Allan Massie: Radicalised youth is nothing new

Isis' campaign in Iraq is comparable to Europe's religious wars of the past. Picture: Getty
Isis' campaign in Iraq is comparable to Europe's religious wars of the past. Picture: Getty
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The sight of youths being radicalised to take up arms may be shocking but it should not be a surprise, writes Allan Massie

Almost 80 years ago idealists, many of them young, went from Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom to fight in defence of the Spanish Republic. Some members of the International Brigade were Communists, and agents of the Soviet Union were among their leaders. A smaller number from Britain fought on the opposing Nationalist side, as did General O’Duffy’s Blueshirts from the Irish Free State. Roman Catholics were mostly opposed to the Spanish Republicans; they were horrified by reports of the killing of priests and the raping of nuns. You might argue that many of the foreigners who chose as individuals to intervene in the Spanish Civil War had been radicalised, influenced by Communist propaganda or sermons they heard in church. You might, however, say that they knew their own minds and were acting in accordance with their political beliefs or religious faith.

History offers many comparable examples. In Elizabethan England Roman Catholics, some radicalised by Jesuit priests, engaged in plots to murder Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. In the next reign there was a Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament, killing the King (James VI & I), peers and members of the Commons. Later in the 17th century, the radical Scots Covenanters assassinated James Sharpe, Archbishop of St Andrews. In Old Mortality Scott has one of their leaders, Balfour of Burley, say that this was clearly God’s will because they had not been expecting Sharpe but had been waiting for one of his “inferior minions” when the Lord delivered the Archbishop into their hands. Covenanters killed by government troops, or arrested, tortured and sentenced – whether to death or transportation – were regarded as martyrs who had suffered for the Cause of True Religion.

The relevance of these historical examples to events today is obvious. We express surprise and horror when we see young British Muslims – two of them brought up in Cardiff, another in Aberdeen – appearing in a propaganda video published by Isis, the body now engaged in fierce fighting against the governments of Syria and Iraq. Our revulsion is all the greater because Isis has openly admitted to murdering civilians and members of the opposing army whom it has taken prisoner. It has indeed boasted of these atrocities, unquestionably war crimes, posting videos of the victims on the web.

We are right to be horrified by the sight of these young British jihadists, right to sympathise with the Cardiff mother who has begged her sons to come home. But, sadly, we are wrong to be surprised. We may be justified in regarding those who may be responsible for their radicalisation as dangerous and even criminal preachers or teachers, but again we shouldn’t be surprised. In time of war or religious strife, voices have always been raised from the pulpit urging young men to take up the sword of righteousness and smite the evildoer.

There is a civil war in Islam today comparable to that which raged in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. So intense and fierce is the struggle between Sunni and Shia in Syria and Iraq that, for the time being anyway, it takes precedence in the eyes of al-Qaeda and its offshoots over the war against the West, even over the struggle against Israel. For both sides it has become a holy war, a struggle for the pure vision of Islam, and its appeal to impressionable youth is evident. These young British Muslims who have engaged in what they are told is a jihad – a holy war – have been given a cause to believe in and, if necessary, to die for. The imams who urge them on are, in their own eyes, men doing God’s will, like the Covenanting minister who, watching the slaughter of prisoners and camp-followers from Montrose’s army after the Battle of Philiphaugh declared that “the Lord’s work gangs merrily on”.

We find this hard to understand because both religion and politics in our secular democracies generally speak a milder language. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were the closest any of us have been to what is happening in the Middle East today, and, dreadful though they were, they didn’t actually come very close to that. Otherwise, such wars that Britain has been engaged in over the last half-century have been fought by our small professional armed forces, not by conscripted civilians, and fought a long way from home. The idea that people should choose to kill, or die, for a cause is foreign to our understanding.

We may properly be thankful that this is the case, but it is also why we find these young jihadists both mystifying and alarming. One aspect of our fear is of course reasonable. We are afraid that these radicalised young men will some day return home and carry their war – what they consider their righteous rage – into our towns and cities. Some may do so, for we are in no doubt that Islamists regard the West with hatred and contempt. We rely on our security services to defend us against such threats, but our most effective defence must be the revulsion with which moderate Muslims regard the fanatics who seek to recruit the jihadists. They are the people who can root them out and teach the young the true nature of their religion. If they fail to do so, our worst fears may be realised.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, what extremists on both sides will regard as the Lord’s work ganging merrily on, and since the religious conflict is encouraged and further enflamed by power politics and the rivalries of, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is no end in sight. Our wars of religion in western Europe, likewise complicated by the ambitions and fears of states and governments continued intermittently for more than a century. It is a terrible thing when people believe in the righteousness of their cause and the wickedness of their enemies. We know this from our own history and we see that history being repeated in the Middle East; and there is no reason to believe that western intervention will do any good.