Following Robb Leech, whose step-brother, Rich, has been converted to Islam, the film shows the path of the “white,” middle-class (in the British sense), apparently-irreligious Westerner who succumbs to the call of faith. The radicalism of the second generation of Muslim immigrants in the West—the children who don’t have the experience that drove their parents from the burning grounds of Islam and who do have a relentless stream of propaganda to the effect that “authentic” Islam is on the battlefields of Chechnya and the Fertile Crescent—is well enough known but the convert is a story all its own, and Britain is one of the centres.
Radicalised by Anjem Choudary, Rich’s story is important because unfortunately Mr. Leech is badly mistaken that intolerant versions of Islam are a fringe phenomenon. In the 1990s, French intelligence started referring to “Londonistan”. The war between the Algerian government and the jihadists might not have been quite what it seemed, but it produced enough haunted refugees that there were fanatics aplenty to organise networks in London. Now we have closed a circle: the jihadists are moving from Europe to the Middle East, roughly 400 from Britain already in Syria. Choudary, a thug and loud-mouth, would be laughable were it not for the fact that his group, al-Muhajiroun—in whatever guise to avoid the anti-terror laws—is responsible for one in seven Brits arrested for Islamic terror-related crimes. In the video Rich is shown doing dawa (missionary work), mostly handing out fliers in his case, and it is in London neighbourhoods that are visibly majority-Muslim—the women are veiled and the men are in the thobe with the Wahhabi/Salafi beard. Rich’s ambitions stretch well beyond these ghettoes though: in the seaside resort town of his birth, where Muslims are thin on the ground, he is set on a campaign to bring the word of god.
One must simply clear some things up; some are alluded to in the film, some are partially completed, some are misread. Leech picks up a very good word for the form of religion his step-brother has adopted: “supremacism”. The problem is that drawing a line between Rich’s apparent “extremism” and the “mainstream” is not as easy as he would like—and this is a problem for both universalist religions, Islam and Christianity. Unlike the “relativist” faiths—e.g. Judaism and Hinduism—that insist the “righteous of all nations” will be saved in their own religions, these two religions insist that they are the One True Faith, revealed by the creator himself, and it is their job not to keep it selfishly to their own. Instead, they are to bring it to all mankind, clearing whatever obstacles might be in the way. (The Muslim conquests, for instance, are presented in Islamic historiography as the Muslims having removed tyrannical regimes that blocked the populations from taking up Islam.) The conflict between Christendom and Islam always arose much more from their similarities. The difference is that while the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Thirty Years War have blunted Christianity’s fervour, as has a harrowing collision with modernity and secularism, Islam has not had these processes. In practice, Christianity’s concept of god—and what it is acceptable to do for him—is simply very different from Islam’s. The Christian Dominionist current that insists on laws like stoning for adultery is so tiny—and even its ostensible members so law-abiding—that they are strictly irrelevant. Islam is not like that.
Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that swept revolutionary Shi’ism to power in Iran, the counter-reaction from Saudi Arabia was to put its oil money into the dissemination of the most virulent and intolerant form of Sunnism, known as Wahhabism. It succeeded brilliantly: Sunnism has been thoroughly “Wahhabized”, especially in the Arab World and perhaps above all else in the Muslim diaspora communities in Western Europe. The Wahhabists have captured an alarming number of Western mosques, and Islamic social, educational, and political institutions. At the universities it is the same story: major associations like the “Muslim Student Association” are Wahhabi recruiters; the man who tried to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 was president of the Islamic society at his university. It sounds like a joke, but Abdulmutallab is “the fourth president of a London student Islamic society to face terrorist charges in three years.” The penetration of Wahhabism into the prison system—with its access to a violent, socially and mentally unstable pool of recruits—is even worse.
The problem too is that when confronted with Rich’s belief that apostasy should bring the death penalty, to dismiss this as “fundamentalism” misses the fact that this is a fundamental of Islam. Other specific points might be more debateable, but the penalty for apostasy is an unambiguous commandment of the faith in the Qur’an, in Islam’s history and tradition (which is believed to be guided by god), and the Holy Law. The belief that a book was given by god and is the perfect word of the creator that is literally true and cannot be deviated from or esoterically interpreted might sound extreme, but the word for people who believe this is “religious”; the people who selectively adhere to the text must find a different word for themselves.
Islam’s history is one of conquest and victory: Muhammad won in his own lifetime and established a State and Empire, unlike Christianity, which emerged as a persecuted dissident movement and whose founder was crucified. Christianity set up its own institutions separate from the State before it captured the Emperor and could be the persecutor. But Muhammad had to make laws, and Islam as a religious and legal doctrine does not know this distinction between temporal and religious power; it doesn’t even have the terminology for it (the Turkish Constitution borrowed a French word, laik, for “secularism”.) Muslims who reject the separation between Church and State are not extremists because there is no “mosque” in the sense Westerners mean “church,” as an institution; the mosque is just a building. There is a large subset of Muslims who do believe in some kind of separation, but a majority don’t, and however uncomfortable that truth is, the beginning of a solution is recognising it.
