Over recent weeks our media and political leaders have been wrestling with, what to them, is the apparently inexplicable attraction of ISIS (‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’) to significant numbers of young Muslims in the UK. The several hundred young men who have travelled to ISIS held Syria & Iraq are now being followed by numbers of young Muslim women – most recently by three teenage girls from Bethnal Green in London.
The shocking brutality of ISIS is so seemingly antithetical to Western values that our leaders seem genuinely dumbfounded by these developments. Sadly, as reprehensible as ISIS is, this incomprehension is just a further sign of the hubris and moral confusion that is endemic among our Western ruling elites. The lure of ISIS and the rejection of Western values is complex but probably not that surprising for a number of reasons.
1. 'DISNEY LAND' FOR THE GTA GENERATION
For young men (and it is especially men) brought up on games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty it’s not too hard to see why ISIS might have some appeal. Having pumped yourself up with digital brutality, easy killings and a fantasy world of cold callous machismo – the offer of the real thing could be just the ticket to maintain the adrenalin rush. Like the pornography that often accompanies this lifestyle package, the initial thrill needs to be sustained by increasingly hard-core material – with the prospect of doing ‘it for real’ being the ultimate fulfilment.
GTA is, by all accounts, graphic in its depiction of violence, drugs, cruelty and sex. One teenage player of COD remarked to me, ‘It’s really realistic, it really feels like you’re shooting people’.
The fact that ISIS is a ‘closed shop’ religiously means that the people going to Syria & Iraq are inevitably all Muslim. But if the offer of guns, glamour and unlimited sex was extended, without religious restrictions, I think you might see a bit of uptake from white British young men as well. Let’s face it, if you are a young man regularly immersing yourself on Cert. 18 video games and pornography, and whose life-expectations amount to getting a job in a Cash n’ Carry in some northern British town, you might be tempted yourself.
Ironically it’s the West that produces, markets and gets hugely rich on filling young men with these depictions of sex and violence - but then feigns shock and dismay when a section of its target market take up the offer to go and try it out for real. None of which absolves anyone from their personal responsibility or the vileness of copying what they see – but it should temper the moral superiority the West is so quick to claim for itself.
2. THE REJECTION OF WESTERN MORAL RELATIVISM
Now of course, not all the young men heading to Syria & Iraq are just glory hunting sex addicts. As former jihadi Aimen Dean told Radio 4 recently, some go in order to find redemption from those very things – seeking the martyrdom they believe will absolve them of such impurities. For such ISIS then becomes an escape route from what they see as the contaminating effects of Western culture.
You don’t need to be radically religious to look at the fruit of the moral relativism that now pervades Western societies – family disintegration, sexual unfaithfulness, promiscuity, hedonism, narcissism, materialism, corporate greed, corruption – and to think it’s rotten.
Double standards abound – the case of the three Bethnal Green girls being a case in point. There was great criticism of the police for not directly informing their parents that they had concerns about one of their friends. Instead the police wrote to the girls directly but those letters were never passed on. Yet this is a society whose government would be happy to see those same girls prescribed the Pill or given an abortion without any permission or notification being given to their parents. Yet suddenly the prospect of them being sexually active, even promiscuous, in Syria suddenly becomes a monstrous violation of their innocence.
Many in our political and media elites, however, are so absorbed and self-congratulating about their liberal values they find the idea of dissent almost impossible to compute. So the fact that young Muslims could be attracted to ISIS is explained away as the result of their ignorance of Western values. If only they were educated in ‘British values’ they would see sense, goes the thinking. Hence the pressure to close down ‘faith schools’ and ramp up the secular indoctrination.
What they never seem to comprehend is that many, not just Muslims, in society understand perfectly well the moral relativism of liberal secularism but just don’t like it. The very values so relentlessly promoted by our media and legislated for by politicians are for many not the means of inclusion but of alienation.
3. SPECKS, PLANKS & THE GOSPEL ALTERNATIVE
Of course ISIS is unspeakably evil and we should thank God every day for the blessings and freedoms of residing in a place like the UK. Equally the moral confusion and hypocrisy of Western society is not responsible for ISIS or its crimes. It is absolutely right to point out the ‘plank of evil’ in Syria & Iraq today – but our Western hubris (dangerous self-serving hubris) is to think our own society is ‘speck free’ (Matthew 7:3-5).
It is a tragedy that so many young men in the UK today are either so corrupted or repulsed by the immorality and double standards around them that ISIS actually has an appeal to them.
The Gospel, however, offers an alternative to such nihilism. In Jesus there is no need for martyrdom as a means of redemption – His own death is sufficient to take away the impurity that defiles us. In His resurrection a new power has been released – the power to free men and women from the tyranny of sin.
Jesus must weep over Syria and Iraq, over its suffering and horrors – but He weeps also over the young men and women enslaved by sin and seeing no hope or joy anywhere else. Syria and Iraq need the Gospel – but so does Yorkshire, Lancashire and everywhere people contend with the simultaneous glorification and guilt of sex and violence.