Tuesday, July 29, 2014

From Lewisham teen to ISIS bride

Last week, it emerged that a local Lewisham young woman who converted to Islam and prayed at Lewisham Islamic Centre has gone to Syria to join the jihadi army Islamic State (usually known as ISIS or ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), who, after being supported by Assad’s Ba’athist regime in Syria, have now conquered a large swathe of Iraq (in alliance with Sunni and Ba’athist sectarian militias) and are on the offensive against their former sponsor in Syria.

The young woman’s Twitter profile chillingly has a photo of her toddler son with an AK-47. 

The Evening Standard has published a report on the young woman by Joshi Herrmann, based on extensive research on social media and interviews with people connected to the mosque. It is very interesting reading. It suggests that the woman may have been joined by a second Lewisham teen, probably the sixth British woman to join ISIS's foreign fighters.

Local resident and Londonist editor Rachel Holdsworth, felt that the article insinuates that the mosque is extreme while saying that the imams are not in fact radical. Al-Jazeera’s Simon Hooper describes it as sensationalised and recycling tenuous connections. However, I felt that, although the framing is unavoidably sensational, the article does a good job of exploring the complexity, including the extent and the limits of jihadi ideology in the mosque.

Herrmann shows how the attendees and the roster of preachers at mosques such as Lewisham are fluid in a way that would not be typical of Christian congregations, but that the Lewisham mosque is viewed as “hot” compared to others. However, once the young and angry convert was drawn into jihadi ideology, she found the mosque and its imams too tepid and “soft”.
the local source suggests that radicals operate independently of the centre because they regard the imam and senior figures there as “soft”. “I think a lot of them [radicals in the community] don’t even go to the mosque. As soon as they see people at the mosque like the imam going soft and asking people to vote and doing stuff in the community they branch off,” she says. It is notable that a representative for the mosque has attended Holocaust Memorial Day, at the suggestion of the council.
This was apparently also the case with Michael Adebolajo, who felt the imams were too co-operative with the police. She then left in order to find the real thing, which she has tragically found in Syria.

Gender politics seems also to have played a part in her development, with some of Herrmann’s interviewees talking about how a prevailing patriarchal culture in the mosque was one of the things that turned her away from its brand of Islam and towards a more radical version.

There is a danger that circulating these stories will fuel the potential for attacks from far right racists capitalising on these sorts of incidents. The Dad’s Army fascists of Britain First and the EDL splinter group South East Alliance have been targeting mosques and other Islamic sites in Kent and London. We need to be vigilant against such attacks, and act in solidarity with Muslims in our community under siege. But it is also right that we are vigilant and critical about the ideas circulating in our community and that we work to make them marginal.


Background: I have written three times about Lewisham Islamic Centre, the mosque not far from where I live. In 2006, I read that its imam, also then the Muslim chaplain of Goldsmiths, had been preaching what I thought was some pretty unsavoury stuff. In 2011, I read that another of its imams had called for the murder of a Muslim cleric who condemned Wahhabi jihadism. Then, most distressingly, last year it was revealed that one of the Woolwich killers had attended the mosque, as detailed by the Daily Telegraph. It was subsequently targeted by the BNP (whose march thankfully failed to reach Lewisham). This year, Stand for Peace, a right-wing campaign group against campus radicalisation, made many of these allegations again, with videos of Shakeel Begg praising jihadis, noting that he is responsible for working with new converts.

Useful reading: 
John Bew and Shiraz Maher: Blowback: who are Isis and why are young Brits fighting with them?

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