The same for the idea of the umma (the community of believers): this originates at Islam’s founding. To the present day, unlike the West where people see themselves as loyal to a nation with their religion secondary, Muslims’ identity is primarily religious with the faithful split into nations. This has evolved, of course; nationalism—narrowly ahead of fascism and Stalinism—are the West’s most successful exports into the Arab world. Still, for most it remains that Islam is more important than nation. Again, this is uncomfortable because it lends itself to demagogic rhetoric about “fifth-columnists” and “dual loyalties”. This hysteria should be eschewed but it is to shoot the messenger to denounce those who (calmly) point out that 81% of British Muslims see their religion as their primary loyalty. Those killers on July 7, 2005, were, to all outward appearances, as British as it gets—down to the Yorkshire accents, the cricket teams, and yes one even owned a fish and chips shop. But they massacred their fellow citizens because they felt that the concept of a secular polity like Britain’s was blasphemous and an offence to their religion, answering to instructions from a foreign terrorist organisation. If the words “fifth columnist” and “traitor” are to have any legitimate use, this is it.
Probably the best bit of the film is its showing how the internet has spread this phenomenon of jihadism: it simply would not be in the form it presently is without cyber-space. (I would recommend Yaakov Lappin’s book ‘Virtual Caliphate’ as an accompaniment.) Rich spends hours looking at interviews and sermons by fanatics; he connects with others who think likewise, or who he can mould to think likewise; geographical distance has been collapsed and the most poisonous ideas can be transferred in a nano-second. Anwar al-Awlaki was a famous case of this, among other things inspiring a woman to stab a councillor and inspiring the massacre at Fort Hood. And this has meant that the umma is closer to a reality than at any time since 1918. People who have never met in the film greet each other as “brother”. This isn’t isolated: in Syria at the present time, foreign Sunni holy warriors are arriving with their families because they do not recognise the “Sykes-Picot” borders of the region, and what looks like colonialism is said by them to be internal movement, as if from Liverpool to London; foreigners from as far away as Belgium report being received by the Qaeda-type Islamic militants without a hint of discrimination.
The most shocking scenes are probably those where Rich, only six months a Muslim, shows visible disgust for Western society: unveiled women, men in fitted clothes, people who may be homosexual allowed to walk in the street without abuse or worse—all of this is simply appalling to him. This is no surprise. The ideological founder of this modern wave of Islamic militancy is Sayyid Qutb, who visited America in 1949 and his viewing of a mild-as-milk square dance at a Methodist establishment in Greeley, Colorado—a virtual compound town, a community of exceptional religiosity, where alcohol was banned—convinced him America was a font of unconscionable evil. There had not been sex-segregation in that hall, and those boys with their “wide, strapping chest[s]” and “ox muscles,” were being pursued by an “American girl” who was “well-acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity,” Qutb wrote. “Humanity makes the gravest of errors, and risks losing its account of morals, if it makes America its example,” Qutb concluded.
It is very important to understand this: jihadists believe that the mere existence of Western culture, with its temptations to good Muslims, is an attack upon the faith, thus they really do see terrorist attacks as retaliation, as a “defensive jihad”. The West, with its satellite dishes and MTV, is intruding into their world—this is the “cultural imperialism” the jihadists speak of—and they must use all means to repel it, the only sure way being its destruction. This is the view, too, of men like Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. There is nothing the West could do to avoid this since the jihadists believe we are at war with them already; Iraq or Israel might give them something to focus on—though Kashmir is far more important than these two—but the source of their fury is sui generis. The signs that Rich and his comrades carry—”Freedom Go To Hell“; “Behead Those Who Insult Islam“—would always have come. And as Rich himself demonstrates, education and prosperity have little bearing on people’s susceptibility to this form of religion—indeed more education and wealth seems to correlate with more radicalism. (Two-thirds of the 9/11 death pilots had a degree.)
The closing scenes are the most depressing, when Rich and his fellow zealots clash with the football hooligans of the English Defence League (EDL). The retreat of liberal society before Islam, the multiculturalism that takes the most extreme elements as the most “authentic”—witness the deference given to Tariq Ramadan or the Muslim Council of Britain—and the cultural cringe that does not want to challenge the religious precepts of a largely foreign and coloured population for fear of being branded a xenophobe or racialist, has cut the legs from under the Muslim moderates, cleared the way for the fanatics, and provoked a counter-reaction from forces that are basically fascist. This is a grim predicament that has allowed two forms of totalitarianism to contest the middle ground. It didn’t have to be this way but this film is an excellent starting point on how it got there.