Islamic State allows its adherents to be both cultists and psychopaths: an L. Ron Hubbard and a Fred West rolled into one. The reasons why young men want to travel across the world to fight its wars and lend a hand to the murder of its victims ought to be brutally and boringly obvious.
Psychopaths are always less complicated, less rewarding, less interesting than their victims. They’re not hard to explain. Where is the difficulty about Abelaziz Kuwan , for instance? His case opens ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. It is a superb piece of journalism, unsparing in it analysis of the folly of the Obama administration, which thinks it can win over the Sunnis of Syria, while tacitly supporting the Assad regime which gases and bombs them, and the Sunnis of Iraq, while tacitly supporting the Iranian-backed Shia sectarians of Iraq, who will slaughter and oppress them.
But as well as condemning a West which thinks it can defeat one of the worst terrorist movements in the world by allying with some of the worst regimes in the world, Weiss and Hassan destroy the consoling illusion that others are to blame for the radicalization of foreign fighters; that if it wasn’t for “us”, they would have stayed in their middle class homes.
They describe how Kuwan left a respectable family in Bahrain to fight in Syria. When he returned to Bahrain from the front, civilian life bored and belittled him. “This world means nothing to me. I want to be free,” he said. He returned to serve Islamic State, which allowed him to find his freedom by beheading its enemies and giving him a Yazidi woman to abuse as his own private sex slave. For a young man from a heavily policed, sexually repressed culture, Islamic State offered him the alternative of gratifying his darkest lusts, as it did to Mohammed Emwazi.
And it gave those lusts a religious justification. If Kuwan or a British jihadi wanted a woman, it told them: “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharih.”
Put this together and you see that Islamic State offers foreign volunteers the chance to rape and murder. It offers them more enemies to kill than even al-Qaeda did. Its charismatic leaders offer quotes from sacred texts, which assure its fighters that their excesses are more than bestial crimes, while the movement’s successes on the battle field offer proof that Allah is on its side, and that one day – when the final victory is won – the fighters will have the eternal glory of being there at the foundation of a global caliphate: a new heaven on earth.
You may know people who would commit atrocities, given this combination of messianic authority and opportunity. You may be one yourself. There’s a great deal to be written about how depressingly easy it is to lead men into mass murder, but there’s no mystery to solve.
Yet Jihadi John’s apologists want to create one. They want to deny that anyone is to blame for Emwazi’s “radicalisation” but MI5. “British security services,” said Cage, “have systematically engaged in the harassment of young Muslims, rendering their lives impossible and leaving them with no legal avenue to redress their situation.” Leave aside that our security services’ alleged “harassment” did not extend to taking the basic step of stopping Emwazi going to Syria, and that many people are given a hard time by the police and don’t come out as killers, slavers and rapists, and consider what Cage also denied.
Their spokesmen came close to denying that Emwazi’s crimes were crimes. One told Sky News that it was “racist” to ask him to condemn them, before saying he wasn’t trying to justify beheadings – in a voice that sounded as sincere to me as the voice of a toddler who has been forced by his parents to apologise.
They denied that his beliefs mattered. No one stated the simple truth that Salafi Islamists from Britain, Europe, the Gulf, America and Australia are pouring into Syria because they believe in fighting for the caliphate. Across the West there are influential voices, given access to the media, who deny that the reasons soldiers give for fighting for Islamic State are their real reasons. The real reasons must always be different.
People deny a crime because they want to escape punishment and do it again. Or they deny because without denial their crimes will so contaminate their cause it will lose support. Or they deny it because they know that there are many who want to hear their excuses.
All of these apply to Emwazi’s defenders.
They cannot face Islamic State’s crimes for the same reason holocaust deniers cannot face the gas chambers. They understand, as neo-Nazis understand, that if they accept them, the barbarism they acknowledge will threaten support for radical Islam as surely as it destroyed support for fascism in Europe.
They know too that if they turn the conversation to the alleged crimes of the West there are audiences which will applaud them.
For all the videos of beheadings Islamic State shamelessly posts on the Web, Islamists may one day say that they are American/Zionist forgeries, if that lie is tactically useful. In the West, meanwhile, there are many who want to hear that their own governments are the “root cause” of the violence. Cage is not some shabby outfit hidden in a London backstreet. Absurdly given their professed principles,the Quaker Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Anita Roddick Foundation have funded it.
Amnesty International meanwhile tore up a hard-won reputation for impartiality, it had taken decades to build, just so it could ally with Cage. My friend and comrade Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit in 2010, warned Amnesty that allying with a jihadi advocacy group, whose members included supporters of the Taliban, undermined its fight against misogyny.
“The human rights movement must maintain an objective distance from groups and ideas that are committed to systematic discrimination and fundamentally undermine the universality of human rights,” she said.
No good did her clear and principled statement do her. Amnesty drove Sahgal out for taking her concerns to the press. I understand its motivation. Like Anita Roddick and the Quakers, Amnesty was appalled by Guantanamo Bay, the routine use of torture by Western states, and the extraordinary rendition of suspects.
But it could not stick to consistent principles. Like so many others, it could not condemn the crimes of the West and the crimes of radical Islam at the same time and for the same reasons.
There’s not much to hope for. But perhaps we can hope that the voracious barbarism of Islamic State will give that double-standard a fatal and long-overdue shock.