Joyce McMillan: extremism fight is battle for all

COMBATING the dangerous appeal of violent militancy requires positive action from all of society, writes Joyce McMillan
A women hits a punchbag in No Guts, No Heart, No Glory. Picture: ContributedA women hits a punchbag in No Guts, No Heart, No Glory. Picture: Contributed
A women hits a punchbag in No Guts, No Heart, No Glory. Picture: Contributed

In an old boxing gym in Craigmillar, a group of young aspiring fighters are dancing and weaving around the room, pummeling punchbags, running the length of the floor, jumping in an out of the ring set up at one end of the space. Yet this is no ordinary Edinburgh training session, for this group of fighters are all young Muslim women from Bradford, performers in a Fringe show, punching out their rage against all the prevailing assumptions about how they should live, and what they might want to be.

The show – called No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, and presented by the Common Wealth company from London – is one of our Scotsman Fringe First winners in this final week of the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, not for any formal perfection, but because it makes thrilling theatre, and gives a platform to vivid, important young voices that urgently need to be heard.

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Its overwhelmingly positive message – about young British Muslim women determined to empower themselves, and to make something brilliant of their lives – forms an interesting counterpoint to the torrent of negative language and imagery that has accompanied the online appearance this week of the horrific video of American journalist James Foley being brutally killed in northern Syria by a masked fighter of the militant Islamic State group, who seems to speak with an English accent.

Now, of course, it’s possible that this fighter does not come from a British Muslim background at all. There are white converts to Islam who choose the path of fundamentalist violence, sometimes with particular vehemence.

Yet still, James Foley’s cruel death acts as a cue for all the usual panicky coverage about the need to prevent the “radicalisation” of young British Muslims, and the usual calls to moderate Muslims in British Asian communities to “do more” to stop young people from taking this path. The underlying assumption is that there is something that can be done – next week, or next month – to root out violent fundamentalist ideas from the British Muslim community and to replace them with more moderate forms of teaching. Yet, in truth, those who call most insistently for this kind of action are often both ill-informed about the work against violent extremism that is already being done in mosques and communities across Britain, and are profoundly uninterested in the reasons why, in some cases, that work has little impact.

Britain’s public debate around issues of “radicalisation”, in other words, is inadequate on all sorts of levels, and often so poorly articulated that it risks exacerbating the very problem it is meant to address. In the first place, in its prominence and insistence, the coverage of “British jihadis” fighting in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere is out of all proportion to their number and significance. Nowhere have I seen a suggestion that this phenomenon involves more than a few hundred people, out of a British Asian population of around two million, yet the obsessive coverage it receives often amounts to little more than scaremongering about a British Asian population which is overwhelmingly indifferent to the appeal of violent fundamentalism, and has a right to be seen as such.

Then secondly, it is plain wrong to attach the word “radicalisation” to a phenomenon which is all about the adoption of an ideology of brutal and oppressive violence. Young people should be radical, should ask tough questions about the world’s oppressions and injustices, and should be wary of living in a society where this kind of sloppy securocrat language threatens to equate all radical dissent with some kind of “terrorism”.

Thirdly, it is dangerous and even foolish to imagine that the simmering anger that leads some young Muslims towards violence – and that is shared by many who refuse that path – can be removed simply by changing the tone of the teaching in some British mosques. Of course, incitement to violence is a crime, and should be treated as such. Most conversion to the politics of violence, though, takes place away from mainstream religious centres and the sense of anger and disaffection that fuels those conversions can only be dealt with by our society as a whole, not by a single faith group. The truth is that the young women whose lives are reflected in No Guts, No Heart, No Glory have a great deal to gain from the hard-won freedoms that British society now offers to women and girls. They have found a creative way of gaining a new voice, new confidence, and the hope of a better future.

The task of our society, in essence, is to offer the same kind of hope to the whole generation of young Muslims – mainly young men – who might otherwise be attracted by the politics of hatred and revenge. On my travels around the Fringe this week, I came across another play – Blood At The Root, from the Penn State Theatre School in the US – which, in the week of the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, deals powerfully with the politics of racial and cultural division in America, and with the truth that it is difficult for any society to ask for loyalty from citizens who see that they are not being treated as equals, and that their lives are considered of lesser value.

If Britain wants to combat the appeal of violent extremism among young Muslims, then it needs to fight this negative form of “radicalism” not with scaremongering and stereotypes, but with the positive counter-radicalism that works tirelessly for social justice and respect, for equal economic opportunities for all, for a constant vigilance against the bigotry and discrimination that hurts and enrages those who suffer it, and for the kind of enlightened foreign policy that sows the seeds of peace.

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A show like No Guts, No Heart, No Glory partly reflects a generation of positive change in British society, for women at least. If we do not strive to restore and maintain that culture of ever-increasing fairness, openness and opportunity across our society as whole, then we will always risk the rage of those who feel excluded and unheard and the violence of those who seek to exploit that anger, for their own brutal political ends.