Archive for the ‘Literary Review’ Category

More belated posting, this time another book review for Literary Review. It looks at Joan Smith’s thought-provoking Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists. Very pleased to be contributing regularly to this publication and look forward to doing more of it.

Murderers in the Making

Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists

By Joan Smith

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While the process by which a person becomes part of a terrorist group is different in every case, there are patterns and similarities in the ways people are radicalised. Identifying them is a big part of what our security services do nowadays, looking at individual behaviour to try to understand who may end up taking a path towards violence. Joan Smith’s new book, Home Grown, seeks to identify one set of indicators, focusing on misogyny and domestic violence. It is not based on data-driven research. Rather, it relies on anecdotal evidence, drawing on a somewhat random set of case studies from Western societies in recent years. But that does not stop it from being a very stimulating meditation on a topic on which gallons of ink have already been spilled. 

Understanding the ‘close link between private and public violence’, Smith suggests, can provide a ‘new way’ of identifying potential terrorists. Her main point is that if you dig into the backgrounds of those who commit terrorist acts, you will find life stories littered with abuse at home – angry men beating their wives and children – and a litany of misogynistic behaviours. She cites as an example the case of the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the January 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Their sister Aicha told the police after the massacre, ‘My father used to beat us, my mother neglected us.’ Both men were openly misogynistic too. While on trial a few years earlier for suspected terrorism-related offences, one of them refused to stand up in court because the judge was a woman. Smith also cites the case of Darren Osborne, who drove a truck into congregants outside the Finsbury Park mosque in 2017. Osborne was a repeated abuser of women and at the time of the attack was effectively homeless, having been thrown out of his house by his long-suffering partner. 

There is now an awareness in the security establishment of the importance of studying the inner lives of the people who become involved in terrorism. In the past few years there has been a growth in the number of psychologists and social scientists working on countering terrorism. MI5 has had a dedicated behavioural sciences unit for some time. The part played by broken homes and abusive fathers in radicalisation has certainly been noticed by the security services. What is more interesting and thought-provoking is the question of where misogyny and violence against women fit into the picture. This is the question that most animates Smith, who is a longtime campaigner for women’s rights and co-chair of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. For her, the underlying problem of misogyny in societies contributes to an environment in which terrorism can germinate. She refers to Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, who belonged to a social group in which misogyny was commonplace. After the attack, one of his contemporaries at college told the authorities that ‘he would hang around with other lads who would smoke weed and harass girls. They’d say really inappropriate things, he just had no respect for women.’ In 2012 he assaulted a young woman at his college.

There is surely some truth to Smith’s claim of a connection between misogyny and terrorism – societies in which the victimisation and abuse of one half of the population is a daily occurrence are likely to create a range of problems for themselves. Violent Islamism and right-wing extremism, the two terrorist ideologies that most bother us today, are both fundamentally male-supremacist, and Smith reminds us that forced marriages, rape and sex slavery are widespread within ISIS. But the matter is complicated by the fact that some women are drawn towards such organisations. For them, joining an extremist group that advocates the subordination of women can, paradoxically, foster a feeling of agency over the future.

Even more complicated is the question of whether the phenomena Smith describes have long been present and under-observed or are new developments. Here Home Grown is frustrating, as the case studies Smith offers are all relatively recent – she draws particularly heavily on the explosion of violence in the West that began with ISIS’s proclamation of a caliphate in 2014. The other frustration with this book is that it is hard to know what practical conclusions to draw from it, aside from the need to pay more attention to people who come from abusive homes. The recommendations Smith offers at the end of the book are for the most part about improving the reporting of abuse of women in general. Only two out of twelve of them relate specifically to terrorism or radicalisation. And this in some ways captures the essence of Smith’s book. While it uses the topic of terrorism as a way of approaching these subjects, it is in fact more about misogyny and domestic abuse in society as a whole.

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A book review for a new outlet, the Literary Review, an excellent literary magazine which asked me to review Being Young, Male and Muslim in Luton. Hopefully more of these coming and of course the topic is one that will remain of interest. Beyond this, spoke to Monocle about China at the Shangri La Dialogue and the Independent about extreme right wing terrorism in the UK.

Raffaello Pantucci

Fatwas & Fried Chicken

Being Young, Male and Muslim in Luton 

By Ashraf Hoque

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The story of Britain’s Muslim youth is largely presented in the mainstream media through narratives of extremism. This is especially true for those living in Luton, a place that is indelibly associated with violence and division on all sides. On the one hand, it is the town where the 7/7 bombers gathered before launching their attacks on London in July 2005. On the other, it is the birthplace of Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League. Ashraf Hoque’s slim book is an attempt to look beyond this narrow discourse and understand what it is that male members of Luton’s Muslim community are really thinking. 

