Female, private school educated: there is no such thing as a “typical” extremist

The case of Aqsa Mahmood shows a shortfall in government intelligence on Islamism, namely the link between its violent and non-violent forms

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The case of Aqsa Mahmood shows a shortfall in government intelligence on Islamism, namely the link between its violent and non-violent forms

Yesterday, it was reported that Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old former private school pupil, travelled to Syria in 2013 to join the ranks of the most extremist jihadist group the world has witnessed to date, Islamic State (IS). Through a series of postings onto various social media platforms, Mahmood – who now refers to herself as Umm Layth – has made clear her radical disdain for her former life in Glasgow.

What may come as a surprise, though, is that her former life was not a picture of misfortune. On the contrary, her roots are typically middle class. She grew up in one of Glasgow’s most opulent suburbs, Dumbreck, and attended a fee paying private school. As such, she might not seem to be the “typical” extremist, the disadvantaged youth who finds themselves forced onto a radical Islamist path through the “usual” triggers.

However, before we go jumping to conclusions about Mahmood’s seemingly anomalous radicalisation, it is imperative that we recognise that there is no “typical” extremist, nor are there any “usual” triggers. Certainly, there is an all too familiar process at work, but the actual trigger to radicalisation varies hugely. As such, typecasting jihadists as predominantly disadvantaged young men, as is usually the case, is a dangerous game – it leaves us with a reductive and oversimplified understanding of the processes at work.

The fact of the matter is that, as horrifying as it is, we should not be recoiling in disbelief at the radicalisation of a privileged Scottish girl; in fact, this whole situation is jarringly believable. After all, it is well-known that Islamist extremism appeals to a broad section of society, and this is something that has been apparent for a long time. It knows no class boundaries, its ideologues do not target any one demographic.

If this is the case, then what’s going on? How has our society allowed such an insidious form of extremism to take root? Why would someone like Mahmood secretively fall into cahoots with the most virulently extreme Islamist cause of our time without anyone noticing?

The answer to all of the above question lies in the many years of wrong-footed policy decisions and accrued misunderstanding of Islamism on the part of our government. For decades, now, those ruling our country have persistently and consistently misread the Islamist problem, allowing extremists, as long as they are non-violent in their adherence to ideologies of hate, to operate with relative impunity. Thus, a situation emerged that allowed the most bigoted, anti-Semitic, misogynist and sexist of Islamists to preach their abhorrent beliefs regardless of the values of our society. Britain was able to become an echo-chamber for a Manichean worldview that pitted the West against Muslims in an eschatological clash of civilisations, one that, while it stops short of breaking legal boundaries, is at odds with liberal notions like democracy, free speech and freedom of religion.

If we take Mahmood as a case in point, it is easy to trace this damaging trend’s trajectory.

When asked, her friends and family express astonishment at her presence in Syria and horror at her clear and resolute commitment to the IS cause. They seem to have had no prior suspicions that she was planning on going to the Middle East, apart the fact that she was outspoken in her dislike of Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime in Damascus. Seemingly, she radicalised in secret.

The most likely path upon which she travelled will have been one that repeats itself time and again in the backstories of Western foreign fighters, one that tends to begin with a personal crisis of some form, something that leads one to question the very foundations of their existence. When this happens, an individual can be left especially vulnerable to all forms of extremism, be it Islamist or far-right – we must keep in mind that radicalisation is not something that only happens to Muslims, nor is it something that only happens to the disadvantaged.

At this stage, when someone is desperately searching for answers to their problems, that they can fall into the wrong crowd, one that works to frame their grievances in Islamist (or, as the case may be, far-right) terms. Simply put, perspective and rationality is removed from the arsenal of tools one usually has to pull oneself through a crisis. They are replaced with an ideology which is, almost invariably, entirely harmless in its initial stages. However, almost invariably, this is where the seeds of radicalisation lie.

Usually, nothing comes of it. However, in a few cases, constant exposure to it can lead to an individual increasingly falling into the clutches of extreme forms of the ideology in question. More and more, their life becomes devoted to it such that they end up utterly absorbed in pursuing its goals and the certitude they perceive it to provide.

Worryingly, this process can often be, until its latest stages, largely unnoticeable for both family and friends.

By no means, however, do all those who have succumbed to Islamism end up supporting the likes of the so-called IS “Caliphate”. It is deeply important that this distinction is made. What pushed Mahmood beyond the extremist pale is the IS message that has permeated social media for months now. Through her exposure to its highly effective propaganda and its highly active online supporters, Mahmood will have begun losing herself to its utopian appeal such that, when we non-extremists saw IS atrocities, she will have seen the realisation of the Islamist dream. It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true.

