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Whose Fault?

It is, evidently, Society’s fault that three Muslim schoolgirls from East London have been led astray. 

The collective ‘we’ of society – their school teachers, the government, Parliament, the Metropolitan Police, the Heathrow security personnel, and for all I know the Scunthorpe United Football Supporters Club, my ageing aunt Milly, and ultimately, I suppose, me – abjectly failed to spot the flowering radical tendencies that last weekend impelled the girls, two fifteen years old, one sixteen, to travel to Syria to enlist in the cause of ISIL.

So said their baffled-looking families, egged on by their oleaginous solicitor, one Tasmine Akunjee, who nevertheless averred, as if contradicting his various preceding assignments of dereliction of duty, that “a fifteen-year-old girl’s mindset is a difficult thing to understand” – adding rather mystifyingly that “Justin Bieber is a difficult thing to understand”.

These and other remarks were addressed yesterday to a House of Commons select committee, whose members seemed every bit as bemused by the girls’ defections as the family members sitting in front of them.  Not one family member, it seemed, had the slightest inkling that the girls had succumbed to militant tendencies.  The sister of one said her sibling was a normal girl who had enjoyed the ordinary pleasures of teenage life, such as watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians (a mindless American ‘reality’ show beloved of teenagers everywhere – except, one must suppose, in those territories controlled by ISIL).

If these children were the unwitting victims of manipulation by religious extremists, why had such nefarious activities not been spotted by the police?  Actually, they had been.  The police, it seems, had issued a warning, in writing, after another girl, one of their school friends, had gone to Syria herself a few weeks earlier.   Unfortunately the police gave the letters to the children to take home to their parents, a rather quaint method of delivery, one might think, and, as it happened, a singularly inappropriate one.

Mr. Akunjee demanded an apology for this, and duly received one from no less a figure than Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

All of which leaves me wondering about the process that turns teenagers leading apparently normal, carefree lives, as the three girls are said to have done, into zealots prepared to risk everything, including their lives, to join a fanatical cult in a faraway place.

The words ‘normal’ and ‘carefree’ merit examination.  These are relative and subjective terms.  The fact is that the three girls were each raised in a strict Muslim household, which may or not be regarded as normal and carefree – Kardashian and Justin Bieber watching notwithstanding.  They were thoroughly immersed in their religion, notably in matters of dress, which left their faces exposed but otherwise covered them, in the tradition of their community, from head to foot.  The sister giving evidence yesterday was likewise dressed.   

There is nothing inherently wrong, least of all illegal, in devotion to a faith, or in modes of dress dictated by religion, but it is surprising – to me, at least – that the families of the three girls, like the families of all those who converted to extremist causes, seem to believe that nothing in their religious upbringing can be remotely connected to their later actions.

Religious fanatics rarely make a single bound from indifference to zealotry.  They are trained from an early age to believe that their faith is not only crucial to their well-being and the guarantee of an eternal after-life, but that theirs is the One True Faith, to be defended by its adherents with all means necessary, physical as well as polemical if circumstances justify. 

All religions are capable of generating extreme heat.  To this the faithful respond first by sweating profusely and finally, if left unrelieved, by going mad from divine sunstroke.  From the comforting warmth of religious devotion to the searing intensity of religious extremism is a much smaller step than we imagine, even for those of us in Christian realms who may have forgotten the lessons of history.

The parents and siblings of the three girls who went to Syria may not have been neglectful.  They may have been dutiful, as they saw their sense of duty.  And the children may well have fallen prey to unseen predatory forces, even if no evidence has emerged that they had. 

But instead of demanding apologies from all and sundry, the families might do well to reflect on the extent to which the imposition of religious devotion finally led or at least contributed to the events that seem to have shocked them.

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