The emergence of ISIS last year has seen a dramatic rise in foreign Muslims travelling to fight on behalf of the Caliphate that has been proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The chief of the U.S National Counter-terrorism centre has estimated that there are 20,000 foreign fighters in ISIS territories with an estimated 3,400 fighters coming predominantly from Western nations. This has accompanied a media frenzy over men and women travelling to Turkey and then smuggling themselves into Syria to reside and potentially fight in this region.
Undoubtedly, this has raised considerable concerns for national security and debates concerning the removal of citizenship for these individuals are a prominent feature of discussion in the UK, U.S and Europe.
But are these individuals who are migrating to ISIS territories necessarily all jihadi terrorists? Protagonists such as Jihadi John and Talha Asmal who have inflicted fatal atrocities, are undeniably terrorist in their nature and could have the potential to unleash social havoc in the West.
However, ISIS has theoretically established an Islamic utopia that adheres to a strict interpretation of the Qur’an and governs society using the Shari’ah. For conservative Muslims distanced by the secular West, ISIS has created a religious sanctuary where one can live in accordance with their Islamic beliefs. Radicalisation of these Muslims and their adoption of an anti-Western and apocalyptic aggression to the West is indeed a fear and most probably a reality once these Muslims arrive in ISIS territories; however, to immediately label them ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ upon their departure to the region is the wrong terminology and an overstatement.
Historically speaking, the Jews who fled Europe to Palestine in pursuit of a Zionist homeland were never criminalised, despite the existence of Jewish terrorist organisations driving sectarian tensions. The Soviet Union similarly, was a Communist utopia attractive for the dislocated European Left during the Cold War, but again, it was not widely held by the public that these individuals were going to support a campaign of state terror. British and Western Muslims therefore may be travelling to these territories, not singularly to participate in a murderous campaign, but because of the attraction of having their theology enacted in a societal environment.
Unfortunately for the neighbouring countries, ISIS has succeeded in establishing a quasi-state that operates with an economy and a formal leader. There is unquestionably an illegitimate and criminal undertone to the economy which extorts the local population and generates a tidy surplus from private donors and world heritage artefacts. This does not deny the fact that hypothetically, with ISIS’ continual triumph and the reluctance of the West to put boots on the ground, this coalition of governments may be forced to engage with the Caliphate at a diplomatic level. ISIS does not show any sign of imploding and coalition air strikes are only helping contain their movement as opposed to eradicating it. Concerns over arming the Kurdish forces or the Syrian opposition are endangering an incredibly fragile region, and these divisions of western opinion are only seeking to help consolidate the ISIS’ regime.
So how should we tackle Muslims migrating to this region? With the loss of their citizenship or by categorising them as ‘terrorists’ which subsequently involves their immediate arrest and imprisonment upon return?
The problem the west faces is by generalising all Muslims who have left for Syria and Iraq as criminals; it overlooks those who have left to live a certain lifestyle within a theocratic regime. Western political frameworks and institutions have historically evolved around the concept of liberty which is a principle we have evoked in every aspect of life, and have even engaged in conflict to preserve its very essence. So by invoking this very ethic, arguably these Muslims have the liberty to consciously migrate to a region of their choice.
Radicalisation does indeed have a fundamental role in this process, and tackling this form of manipulation on social media is imperative to reducing ISIS’ success. However, it is contrary to the ethos that our own government rests upon and the meticulous approach that institutions such as the Metropolitan Police have, to stigmatise all Muslims who have fled to this region. This attitude fundamentally overlooks some of the humble motives of those seeking a lifestyle governed by the Shari’ah.
Again, radicalisation in Syria or Iraq is a concern for national security, and proper intelligence gathering to determine the extent of this threat is an integral part of the process of undermining ISIS. If there is an underlying attraction, it is that the Caliphate offers a peaceful and humble lifestyle which conforms to Islam, this should be acknowledged and not stigmatised. Stigmatising these individuals will only trigger the appeal of violence and spark the transition towards jihad.
The west can only hope that ISIS will be recognised by the conservative and extreme fringes of the Islamic community for its ironically blasphemous and tyrannical nature. But for now, this realisation is a long way from becoming a universal truth and the Caliphate appears confident in achieving one of the most basic pillars of Islamic thought.