Early on, we discover that this is not the book Hoque set out to write. Initially, he planned to research ‘the dissemination and flows of religious knowledge’ between Britain and Pakistan in order to ‘assess to what extent religious devotion and attitudes shifted or remained the same in the two contexts’. The Pakistani side of this, involving research at madrasas and seminaries, proved too dangerous, and consequently Hoque scaled back his project to encompass just Luton. This is a shame, as there has not been ample first-hand research into the links between British and Pakistani religious communities, and in particular on the extremist tendencies that sometimes tie them together.

The book draws mainly on a series of seemingly ad hoc interviews with members of Luton’s Muslim community. From his perch at an EU-funded, Salafi-run counter-radicalisation project in the city (which he calls the Minority Skills Project), Hoque moves among the city’s Muslims, guided by organisers whose credibility within the community stems from their deep religiosity and their own somewhat chequered pasts. As a result, his view is invariably affected by the Salafi window through which he is being shown things.

Luton, Hoque is told by a young Salafi Muslim called Kamal, ‘is second only to Saudi Arabia as a Mecca for the pious’. It is a place where the Muslim community appears to be comfortable with itself. Yet the city has also been home to a number of extremists, most notably Anjem Choudary and his Al-Muhajiroun movement. Hoque interviews at least one of their number, after approaching their dawa (missionary) stall in the high street. A boastful and opinionated 25-year-old named Hamed tells him, ‘People say America is the Great Satan. They’re wrong. Britain is the Greatest Satan.’

Fortunately, Hoque is able to see past this braggadocio. He speaks to others in the community who ridicule Al-Muhajiroun (and its predecessor organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir), characterising its programme of establishing a caliphate as ‘idealistic and impractical’. One of the more entertaining vignettes captures how groups of Salafis regularly visit the Al-Muhajiroun stall to argue religious doctrine with the group’s members as they attempt to spread their message among passers-by. These confrontations, we are told, regularly descend into shouting matches. The purpose on both sides, Hoque concludes, is largely to present a display of piety for the watching crowd.

The most interesting parts of the book are the superficially more pedestrian interviews with idle young Lutonites who are struggling with their mixed identities as Muslims of South Asian origin brought up in Britain. Their religious identities are heavily shaped by the cultures of their parents’ homelands – there are stories of young men and women being taught Islam at madrasas, where they are beaten for failing to answer teachers talking to them about a religion they don’t understand in a language they barely speak. Such experiences leave them more interested in the purist forms of religious expression that Salafism and similar ideologies seem to provide. As Hoque sees it, young Muslims welcome the ‘existential security of a “back to basics” doctrine of certainty’ that the revivalist Islam of Salafism offers. This, alongside the camaraderie and sense of belonging that concepts such as the Ummah (the global community of Muslims) provide, gives a tidy explanation of why such ideologies are able to capture people’s imaginations. For those disconnected from both their native and their inherited identities, a system of belief that offers clarity and a connection to an international community is welcome.

This book has a somewhat dated feel. While Hoque has gone to great lengths to make his text seem fresh, the bulk of the interviews for it were carried out between 2008 and 2010. The world of Islam in the UK has moved on quite a bit since then, and while this snapshot of Luton life is enlightening and we get some sparks of colour from Hoque’s brief pen portraits of interviewees, one has to wonder if the landscape today is quite the same as the one he describes.

While ISIS looms in the background and is mentioned a few times, what is not explored is the impact of its attempts to establish a caliphate on Al-Muhajiroun and its followers in Luton. The group has spent its entire life shouting for the establishment of a caliphate. But when ISIS came along and created one, Al-Muhajiroun’s members found that their bluff had been called. To ignore this caliphate would amount to a renunciation of their life’s work, yet to acknowledge and engage with it would be a criminal act. For those most seriously drawn to it, it would also require moving to a very dangerous place. Some headed out to the Levant anyway; others hemmed and hawed. A few, such as Choudary, were arrested and sent to jail for trying to drum up support for it. Luton’s dense fundamentalist community will have had to wrestle with these problems and dilemmas, but this story is unfortunately missing from Hoque’s book.

Britain’s Muslim community is of course not made up solely of extremists. In Hoque’s text we meet young men working to support their families, building lives in modern Britain while tied to tribal communities in South Asia and ultimately liking nothing more than chicken and chips and holidays in Ibiza. We see some of them drawn into criminal fraternities, many of which have links to tribes, and justifying selling drugs as a way of providing for their families. We see others suffering from drug dependency and meet the Salafis trying to bring them back from the brink. These are fundamentally stories of young men in modern urban environments. The book’s most valuable work is to shed light on this reality. Hoque shows us a world of people who have been parodied in the press but are for the most part ordinary citizens trying to understand how they fit into modern life.