It is a hard enough thing to run away from home in Cardiff to become a warrior for the caliphate, it is quite another to do it from Melbourne. But in Australia too last week there were stories and photos of local Muslim boys who had somehow managed to travel half the circumference of the globe to take part in a conflict their surfing school-mates had probably never even heard of.
Reading about this in an Aussie paper in a coffee bar in Sydney I found myself wondering how this could have happened. Or, more precisely, why it doesn’t seem to happen for anyone who isn’t a Muslim. Coptic Christians from Ethiopia are not to be found trekking across the intervening desert to take up arms on behalf of their persecuted Egyptian brothers; 17-year-old Huddersfield Catholics and west London Greek Orthodox altarboys are not en route to Ukraine to take part in the struggle for Donetsk. If, God forbid, there were widespread violence in socialist Venezuela, I would not expect the Pilger battalion of British teen leftists to turn up, red-arm-banded, in Caracas. So why, Muslims might ask themselves, echoing Mario Balotelli, is it always us?
This is an awkward question both to pose and to answer, partly because there are so many people who are absolutely and easily convinced that they do know the reason. They assure me on Twitter most weeks that the problem is Islam as a faith. Uniquely among religions, they assert, Islam is literal not interpretative, and that means it is by nature aggressive, violent and fundamentalist.
I don’t believe this for a second. There is now and has always been dispute within Islam as to the meaning and application of texts. It is susceptible to reform and schism just as Christianity, Judaism and other religions and political credos have been. Furthermore, as a religion with 1.2 billion adherents, of whom well over 1.1 billion manage to make it through life without hefting an AK47, attending a training camp in Waziristan or watching a judicial amputation, the generalisation doesn’t tell you about how Islam is actually practised.
And yet the problem remains. In the 1950s and 1960s the insurgencies around the world were ideological or nationalistic. Whether it was by the Shining Path in Peru, the Maoists of Nepal or even the fascist bombers of Italian railway stations, people were being killed by rebels in the name of political ideas. But although killers such as Anders Breivik and Timothy McVeigh suggest the persistent potency of certain far-right ideologies, today’s victims of IEDs, car bombs and mass abductions are most likely to be killed — according to their killers — in the name of the Prophet.
There is no non-Muslim equivalent of what, until a few days ago was Isis but are now the forces of the self-appointed caliph Ibrahim. There isn’t a Christian Boko Haram. Pakistan is not convulsed by militant communists, but by its religious extremists in the local Taliban and other groups, who between them may have killed 50,000 people in the past ten years. There is no country that is not Muslim that attempts to enforce sanctions for apostasy or has the death penalty for blasphemy. Vaccinators are not being assassinated by Jews, nor voters having their fingers chopped off by Baptists.
Again, it’s obvious that most Muslims do none of these things. They want to eat good food, lead decent, peaceful lives and watch their children grow up. And, in fact, ordinary Muslims are by far the biggest casualties of the jihadis and the zealots of apostasy. Pakistani Shia are massacred by Sunni extremists; Sunni civilians are snatched by Iraqi Shia death squads; the Syrian civil war has seen as many as 170,000 deaths in three years. By contrast the past 25 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accounts for just under 10,000.
What is therefore doubly curious about this is the lack of a sense of Muslim outrage about what some other Muslims are doing. Who, for example, protests about the death penalty in many parts of the United States? Well, people in the United States and other western countries do. Judicial execution has been abolished in almost all formerly Christian countries despite its explicit sanction in the Bible.
Who complains about creationism being taught in schools? Among others, many Christians do. Is any campaign against Israeli actions complete without a complement of not-in-my-name Jews? Hardly, and that’s a healthy thing. By far the most effective critics of an action or a policy are those on the inside.
Yet I must have missed the sense of Muslim outrage at, for example, the Sultan of Brunei’s adoption of the most medieval form of Sharia, or at the persecution of religious (including Muslim) minorities in ostensibly Muslim countries.
It isn’t that some Muslim organisations aren’t trying. The two most recent campaigning statements of the Muslim Council of Britain concern condemnation of jihadi recruitment for Isis and female genital mutilation. They deserve credit for that.
But it is obvious that this self-policing isn’t what floats the boat of Muslims politically. There’ll be the occasional good statement, but if, say, Israel bombs Gaza, then suddenly social media will fill up with Islamic outrage, careful commentators will become passionate, marchers will hit the streets. Why is there no Muslim Peace Movement campaigning for an end to violence in Muslim countries, where the victims are Muslims and the perpetrators are Muslims? Where it might make the most difference.
A couple of weeks ago listeners heard a depressing report from Bradford. Sima Kotecha, the BBC correspondent, was interviewing young Pakistani-British boys about Iraq. Would they go and fight for Isis or other groups? “I would go. They’re brothers,” said one. “You’re going to live as a Muslim, die as a Muslim, innit?” said another.
There is at work here what can only be called a victim mentality — paradoxical given the power and size of Islam — which casts Muslims as being eternally oppressed and eternal victims.
This week the supreme leader of Iran, arguably the most powerful Muslim religious leader in the world, tweeted his “analysis of recent events in the region”. Point 1 was: “Main enemy: security and intelligence services of the West.” Point 2 was their tactics: “Sowing sectarian conflicts”, launching proxy wars and “fabricating forged alternatives of Islam”. Neither he nor any other Muslim had any real responsibility for any of it.
A fantasy of victimhood is difficult enough when it enchants just a nation. When it enthrals a world religion it is terrifying.