CAGE’s Strange Morality

The identification of Isis’s poster boy as the vainglorious murderer Mohammed Emwazi has been attended by a flurry of armchair psychology. It’s been suggested, variously, that Western foreign policy is to blame for creating this furious, alienated young man and that his treatment at the hands of MI5 may be the reason the British graduate has found himself stationed in the scorched vistas that have become a familiar trope of the grisly decapitation films.

A recent interview on Sky News featured a man called Cerie Bullivant who represents the advocacy group CAGE. His suggestion that “harassment” by MI5 had contributed to Mr. Emwazi’s radicalisation was met with incredulity. But these justifications and moral contortions should be familiar. The root cause of terrorist attacks or murders committed by Islamist extremists is routinely alleged to be the behaviour of Western governments. So the attacks of September 11th were due to American support for Israel (and, either way, The US created Osama bin Laden when it supported Afghan insurgents against Soviet aggression in the 1980s); the bombings in London of 2005 are neatly blamed on the war in Iraq despite none of the perpetrators having any Iraqi heritage; the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January this year are analysed through the prism of a war France waged in Algeria half a century ago.

Foreign policy is not irrelevant but there is a tendency among some political commentators to mention it only if its invocation can be used to impugn or undermine Western governments. Al-Qaeda’s bombing of Bali in 2002 was explicitly a retaliation to Australia’s role in East-Timor gaining independence from Indonesia. Here foreign policy is indeed an animator. But is it a reasonable or justified one?

Attempting to cast Mr. Emwazi as a Muslim personally traumatised by the effects of Western foreign policy is strange. He is a British citizen, but was born in Kuwait, a country that was the beneficiary of Western intervention in 1991 when Saddam Hussein was determined to absorb it into a greater Iraq. Moreover, his victims have included aid workers and other non-combatants.

The broadcast interview with the CAGE spokesman has engendered a great deal of discussion. Why should Muslims routinely meet our demands to condemn acts of terrible brutality which they insist their religion does not sanction? Why is their loyalty called into question? Indeed, these are important issues. But in this particular case, Mr. Bullivant chooses to blame MI5 – if not for the actions of Mr. Emwazi then certainly for his radicalisation. The question of whether he truly does condemn beheading aid workers, then, becomes pertinent, even germane.

CAGE have also spoken of the harassment suffered by Michael Adebolajo, one of the men currently incarcerated for the muder of Lee Rigby. Again, the insinuation presents itself that it is surveillance and questioning by the security services that drives suspects into the realm of influence of violent extremists. And yet the possibility that such an analysis confuses cause and effect is not countenanced. Perhaps – just perhaps – the fact that MI5 considered these men worth talking to, worth surveying, tells us something about their activities and the company they kept at the time. Institutions like the police force and the security services make mistakes, of course. But are we really to suppose that Mr. Emwazi was a moderate, reasonable man until the invidious encroachment of MI5 and others?