How to respond to the inhumane, senseless and unjust murder of Alan Henning? Hoping against hope, I desperately wished that Alan would be reunited with his family. But at the brutal hands of Islamic State (Isis), his murder was sadly inevitable. There was no mercy. There was no compassion. Yet the news, even if expected, was heartbreaking.
Despite it being the weekend of Eid, I decided not to celebrate the festivities; instead, as I read my Eid prayers, I will pray for Alan and his family. This was the same Alan who selflessly sacrificed celebrating Christmas with his family to help the people of Syria.
It is well documented that it was the plight of young Syrian children that moved him to take that dangerous journey back to the country. As his family, friends, colleagues and local community testify, he was a man of integrity and of humanity and yet, tragically, it was these virtues that led to his death. I cannot find the will or the heart to take part in Eid festivities as I know those same friends, and indeed the nation, will be mourning the gentle, spirited cabbie from Salford.
My faith has been hijacked by extremists. I cannot state it any more simply. If the prophet Muhammad – a man who was sent as a “mercy to the world” – were alive today, what would he make of these followers? How do you deal with a group such as Isis when it rips up all the rulebooks on morality, law and ethics? When it shows no concern for international humanitarian law and the Geneva conventions, and even violates the basic tenets of mercy, peaceful co-existence and love spoken of in the Qur’an? As if to highlight the group’s violations of Islamic principles, Alan was murdered on the day of Arafah, a religious day in the Muslim calendar, the day of mercy, forgiveness and hope.
If you were to sit with Isis, what common language would you bring to the table to try and come to some resolution, when it is difficult to find a starting point? I have seen grown men, Muslim scholars and ordinary Muslim women cry at the news of Alan’s death. But their tears are also shed because they know that not even ultra-conservative preachers in the UK can influence the group. Isis appears only to follow one law, that of death and destruction, and our challenge is understanding how best to deal with this ever existential threat to humanity.
The pros and cons of our military strikes on Isis will continue to be debated. The case remains that limited strikes destroying the infrastructure of Isis are needed. But I know through the work of my organisation that it is the battle of hearts and minds that remains the most pressing.
The ideological battle in our own country is one that has the ability to radicalise a 15-year-old girl from Bristol, a grade-A student, who aspired to be a dentist. It also radicalised a young man from Cardiff who once announced his ambition to be prime minister. This ideology has shattered the chances of positive contributions from these people. It has destroyed families, some of whom worked all the hours God could send, to ensure their children had the best education, and has resulted in broken communities.
This is why, last week, we launched #makingastand. The campaign encourages women to take the lead in exerting influence in their communities and to root out extremists who are preying on their children. But it is also designed to provide an alternative narrative for young British Muslims: to pledge their allegiance to their country, to respect human rights and to be a peaceful, thoughtful member of British society.
It is in stark contrast to what extremists preach. Our campaign is a “jihad against violence”, an attempt to reclaim the word jihad from those who have wrongly attributed it to mean holy war. Jihad means no such thing. Instead, it is a struggle for goodness, for truth, for justice, for compassion and for peaceful coexistence.
Muslims know that we have the principles in our faith to challenge the extremist outlook; we need, however, to reclaim our faith from these monsters. By succeeding in this war of ideologies, we can eventually turn off the tap of British jihadis leaving the UK to join Isis.
I believe Alan’s death could lead to a watershed moment, particularly in this ideological battle. It could be the single horrendous act to open the eyes of some radicalised people in our country, who may have been contemplating joining Isis.
The response from Muslim groups, imams and ordinary individuals in campaigning for Alan’s release has been exemplary. The action of young British Muslim rallying to make their voices heard by joining campaigns such as #notinmyname has provided an alternative narrative – that this extremism is a perversion of Islam. So successful was this campaign that it went viral and President Obama referred to it in his UN speech two weeks ago.
But we need to understand that this ideological battle also extends into wider society. Young Muslims tell me that, despite shouting loud and clear that they are patriotic, they still experience anti-Muslim prejudice and are viewed with suspicion, as the enemy within. This marginalisation only seeks to reinforce the extremists’ narrative, exploiting the aggrieved by calling them to the Islamic State, which will allegedly treat them as “proper” citizens.
Where bridges have been burnt between minority communities and the wider society, we must rebuild them to strengthen our collective identity. Trust must replace suspicion and those preaching hatred, intolerance and dehumanisation of others will be exposed for who and what they are.
For those who want to see what this kind of hatred and excommunication looks like, you only need to look at the personal abuse I receive on Twitter – a testimony to the challenge we face. But with a resilient British Muslim identity, and the support of wider society, I know young Muslims will reject the extremists’ message of inhumanity.
I can only end with offering my heartfelt condolences to Alan’s family and friends. None of what I have written will heal their pain or console them for their huge loss. But in their time of grief they, better than anyone, will know that their loved one was a man of honour, decency and respectability. Alan’s wife, Barbara, stated that Alan “was in the right place during the right time”. I hope his death will make those Muslims who are attracted to Isis’s ideology also recognise what the right thing to do is – reject its extremist ideology, which has no place in our world.
Sara Khan is co-director of Inspire, a counter-extremism and human rights organisation (wewillinspire.com)