In a sense, then, the whole idea of “bedroom radicalisation” is a myth. An individual must always, to some extent at least, be socialised by other individuals. Indeed, socialisation and manipulation onto the Islamist path always come before things like terrorist propaganda online push someone to the furthest reaches of Islamism. As such, we cannot hope to fix this problem by focusing on the internet, as some have argued.

So, while there can be no doubt that it is a minority of extremists that fall into IS’ clutches, it is paramount that the connection between is made between non-violent extremist Islamism – which many politicians tend to understand as a largely benign irritation – and violent Islamism. The latter could not, and would not, exist without the former. As such, it is high time we, as a society, appreciate that this is something that needs tackling head-on.

Indeed, for years now, the problem of non-violent extremism has been sidestepped by politicians, who don’t want to legislate for such a grey area. Tragedies like the Mahmood case are direct blowback for this. The writing is on the wall: all extremisms, not just their violent manifestations, must be challenged. Further, it is not enough to try to tackle it in hindsight. British citizens, once they begin supporting groups such as IS, like Mahmood did, tend to be extremely resilient to deradicalisation.

The solution has to come before well before. We must tackle the desire to join war criminals like IS at its roots, non-violent Islamist extremism. This requires a full reassessment of the current structures in place and, above all, a better understanding of the processes at work. It is ludicrous that the situation we are faced with now has come to fruition, and we should not stand for it.

Charlie Cooper is the programs officer at Quilliam

5 Responses to “Female, private school educated: there is no such thing as a “typical” extremist”

  1. swat

    Its a psychology thing, rather blike manic depression or anorexia.
    These islamofacists have mental health issues, but that doesn’t mean that we should be lenient with them. on the contrary their punishment must be severe, because vin a way that is what they want and expect.
    We have seen this type oof extremism before in the Middle Ages and we talk of Medieval or feudal sytems. That is exactly how they percieve the world. We need the advice of our Medieval academics in the best way to handle these deviants in society. Their crimes are horrendorus; their punishmnent must also be. That way order can be kept, and civil society kept from harm.

  2. dave daison

    Hm. This article, despite being by someone who works for a think tank whose whole raison d’etre is to suggest policies, contains absolutely no such examples of policies. Instead we get the typical Whitehall ‘better understanding and reassessment’ guff. Tell us what can actually be done here. You seem to be suggesting that all non-violent Muslim ‘extremism’ be made illegal – and ok, that’s an idea – but then we get into the rather tricky world of what actually constitutes said extremism. But even that isn’t made clear here. you claim that by the time they support IS it’s too late, and maybe so, but where is the line drawn, then? and how do you stop someone supporting ISIS if they’re not ,say, posting about it on the internet or attending meetings?

    so in summary – tell us what you actually want to see done differently. After all, it was the Qulliam which had the ear of both Labour and the Tories in the late 00’s. What did you do wrong?

    It’s also funny that you don’t actually seem to know very much about the young woman you discuss here, either.

  3. Guest

    So you want to be worse than them, to maintain “order” (supress views outside your own), and to turn “civil society” into barbarians by using barbaric means.

  4. uglyfatbloke

    How heartbreaking for her poor parents; clearly decent honourable souls whose lives have been shattered.
    Swat….As a medieval academic I can assure you that medieval scholarship really does n’t have any answers on this.

  5. Just Visiting

    > After all, it was the Qulliam which had the ear of both Labour and the Tories in the late 00’s.

    Do you really think they were listening?
    Can you point to anything they actually did – that Quiliam would have proposed.

    There was such a culture of denial, across the whole chattering-classes of the West: that there could even be any kind of problem with Islamism.
    Look at the Guardian – until only about 3 months till arguing that the Birmingham schools thing was just smoke without fire. Only due to Rotherham do the Guardian seem to realise that Islam does not mean ‘world-view like ours but with different food preferences’ !

    I used to hang out n LiberalConspiracy (biggest left blog, back in the day) and it was the same there.

    I remember having dinner with some Anthropologists from the Uni 4 or 5 years ago: they were 100% in denial about Islam. Honor Killing? “No, that’s merely domestic violence that the West already has”, they said…
    Jihadi violence round the world: “no, that’s normal freedom fighters by another name”

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