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Further Reading

COLUMN: Foreign Intel

English Shadows

Britain Struggles to Win Young Muslim Minds

by Michael Cook

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 36

Across the internet stream countless pictures of horror from ISIS—innocent men and women in the Middle East being beheaded, shot, crucified, and incinerated. But the image that sends the most shivers up the spines of security officials in Western countries looks perfectly harmless: a blurry overhead view of three teenage girls.

Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, are stepping through a security gate at Gatwick Airport in England en route to Syria. The girls are joining hundreds of other Britons already in Syria, both strengthening the Islamic State's army and becoming potential terrorists if they return.

A Battle of Values

So it is not surprising that the UK wants to win over the hearts and minds of young British Muslims before ISIS does. Toward this end, the government last October launched a Counter-Extremism Strategy with great élan. Prime Minister David Cameron described the fight against "this poisonous ideology" as "one of the great struggles of our generation":

Do we close our eyes, put our kid gloves on and just hope that our values will somehow endure in the end? Or do we get out there and make the case for those values, defend them with all that we've got and resolve to win the battle of ideas all over again?

He went on to insist that the day of politically correct tiptoeing around the issue was over. His government was taking the gloves off:

In the past, I believe governments made the wrong choice. Whether in the face of Islamist or neo-Nazi extremism, we were too tolerant of intolerance, too afraid to cause offence. We seemed to lack the strength and resolve to stand up for what is right, even when the damage being done by extremists was all too clear.

Gutsy stuff, this: tough, straight, muscular, hard-headed. There's just one problem: if there is going to be a battle of values, are British values in working order? And can you remind us what they are?

Uninspiring Values

"Our strongest weapon [is] our own liberal values," the prime minister said in a speech last July. He defined these as follows: "We are all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith."

But will these capture the imagination and idealism of young people? Democracy and the rule of law are the hard-won glories of Western culture, but they don't appeal to the existential passions of young people trying to shape a meaning for their lives. ISIS recruits are being promised suffering, sacrifice, and eternal glory. To them, Cameron's words must sound like the huffing and puffing of a latter-day Colonel Blimp.

The government insists that it is not meddling with the beliefs of "faith communities." But it is. It is trying to persuade deeply religious people that the highest value of their own faith is tolerance of other people's. But tolerance is fundamentally a Christian value. It is Christianity that teaches respect for persons and their freedom, the political embodiment of which is tolerance and democracy.

The problem is that Christianity has been on the skids in Britain for generations. As the Church of England's authority has crumbled, its place has been taken by a pragmatic civic religion that we might call British-ness.

A Depiction of Decline

Nothing illustrates this decline better than Flowering Wilderness, a novel published by John Galsworthy in 1932. Galsworthy is best known for The Forsyte Saga, a loosely connected series of novels that observe upper-middle-class British society in the period before, during, and after the Great War, a time of huge social and moral change.

In Flowering Wilderness, a cynical young poet, Wilfrid Desert, scandalizes upper-crust London society when he admits that he is a Muslim convert. It turns out that he embraced Islam only because he had been captured by fanatics in the Sudan who offered him a choice between submission and death. But desperation proves no excuse. Desert's fiancée, Dinny Cherrell, discovers that her family cannot forgive him for betraying, not his religion, but his British heritage. Her father, a general, tells her with dismay:

Is all that has made us the proudest people in the world to be chucked away at the bidding of an Arab? Have men like the Lawrences, John Nicholson, Chamberlayne, Sandeman, a thousand others, who spent and gave their lives to build up an idea of the English as brave men and true, to be knocked into a cocked hat by every Englishman who's threatened with a pistol?

It turns out that none of the characters in the novel believes in anything loftier than the Union Jack. One of Dinny's uncles is an Anglican clergyman who cannot even imagine what it means to have faith in his own religion:

I serve an idea, with a superstructure which doesn't bear examination. Still, the good of mankind was worth working for! A doctor did it in the midst of humbug and ceremony. A statesman, though he knew that democracy, which made him a statesman, was ignorance personified. One used forms in which one didn't believe, and even exhorted others to believe in them. Life was a practical matter of compromise.

Galsworthy depicts all commitments as absurd, including patriotism. His hero's poem is a hymn to nihilism that would do Richard Dawkins proud:

Into foul ditch each dogma leads.
Cursed be superstitious creeds,
In every driven mind the weeds!
There's but one liquor for the sane—
Drink deep! Let scepticism reign
And its astringence clear the brain!

(Sorry about that—Galsworthy won the 1932 Nobel Prize for his novels, not for his poetry.)

Nothing Changed

More than eighty years have passed since Flowering Wilderness was published, but not a lot seems to have changed since then. The prime minister is still burbling about British-ness, and the British establishment has abjured its Christian roots. Are they capable of grasping the desire for commitment and transcendence, which stirs the hearts of young Muslims? Will they be able to persuade troubled minds that John Bull is more than just bull?

Alas, probably not: Christians who have lost their faith can hardly inspire Muslims to embrace a pale shadow of it. 

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