out against injustice. That’s why I got involved in the political process. I will speak out against injustice even if that means speaking out against a party I have supported my whole life. So, as a lifelong Conservative voter, I urge all Londoners and my fellow Tories to show the feeble and unprincipled Goldsmith that such vitriolic politics are not welcome in London, and will not be tolerated. Vote for Sadiq Khan to be a mayor for all Londoners.

> Read Shazia's condemnation of Zac Goldsmith's mayoral campaign

> Read Anoosh Chakelian's feature on the racial politics of Zac Goldsmith's mayoral campaign

Shazia Awan runs SME Chicabel. She was named one of Management Today’s 35 Under 35 and is an alumni of the American Embassy and Department of States's International Leaders programme. She is also a PR consultant with 15 years' experience of working on national brand campaigns and was the first Asian woman to address a Welsh Tory party conference. You can follow her on Twitter @shaziaawan.