Nineteen year old Mehdi Hassan has become the latest young Muslim from Portsmouth to be killed in Syria. Part of the self-proclaimed ‘Al-Britaini Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys’, Hassan is one of six Portsmouth men known to have joined the salafist extremists of ISIS (also known as Islamic State).
Hassan is reported to have been killed in the Syrian border city of Kobani and the rest of his ‘brigade’ have faired little better. Four are dead, one is imprisoned and the final member is believed to remain trapped on Kobani’s besieged front lines.
The social media campaigns of ISIS promise its recruits a ‘five star jihad’, a beguiling blend of Call of Duty and evangelical belonging. Yet the reality is infinitely more cruel. Compared to the battle hardened veterans of Syria, Iraq or Yemen, ISIS consider their European recruits theologically illiterate and a military liability.
While a handful, including hostage murderer ‘Jihadi John’, are used as propaganda tools, the majority of Europeans find themselves thrown into suicidal battles, expendable fodder against the Kurdish peshmerga when the group wishes to protect its more seasoned fighters.
Naivety, evangelicalism and even a distorted orientalism made possible when radicalised young British Muslims project their adopted theology onto a ‘homeland’ they’ve never known, may partially explain Portsmouth’s jihadis. However, it is clear the root cause is a poisonous mix of austerity and alienation.
The city’s Charles Dickens ward, home to the majority of the group, is ravaged by unemployment, cuts and the bedroom tax. 57% of children are estimated to live in income-deprived families, while the average household income is £430 per week, far below the British average of £670.
The British security service’s own report highlights the impact of austerity on this community, noting the path to radicalisation begins with high youth unemployment, a reliance on cut public services and the ‘managed decline’ of the dockyard, responsible for over 900 job losses.
In this regard, the ‘Pompey Six’ are no different to the rest of their community, where disillusionment and political despondency run high. In May’s local elections the sitting MP, Mike Hancock, lost his council seat to UKIP on a turn out of only 24%.
The difference is that alienated by British austerity, the six men turned to social media, ensnaring themselves in an international trap of despondence and demagoguery which has targeted young Muslims from Portsmouth to Tunis.
While it is no doubt the bloodiest, Islamic State is just one manifestation of the hard line salafist ideology which is being exported by the wealthy Gulf States. Threatened by the Arab Spring revolutions, the absolute monarchies of Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have spread salafism as a weaponised theology of counter-revolution.
That this extremism can find purchase in a small minority of Portsmouth’s Muslims is because the ground has been pre-prepared by austerity, not as some would claim, a failure of multiculturalism.
Southsea’s Jami Mosque, where the six worshipped, has been the target of English Defence League (EDL) protests in recent years. However, such protests have been infrequent and extremely poorly attended,with the majority of far-right protesters being bussed in from further afield. Portsmouth does not have an organised far-right problem.
Nor is there an issue with community segregation. In the most densely populated British city outside of London there is no room for ghettos.
This community suffers its decline as one. If the problems of alienation, despair and radicalisation are to be tackled, our movement must cut across the extremist’s message, uniting the community in a common struggle against austerity and the social problems which blight our city.