© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Journalist: It's Not Islam That Inspires U.K.'s Young Jihadis


The brutal murder of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State militants was committed by a man who appeared to have a British accent. And while his citizenship is still unknown, the man's accent brought to light a trend of young Muslim radicals leaving the UK to fight in Syria and Iraq.

But how do they become radicals in the first place? That's the question Mehdi Hasan poses in a recent article entitled "What The Jihadists Who Bought 'Islam For Dummies' On Amazon Tell Us About Radicalization." Hasan is the political director of the Huffington Post UK. Mehdi Hasan, welcome to our program.

MEHDI HASAN: Thanks for having me on.

WERTHEIMER: You say, in your latest article, that the Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. Why do you think that?

HASAN: Well, it's not just my view. I know it's counterintuitive to say that people fighting for groups calling themselves Islamic State or people fighting in what they call a jihad are not being motivated by religious faith or fervor. But it's even the view of British Security Service, MI5, which found in a report a few years ago that far from being religious zealots, a larger number of those involved in terrorism don't practice their faith regularly. They lack religious literacy. They could be called religious novices. MI5 found that actually a well-established religious identity actually protects you from violent radicalization. It's not a driver of that radicalization.

WERTHEIMER: So what does motivate these young people to leave their lives in the UK and fight in Iraq or Syria?

HASAN: Well, that's $64,000 question, Linda, right now being asked again and again. And I think, look, there's no one single cause or explanation. We don't know. The experts who have looked at the backgrounds of westerners who have gone to fight in the so-called jihad, they point to a range of drivers of radicalization - moral outrage, disaffection and alienation from wider society, peer pressure, social networks, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose, some glamour, some coolness in their pretty mundane and pointless lives.

WERTHEIMER: But surely, religion must play some role. I mean, we've read for a long time about kids who attended radical madras' in Britain who were inspired by imams to become involved. I mean, was that - did that does just not happen?

HASAN: Well, it doesn't happen on the level that we assume it does. I mean, let me give you an example of the three guys who appeared in an ISIS recruitment video a few months ago from Britain - two from Wales and one from Scotland. None of them had any kind of extremist religious background that friends or family could point to. They were well integrated. They were football fans. They were top achievers at school. Friend of theirs at school and college said that they were moderate in their beliefs.

Look, religion does play a role. Let's not be naïve about that. You know - perverted and politicized form of Islam does act as a vehicle, as a means of articulating anger and mobilizing masses. But the religious part of it - the political Islam part of it - comes later. It's not what makes people get out of bed in the morning and go out to fight.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think there is anything the UK government could or should do to stop these young people turning to extremist groups?

HASAN: Oh, there's a lot the government can do and are doing, to be fair to the British government, in terms of trying to fight extremism and radicalization in communities and trying to keep an eye out on some of the drivers of radicalization in terms of trying to fight racism and Islamophobia. I mean, for someone like myself who's a long-standing critic of British foreign policy in the Middle East, I would say let's be very clear, Linda. Islamic State is a product of a western foreign-policy vision which was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. They didn't exist until a year after the invasion in 2004. So we have to look at some of our big foreign-policy decisions which have contributed to this mess that we're now having to deal with.

WERTHEIMER: Mehdi Hasan is the political director of the Huffington Post UK. Thank you very much.

HASAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.