At some 8,000 words Mary Anne Weaver’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “Her Majesty’s Jihadists”, is the most detailed attempt yet to “understand the pull of jihad” for Muslims in the UK. The subtitle boldly states that more British Muslims have joined Islamist militant groups than serve in the British military. Why this is so is worth asking, I suppose, though one could alternately ask why so few British Muslims are willing to serve in a military that has, quite literally, been at war in one place or another for more than a century. As Guardian reported last year, “Next year may be the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews will not be engaged in fighting somewhere – the first time Britain is totally at peace with the rest of the world.” That belated peace was not to be as the British Parliament “voted overwhelmingly” to authorize air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. In our political culture we are not supposed to ask why individuals would willingly risk their lives for geopolitical or corporate aims. Their heroism has to be mindlessly celebrated.
In any case, Weaver’s article does not address that question. It wants to “understand the pull of jihad” for British Muslims. Her article is perhaps less interesting for what it says than for what it leaves out. There are interviews with scholars belonging to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), a man whose three son left to fight in Syria, and Moazzam Begg–an activist and a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Weaver begins her investigation by asking Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at ICSR, if he could draw a “typical jihadist profile” for her. Maher explains that the “average British fighter is male, in his early 20s and of South Asian ethnic origin” with “some university education and some association with activist groups.” Some go for humanitarian reasons and others are adventure seekers, “students of martyrdom,” and the “die-hard radicals.”