As details emerged about the background of Mohammed Emwazi, the man thought to be the Isis murderer “Jihadi John”, it was hard to avoid the familiar feeling of dread that, yet again, a young Briton had found himself so disengaged from this country that he prefers to oppose its people and its values in the most brutal manner.
Emwazi is said to have enjoyed a reasonably affluent family life in west London, having come to the UK as a six-year-old. He wore stylish clothes and graduated from Westminster University with a degree in computer programming. He was, apparently, an ordinary young man. In this context, his transformation into the poster boy of extreme, Islamist violence against innocent and helpless Western hostages almost beggars belief. But he is far from alone in having given up his life here in order to take the lives of others in Syria. Official estimates suggest that up to 600 Britons have gone to fight for Isis in Iraq and Syria. The Labour MP Khalid Mahmood suggested last November that the true number was four times higher. Emwazi’s case is notable, of course, because he has come to symbolise the utter contempt in which Isis holds the lives of any who are deemed opponents of its cause. His route to radicalism is also of interest because of his contacts with the British security services as far back as 2009, and the suggestion that it was unwarranted “harrying” by MI5 which fuelled his feeling of isolation and marginalisation from mainstream British society.
Indeed, an article in The Independent five years ago reported concerns that the Government’s anti-terror strategies were proving counter-productive because of such harassment. Emwazi’s case was one of those highlighted. There may be a kernel of truth in this. Indeed, the present Government has recognised the importance of making a more obvious distinction between genuine counter-terrorism work and programmes which promote community cohesion.
The results of this week’s BBC survey into the attitudes of British Muslims also give weight to the idea that the battle against radicalisation is one that cannot be left to ministers, police officers and spooks. That 20 per cent of respondents feel Western liberal society can never be compatible with Islam indicates a destructive level of detachment. And, as the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Maajid Nawaz has suggested, the way to greater inclusion is to support and promote British values within the context of Muslim lives. That, in the end, is a task for all parts of the community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
There is a sizeable caveat in all this, which is that we cannot excuse or justify the actions of Mohammed Emwazi or others like him simply by reference to “harassment” by security services or to a lack of understanding or benevolence from non-Muslim members of British society. There is a large dose of free will here, which has found expression in acts of the most hideous and chilling kind. Those who follow Emwazi – whether as jihadists or prospective jihadi brides – can be under no illusions about what they will find themselves caught up in.
We must look to change the narrative. Yes, we need to foster greater inclusion of Muslim communities here. But we must also be clear that the choice for would-be jihadists is not between Muslim society and non-Muslim society, nor between freedom in Syria against prejudice in Britain. The choice made by men like Mohammed Emwazi is simply for inhumanity over humanity: and we must all do what we can to emphasise that this is the real and lasting dichotomy.