Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
What was your reaction as you read of the horror in Charleston? The same as everyone else’s, right? Shock and revulsion. I don’t know, writing these words, whether you’re British or American, male or female, black or white. But I reckon I’m on pretty safe ground intuiting your immediate response. The sequence of events that led to that abomination is, literally, unimaginable. A young man is made welcome at a Bible study class, spends an hour with some kindly churchgoers, is taken aback by how nice they all are, and then stands up and fills them with bullets. We can try to enter into that young man’s mind, but our thoughts swerve away.
Did you feel, if you are white, that you were in some way guilty by implication? I doubt it. Did you wonder, if you are black, whether your white friends might secretly sympathise with the murderer? Again, I’d be very surprised. We know well enough what we’re dealing with here: a young man with a disturbed mind, to whom the normal rules of human behaviour don’t apply.
Such young men – they are usually young, and they are almost always men – exist in every age and nation. Some of them go on random shooting sprees: Michael Ryan, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold. Some try dignify their violence with rambling and narcissistic statements of “policy”: Anders Behring Breivik, Seung-Hui Cho. Some join terrorist gangs such Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades. Some get involved with Islamist terror groups.
These last are often treated as if they’re in a different category; but the psychological profile of the typical Western-born jihadi is not so very far from that of Dylann Roof. According to a leaked MI5 report published in the Guardian, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly.”
What is motivating them? The same things that motivate every bellicose youngster who imagines that he can see things more clearly than the rest of us. The leading American expert on the psychology of jihadis told the Senate that “what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.”
It is against this background that we should consider the recent interventions on Islamist violence by David Cameron and Sayeeda Warsi. As is so often the case in politics, both made more balanced and measured arguments than the headlines suggested. The Prime Minister, speaking at a security conference in Bratislava, correctly recognised that the lure of revolutionary violence was not new: “We’ve always had angry young men and women buying into supposedly revolutionary causes.” He then addressed the problem of those Muslim radicals who, as he put it, “don’t go as far as advocating violence, but who do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims, ‘you are part of this’”.
Inevitably, the newspapers summarised his intervention as telling Muslims that they ought to be doing more to rein in the jihadis. Which, if you think about it, would be as silly as telling white people that they ought to do more to rein in the next Dylann Roof. In reality, the Prime Minister did no such thing. He is well aware that mosques up and down Britain regularly condemn ISIS. Several British imams have gone so far as to pronounce fatwas against the young people drawn to its black flag. David Cameron was not addressing British Muslims en bloc. He was talking about the hate preachers who, though few, engender much misery.
Sayeeda Warsi, for her part, acknowledged the truth of much of what the Prime Minister was saying, but fretted that the overall impression – British leader goes overseas to lecture Muslims – might vindicate part of the jihadi narrative, namely the belief that there is a conflict between being a good Muslim and being a valued citizen of a Western democracy.
You can see her point, too. The radicals who incite the grievances of troubled young people, while themselves remaining comfortable in Western homes, are monsters; but they and their sympathisers are sparse.
To return to the Charleston parallel, a few disgusting people took to Twitter after the shooting to say that, while murder was deplorable, Roof had a point about white flight and reverse racism and so on. No one treated them as representative of anything. They were seen for what they were: a handful of deluded idiots.
Which is, mutatis mutandis, what we’re dealing with among the young Islamists. Around 500 Britons are thought to be fighting in Iraq and Syria with various militias. Even if we were to assume that, for every such jihadi, another 50 were ideologically supportive, we’d still be talking about less than one per cent of the British Muslim population. Opposing a few thousand radicals by targeting 2.8 million people is like trying to crack a nut, not with a sledgehammer, but with a shotgun at 30 feet.
Don’t turn what is in essence a security question – how to keep an eye on a few potential terrorists – into a wider Kulturkampf. That’s precisely how the jihadis want you to see it.
Don’t take these losers at their own estimation. Stop treating them as some powerful shadowy network that threatens the state. Rather, laugh at them. Mock their shoe bombs and their underpants bombs and their tendency to blow themselves up in error.
In the mean time – and here, I hope, both David Cameron and Sayeeda Warsi would agree – offer something better. If British identity is systematically derided and traduced, if British history is presented as a hateful chronicle of racism and exploitation, don’t be surprised if some English, Scottish and Welsh people grope back towards older patriotisms. But where does this leave the children of immigrants? Is it any wonder that a few cast around for a more assertive identity?
The great-great-grandfathers of these alienated youngsters might have had cause to resent the United Kingdom, which had, after all, annexed their homelands. But, by and large, they were content, as Kipling’s verses have it, to take the White Queen’s salt. Four hundred thousand Muslims served in British uniforms in the First World War, and more than a million in the Second (Churchill donated Regent’s Park Mosque in recognition of their contribution.) Unlike the ISIS cowards who murder civilians, these were real soldiers.
Doubtless the jihadis would dismiss them as mercenaries or dupes. But the soldiers’ letters home tell a very different story. They believed they were fighting for a higher set of values than the enemy’s. And you know what? They were right. That’s the story we ought to be telling. Because, in the end, it comes down to self-belief. Not theirs; ours.