ISIL and Ramadan in the Rag


Ramadan in London was going by largely unnoticed in this observer’s line of sight, cutting as I was through the pot-roast and sandwich-eating multitudes enjoying what gifts of spray they could from the Trafalgar Square fountains.

Atop the Column, Nelson looked his usual untroubled and slightly arrogant self, which I am told he was not. The polishedly skeletal ‘Gift Horse’ sculpture by German-American artist Hans Haacke on the fourth plinth probably needed more than meat on its bone, while its live electronic ribbon displaying the ticker of the London Stock Exchange appeared to mean business.

Ramadan, from the Arabic word ‘ramada’, meaning ‘be hot’, had me feel more than a flash of sympathy for those of my Muslim friends fasting right now. Famously, it can have a negative impact on your physical health, especially when it falls in summer in northern Europe. Furthermore, on this particular day – the hottest on record – the daily fast was nearly 20 hours long.

But I am not weaving Ramadan into the narrative only because of this. I was heading to the nearby Army & Navy Club on London’s Pall Mall to attend a talk on Isil. Islamic State. IS. Daesh. Isis. Call it what you will. (The Army & Navy Club has more than one name too: it is known as The Rag – due to one-time member Captain Higginson Duff many years ago taking offence at the hair-shirt nature of the place.) No, I was thinking about Ramadan because Isil had just called for a surge in violence during it.

The Rag looked spotless as I trooped up its wide carpeted stairs to the large room where the meeting was to be held. The actual topic was ‘What’s wrong with the West?’ but it was all about Isil. I was thinking the subject matter sat improbably in such a well-heeled environment, though the differing backgrounds of the promised speakers suggested a spicy mix of both courage and learning.

Moderating the event was Sir Robert Fry. When not chairman of Albany Associates, with its bristlingly frontline communications strategies, Fry is an essayist and columnist. His easy manner and crisp bright blue shirt neatly off-set the reddish face and healthy streaks of white hair – like some generous rendition of the Union Jack, or Flag, itself.

Fry would later cite Karl Marx with the same authority he mentioned the murderous fanaticisms of the day and I had already identified in him that conspicuous brightness you often find among serving or former Royal Marine officers.

Fry, no less, was a Royal Marine for over 30 years – he became commandant general – serving in Northern Ireland, the Gulf, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006 he was deputy commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq.

The subtitle – ‘Why are counter-narratives failing to reduce the appeal of violent extremism, and can we do it better?’ – also sat heavily on the page as I fanned my face with it and took a seat close to the front. I’d attended similarly hot topics at venues such as Vaughan Smith’s Frontline Club in Paddington, but never at such a well muscled place reeking of an inner circle before.

I sat abstemiously with my glass of water, waiting for the four speakers. The fifth, Sunday Times reporter Christina Lamb, was still engaged in Tunisia. Behind me, I could hear various government agencies, strategic communications experts, plus one or two military men, preying on the trays of red and white wine by the bar area.

One gentleman, I suspect a former Ghurka, milled about in waiter’s attire proffering a plate of lamb koftas. He made me think of the guards, also former Ghurkas, patrolling the pods and outhouses where I had stayed seven years earlier while filming at the British Embassy in Kabul. With friends like these, someone had said by a ‘Carry On… Up the Khyber’ poster about the former Ghurkas there, who needs enemies?

Who, indeed, needs enemies?

I first travelled to Afghanistan in 1983 to film the Mujahideen. Seven years ago it was filming the other side. Some of the men I had known before were Taliban by then and I was prohibited from seeing them. Go figure.

Everything in The Rag was set up satisfactorily – and enemy-free – for a subject which had been thrust so suddenly into the limelight recently in Tunisia with the attack on largely British tourists at the Hotel Imperial Marhaba in Sousse. A few hours ago, a fixed-wing RAF Hercules had returned with its first stretchered victims.

As someone who has also travelled to Pakistan recently, I was still trying to join up all the dots leading from my first experiences with Islam, to this latest grisly attack.

Some hardcore fundamentalists out there might even find a fragment of respect for someone like me who had spent time alone with a camera and the likes of the late Abdul Haq and his men in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially at a time when the mujahideen’s backs were against the wall and the Soviets had the biggest army in the world.

But I also knew from more recent trips – Afghanistan last year saw more children maimed or killed than at any time since monitoring began – most westerners were now often mistrusted, or viewed only as potential money cows.

So, indeed, also, what is wrong with the West?

First to step up to the plate was Dan Chugg, a Foreign Office mandarin and former political counsellor in Beijing now heading up the government’s Anti-Isil Task Force.

