Cage’s recent unveiling of “Jihadi John” as Mohammed Emwazi at their recent press conference has opened the floodgates to questions of “what if?” Many commentators, particularly CAGE, are now pointing the finger at British security services as playing a key part in the radicalisation of Mohammed Emwazi. During the press conference Asim Qureshi, director of CAGE, became emotional, as he spoke of Mohammed Emwazi describing him as an “extremely kind” and “extremely gentle” man, who had been radicalised by the harassment of the British security services. “He (Emwazi) was such a beautiful young man, really. It’s hard to imagine the trajectory, but it is not a trajectory that’s unfamiliar with us” (Asim Qureshi). According to Qureshi, Emwazi was a victim of the harsh treatment of UK security services which subsequently drove him from a ‘beautiful man’ into an ISIS executioner. I was left perturbed, to say the least, as to why Qureshi was describing Emwazi (who has beheaded seven innocent people, some of whom were aid workers) in such a way. I tried to follow Qureshi’s logic for why Emwazi was radicalised; blame was solely to be allocated to British security services for their harassment of Emwazi, and I felt such rationalisations simply didn’t add up. In the first instance, it’s important to highlight that British intelligence services harassment of Emzami was not without cause. Emwazi may have contacted Cage for help regarding treatment at the hands of British intelligence services, but the journey of radicalisation does not begin there. Prior to this in 2009 Emwazi travelled to Tanzania with others, he claimed they were holidaying and going on a safari. However, MI5 were monitoring the group and had reason to believe that they intended to travel on to Somalia, possibly joining Al-Shabaab – an extremist organization and jihadist group that had orchestrated terrorist attacks in Somalia. Emwazi wasn’t, therefore, simply an innocent safari enthusiast, but someone suspected of joining a terrorist organisation. One could argue that the evidence MI5 had was spurious and their actions were too quick to brand Emwazi as a threat; but given that Emwazi did actually end up becoming a terrorist, doesn’t that prove that the intelligence services were right in pursing Emwazi? Qureshi would say disagree, because in his view it was the “harassment” that was the cause of radicalisation.
So here’s a “what if” scenario to put my point in perspective: suppose Tim is accused of abusing minors by a neighbour and consequently his local police, who prior to this allegation believe Tim to be a respectable member of the community, incessantly question him and trace his movements. The press catch wind of these allegations and harangue him and brand him as a predator in the local newspaper headlines. After some time, the charges are dropped against Tim due to a lack of evidence. Tim, who is deeply affected by all this, decides to travel to the Philippines to escape his troubles. Many years later, British police are sent video footage by the Philippian authorities of Tim sexually abusing seven children. Would anyone in their right mind blame the British police or the local papers and argue that it was their harassment that had led to Tim’s transformation? Probably not. So how then can such a case be made for Emwazi?
If the British intelligence agencies are responsible for Emwazi’s radicalisation, it can also be argued that Cage are also partially responsible. Upon being made aware of Emwazi’s grievances why did they not take the necessary steps to ensure that Emwazi’s anger and frustration did not turn into him being radicalised? Perhaps, there are some questions that need to be answered here.
The press conference was an attempt to explain how a young man had morphed from a genuinely nice person into a monster. So what may have caused Emwazi’s transformation? We can perhaps answer this question by referring to Hannah Arendt’s (correspondent for the New Yorker) writings on Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect and executioner of Hitler’s genocidal plans. During the Second World War, Eichmann planned the murder of millions of Jews from every part of Europe under Nazi control by placing them in concentration camps. After Germany’s defeat, Eichmann fled to Argentina. By 1960, however, he was discovered and kidnapped by Mossad agents, smuggled out to Jerusalem and made to stand trial for mass murder. He was found guilty, and later hanged. Hannah Arendt who attended the trial wrote that Eichmann did not give the impression of being a monster, a sadist or violent individual nor was he a psychopath or a sociopath, but an ordinary, reasonable man. Arendt’s observation that someone so innocuous could become one of the most notorious criminals of the Nazi regime, coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterise Eichmann. Her characterisation of these actions as “banal” was not to claim Eichmann’s obscene actions were merely every day. Rather, to argue that evil can emanate from the ordinary. How was this evil possible? Arendt concluded that Eichmann lacked the faculties of sound thinking and judgement, which would have instilled in him a sense of empathy towards the suffering of his victims. Eichmann was devoid of the intellectual ethical resources to question his actions; he simply operated without thinking, following orders, with no consideration of the consequences on his victims. For Eichmann signing off the murdering of Jews was simply an ordinary day at the office. Which leads us to ask, was Eichmann’s problem simply a case of lacking moral facilities? Many have challenged Arendt’s conclusions, more recently the German political philosopher, Bettina Stangneth, with use of newly discovered documents including Eichmann’s own notes / transcripts of conversations with fellow Nazi. Based on these documents, Stangneth paints a different picture and gives a different perspective on how Eichmann could be complicit in such evil acts. She showed that Eichmann wasn’t just a pen pushing bureaucrat just taking orders, but an unrepentant ideological warrior for the Nazi cause. Eichmann had internalised Nazism, he backed his actions with philosophical ideas and lacked any self-doubt. His condition was not of moral lacking, but of moral deception driven by Nazi ideology and a firm belief in the “Final Solution” of the Jewish question.
How do these insights help us? When considering what caused Emwazi’s transform we should not underestimate the role noxious ideas play in radicalising an individual. If it’s not apparent- you’re not looking in the right place. I too attended Westminster University, as did Emwaz, many years ago and I recall it very well. This was the time I was introduced to the ideas that I now hope to change. There were two camps: one camp political in nature which was a type of Islamofascism (which ran the Islamic society) and the other Theofacsitic, a pro-Saudi Wahabism. The two camps were deeply critical of one another and were constantly at each other’s throats, but both totalitarian. The plus side of their disagreements was that at least there was a degree of critical introspection and intro-dialogue. However, that’s not to say they were not damaging for young Muslim minds in their own right. Both camps consisted of ‘lovely, kind’ young men who didn’t have a mean bone in their bodies, they were smart and intelligent who were misled in adopting such ideas. Today, as a result of a growing victimhood mind-set the two camps have now merged as one, often cooperating with one another. Consequently, no longer are their views challenged and reflected upon but the sole focus is on the other, namely the West and non-Muslims. Perhaps, a more worrying reality. It is no coincidence that we can trace back Emwazi to such views. Perhaps the British intelligence services frustrated Emzani, angered him to the extent that he resented them for the ‘harassment’ he received, but that would not explain the choice and conviction to join ISIS and commit his horrendous crimes. This is beyond disproportionate. Emwazi wasn’t a mere victim lashing out at the British intelligence agencies, but someone who internalized the ISIS ideology; an ideology that consists of a toxic theological backcloth that underpins his outlook of the world, splitting the world into crude dualistic good and evil. Emwazi didn’t behead those innocent people because it was some warped form of payback against the British intelligence services / British government. He believed that his actions were Godly and justified by his faith. Extreme social conditions can transform good people into behaving in a way that they would not normally do, the Milgram experiment is a prime example of this. In the end, it seems, it is noxious ideas that transform banal people into unrepentant monsters.