The primary reason for this statement is the sudden arrest and subsequent terrorism charge last week of Moazzam Begg. I have met Moazzam several times and have always found him extremely courteous and very balanced in the views he has expressed about Islam here in Britain and elsewhere in the world. This I found surprising, considering the way he was treated during his time in the hands of the Americans, first in the appalling conditions of Bagram in Afghanistan and then in his abominable two year incarceration in Guantanamo. I have no knowledge of what, if any, grounds there are for detaining him yet again on this occasion but I really wonder if they can have been sufficient to justify putting him and his family through what must be, considering his past tribulations, an extremely harrowing time for them all. As far as I know, he is being arrested for no other reason than having traveled, as indeed have a large number of other idealistic and compassionate young British Muslims, to help assuage the suffering of the Syrian people.
And this brings me to a more general point that I would like to make about British Muslim participation in the Syrian situation and the way it is apparently being viewed by the government. It appears that simply going to Syria is now being seen as a crime and makes those British Muslims who do it liable to detention on their return to the UK, as proved by the recent arrests of several such young men charged with a bizarre new crime of encouraging terrorism overseas. It seems that the only real rationale for these arrests is an irrational fear that involvement in the fighting in Syria is going to induce these young men to perpetrate “terrorist outrages” on their return home to the UK.
In the late 1930’s almost 2,500 Britons went to Spain to fight for the Republican army in the Spanish Civil War. Although there were some well documented celebrity figures among them, mainly from the literary world, the vast majority were working class men, mainly communists or communist sympathisers, a lot of them unemployed miners. The many accounts from that time make it clear that a great many of them went through all the unspeakable horrors that such warfare entails. Moreover, as Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent illustrates, there was a tradition of terrorist activity among adherents of the extreme left of the political spectrum at that time. Yet, despite the shameful double-dealing of the then British government with regard to the situation in Spain, there was no thought of, nor participation in, nor suspicion of, any terrorist activity whatsoever on the part of any of these “radicalized” young people when they returned home to Britain. In fact, on the contrary, they were rather praised for their selfless commitment to the cause for which they had fought and in some cases died.
A more recent example, and one which is even more relevant to the present situation in Syria, is the very considerable number of British Muslims who went to Afghanistan in the 1980’s to help the Afghans in their fight against Russian occupation. They all attended training camps when they arrived, some of them run by what was later to become known as al-Qaeda, and most of them took an active part in the brutal fighting that characterized that war. Some of them even fought alongside Usama bin Laden, who, it must be remembered, was something of an American hero at that time. Yet, once again, there is not a single recorded incident of any terrorist activity on the part of any of the hundreds of committed British Muslims who returned from that campaign in Afghanistan. I have met many such people and they have no more thought of putting any of the skills they may learnt on that battlefield into practice than has any soldier on their retirement from the British army.
It appears that Moazzam and others are accused of supporting the training of recruits in Syria. But is it not natural and proper that British Muslims who have made the decision to go and fight – and that is very few by all accounts compared to those who are traveling to Syria for purely humanitarian purposes – that they should receive training before entering the war they want to fight in? Why, and on what basis, does that become a crime in British law, subject, apparently, to prosecution and imprisonment in the UK? Is the struggle of the Syrian people to free themselves from what they see as a tyrannical dictatorship, a struggle which was openly supported by the government here until a very short time ago, now being seen through the eyes of that very dictatorship and relegated to the category of being terrorist activity? It would appear that the double-dealing of the British government with regard to Spain in 1937 is repeating itself once more with regard to Syria in 2014. Plus ca change!
If anything is likely to negatively radicalise young British Muslims returning from what they see as a noble cause, for which they were prepared to sacrifice their very lives, it is precisely being treated as criminals when they return home. That is far more likely to make them angry and hostile towards the country they live in than were their exploits on the battlefield of a foreign land. Do the authorities here not understand that? It would really seem that Islamophobia truly has become endemic and entrenched within the governing structures of British society and a kind of paranoia concerning committed Muslims, egged on by reports of never disclosed “secret intelligence” from shady intelligence agencies, seems to be being consciously propagated among the population at large. Surely the humane and sensible approach to young men returning home from what must undoubtedly be the extremely traumatic situation of the Syrian conflict would be for the authorities here to offer them what is offered to all troops returning from fighting abroad: the appropriate counseling and treatment to enable them to reintegrate into their daily lives at home with the minimum stress and difficulty.