He actually reminded me of Clive Wolman, a barrister who used to edit the City pages of the Mail on Sunday, and for whom I once wrote a feature on German banker Alfred Herrhausen on the very day Herrhausen had been murdered by Red Army Faction terrorists on a trip I’d been due to take with him.

Chugg was good. I’ve met only a sprinkling of diplomats on my travels, but I know they are a precise breed who never quite allow themselves to speak as piercingly as you know they are thinking. The brilliance is often evident, in other words – but never at full blast.

That said, it was the mother of all responsibilities for him taking on Isil. Particularly when over 700 of your own citizens, perhaps many more, are known already to have smuggled themselves into Syria – with surely more to follow and snap calamitously back again.

And what of our foreign policy on Isil?

Had we really decided on it yet? Or were we simply waiting for the situation to get so bad that we finally present a reason for backing Iran as the new policeman on the block?

It was interesting to hear Chugg bring it all back home momentarily by stating that joining Isil for some terrifyingly young Brits was perhaps not so different to others joining the UK armed forces, with their own corresponding promise of travel, guns, camaraderie, adventure.

This attempt at a de-Islamisation of the problem seemed to be growing in London. Could it really be true that we over-state the Koranic scriptures in terms of their relevance to what remains a provenly successful recruitment drive on the part of Isil?

I can speak well of my own small-boned experience of the Muslim world. Just as the bouts of Muslim heroism on that cataclysmic Tunisian beach in Sousse – and the subsequent full-on help from all the Muslim doctors in the hospitals there – shows the Muslim world at its best.

There is a greater percentage of nominal Muslims – 98 per cent – in Tunisia than in Syria, say, or Iraq.

For some the problem lies only in the injury to Islam itself from those claiming to kill for it.

Chung also pointed out that, to date, the UK had committed £900 million in humanitarian funding to Syria alone. What kind of money is that in the mind even of the humanitarian Muslim, I wondered?

Secular? Nominally Christian?

Next up was Shaykh Dr Usuma Hasan, a former member of the mujahideen in Afghanistan – after I was there – and now senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, an outfit self-billed as the world’s first counter-extremism think tank.

Was there some hint at a solution somewhere in that? What begins as a raging Jihad can eventually become a call for peace? And how long do we have to wait for all that?

A greater scholar than this mere observer, Hasan bestudded his words with references both to the Koran and YouTube. An unquestionably brave opponent to extremism, too, he has been targeted by the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorist group for example in one of their videos.

Hasan turned to Chugg of the Foreign Office and said that after the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 he had suggested to the Foreign Office they get all the senior Imams in the country together and explain the UK foreign policy in the region, submitting that this would have cost little and yet the benefits would have been vast.

Someone wielded the phrase ‘Muslim community’ and was immediately corrected by Hasan: ‘Communities,’ he said. A devout man, it was compelling to hear him speak out as he did against the violence of Isil and I wondered why so many members of the public still think such thinking does not exist among Muslim or that they never speak out.

On the other side of the room was Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. He is part of the independent non-partisan International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). He is also the son of the late Christopher Hitchens, whom I last saw in Nell’s 14th Street nightclub in New York shortly after his son was born.

He suggested part of the overall problem may belong to the failure of the UK to make itself a convincing enough project for certain young Muslims. As a result, I was thinking, it was the likes of Mohammed Emwazi, or Jihadi John, reportedly in Raqqa now, whom they wanted to join instead.

Paul Bell, a South African who spent years working as a communications adviser in Iraq – as well as having worked in Botswana, Latvia, Russia, Turkey, the US and Yemen – talked more about this need for de-Islamising the problem.

He even mentioned being a communist when he was young, as if trying to find a way through to understanding the mind of the fighter, not so much with what sounded like an essentially forgiving attitude as a genuine appetite to get to the bottom of it.

I suppose the trouble with any meaty subject like this which requires an immediate solution is how much of the discussion is wishful thinking and how much of it never likely to happen.

What I think I took most from the talk was the importance of what everyone, even the subtitle of the talk here, calls the ‘narrative’ these days, over the ‘counter-narrative’. Paul Bell calls this the ‘alternative narrative’.

It seems to me that we are seldom ‘pro-active’ and more often than not simply ‘reactive’. Are we beginning to see the light?

That night, still consumed by everything I had heard at The Rag, I listened to former Labour adviser Jonathan Powell on the TV reminding us that we can never defeat terrorism, not really, and that ultimately we have always had to sit down with the terrorist before finding a solution.

This was depressing stuff as he felt the situation with Isil was probably no different.

Or maybe it was the heat in the TV studio. Everyone, not just Muslims, was suffering that day.

Peter Bach lives in London.

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Peter Bach lives in London.

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