Paddy Ashdown just tweeted:
Young UK Muslims joining ISIS; no more typical of islam than young Catholic men joining the IRA, was typical of Catholocism.
It is very rare for me to tweet at politicians, but I think he is partly wrong this time (ignoring the twittery typos). So I responded, to the wrong bit.
IRA was drawn from IRISH Catholics for whom Ireland, not religion was their banner. ISIS is religious not geographic campaign.
I’ll also pick up on where he was right later. Paddy Ashdown is a brave ex-soldier, one of the elite. I normally listen carefully to what he says on TV, and he often makes a very good case, but he makes errors just like the rest of us, and has tinted glasses just like the rest of us. Occasionally he changes my mind on something, which is fine. However, it is a common misunderstanding among the British that the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ were about religion. It was certainly a tribal conflict but it had mixed motivations. As an English Catholic living there through the troubles, changing religion and marrying across the divide, I got flak occasionally on both religion and nationality, but never any serious harm.
The IRA was fighting for a United Ireland, and drew its members and supporters from the Irish nationalist community, almost 100% of whom were Roman Catholic. Doubtless a few of the boys who joined up thought they were doing so to defend Catholics against protestants, but that wasn’t actually what the IRA stood for. The UDA and UVF drew their support from the protestant community, again with a mixed and variable brief of defending Protestantism, defending Ulster and keeping Northern Ireland British. The protestant community mostly descended from Scottish Presbyterians. The troubles were part sectarian and part about nationality, sovereignty and tribal descent. Because there was so much commonality of religious affiliation and being British or Irish, it often did degenerate into simple sectarianism, but that was never its primary driving force, which was whether Northern Ireland should remain British or revert to being part of a united Ireland. That is where Ashdown is wrong. ISIS may have its roots and some major goals in a geographic region but fundamentally it wants to further its cause of extreme Islamism as globally as it can, drawing its members from as wide an area as it can and to fight globally as far as it can. It is religious, not nationalist in its primary motivation.
Now to where Ashdown is right. The IRA and ISIS both draw their members from young men, easy to influence, and both organisations were good at marketing, motivating those young men to recruit and instilling fervor when they did. In both cases also, the young men came from a diverse cross section of the community. There were the intellectual types who had analysed it all and strongly bought in to the cause, and there were the less intellectual types who understood a more simplified message but really just wanted to be somebody, coming from areas offering little or no chance of life success or and chance of status, for whom picking up an Armalite of Kalashnikov rifle would make them someone, create at least the illusion of having respect and status.
The sorts of young men joining ISIS are probably doing so for diverse reasons too, but in their case, even the simplified messages are religious. A few will have fully understood and internalized the cause, many will have understood a very simplified message of doing their bit to defend Islam or Allah and becoming a martyr, but most probably just want to be someone, to have some status and respect. Sadly, very many of the young men joining ISIS will not fully understand what they are getting into or what they are meant to be fighting for. In that sense they are like the few young men who joined the IRA to defend Catholics against Protestants.
We may see this conflict coming to the UK. Our security forces expect people to try hard to make that happen, so they are on the case. Whether and to what degree they succeed we will see. If ISIS do manage to achieve some UK terrorism, we’re likely to see opposing paramilitary groups develop and grow. We’re already seeing a few contenders eager to size that role. If it gets badly out of control, it is possible that a Northern Ireland style conflict could result with extremist groups fighting against each other. The civilian population would be in the line of fire from both sides. Deaths would encourage young people to join up to have the chance to be heroes, and views can harden quickly, increasing the support base and the size of the community from which recruits can be drawn. In Northern Ireland, only a small number of men joined up to fight in the IRA, INLA, UDA or UVF, but there was a large community support behind them, which was occasionally estimated at around the 30% mark.
Our security forces know this risk and are doing their best to avoid it, taking down recruitment sites as fast as they can and trying to police movement across our borders. ISIS have also shown that they are good at the marketing side, managing to get lengthy adverts for their recruitment messages almost nightly on alarmingly cooperative national TV news programs. These news programs are helping to make it as seemingly cool and heroic to join ISIS as it ever was to join the IRA or its opposition. Terrorism can’t flourish without publicity, but these channels seem determined to give them it.
There’s another difference from the conflict in Northern Ireland. The paramilitaries in Northern Ireland didn’t normally decapitate their victims, and normally they would issue warnings before a bombing. ISIS make them look almost civilized.
As an after-thought, has the war on terrorism just mutated into a war on horrorism?