We Need to Talk About Syria

Or more specifically, about what the government is doing and not doing about Syria.

There is no doubt that there is now a humanitarian crisis, and a civil war with no end in sight. So what is the government doing and not doing?

Theresa May has now stripped 20 British citizens of their nationality because they went to fight in Syria.  The head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, Sue Hemming,  said it was a crime to fight in another country and Britons doing so could potentially face life-sentences on their return. Charles Farr, head of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, said the size of extremist groups in Syria and the number of Britons joining them had become “the biggest challenge” facing the police and intelligence agencies. Everywhere you look, you are more likely to be reminded that the conflict is a breeding ground for terrorists than a humanitarian crisis.

The ‘British Girls Inspired by Jihad’ Splash is a good example of the alarmist coverage on the conflict.

British Girls Standard

The story was about two 17 year old British girls who were arrested in Heathrow over suspected terrorist offences. This was used as a preface to comments by Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism office, Richard Walton, who pleaded for British Muslims to help stop children turning into terrorist:

“We’ve had a number of teenagers both from London and nationally who’ve been attempting to go to Syria,” he said. “That’s boys and girls unfortunately. It’s not just the odd one. It’s shocking they’re such young people.

The exaggerated concern with girls and women being involved with terrorism was obvious, not only in the headlines, but also in the text of the articles. There are mentions of two women being charged with financial support of terrorism and a stark warning to the Muslim community:

“We don’t want to alarm the Muslim community that their girls are all going out to fight — they are very small numbers, but nevertheless we can’t deny that it is an issue and a concern.” He said wives and girlfriends here could also be “complicit” if they remained silent about men going to fight.

The numbers of women involved in terrorism, is by their own admission, very small. However, that does not stop the alarmist tone, which chimes in with the wider coverage on British Muslim’s involvement in Syria. These pieces serve to increase the suspect population and to scare the public into thinking that the number of potential terrorist has increased dramatically, because now women are also involved in terror.

(I don’t know why there is surprise that women are also involved in terrorism. I know that males generally are more involved in political violence, but women’s involvement is only really surprising if you assume the traditional gender roles where women are passive and unlikely to get radicalised. I personally don’t buy this.)

Most importantly though, is the constant reference to the two British girls that were arrested at Heathrow, which was touted as evidence of the increase in British Muslim radicalisation:

Commander Walton said the involvement of females was a disturbing new development: “This is not simply a problem for British male Muslims, it’s also an issue for some of our British Muslim women as well. We have made arrests of teenage girls going to Syria.

At the very bottom of one of the pieces, there is the following line:

He said that although the two  17-year-old girls — who were arrested this month — had been released without charge, he was particularly concerned about  the numbers of young Britons becoming radicalised.

The girls were released without charge. Without charge.

Whether or not there is a increase in British Muslims fighting in Syria, which I don’t dispute, planning an entire alarmist story over two girls that were released without charge is irresponsible and further tarnishes the British Muslim community as suspect and problematic.

Moreover, it reinforces a narrative where Syria is being constantly linked with terrorism, rather than as a humanitarian crisis which deserves British help. Further, ministers have now claimed that they might need new legislation to deal with the terrorist threat from Syria. As someone whose research is on the UK terrorism legislation and policy, I am both horrified and curious. What else can the government do? How much further can they go?

In my opinion, it is this frame, coupled with general hostility towards asylum-seekers and immigration, that is behind the indifference towards the government’s lack of enthusiasm with actually providing refuge to Syrian refugees.

Yesterday, Free Movement revealed that the government is removing and detaining Syrian asylum-seekers, rather than providing them with the asylum they need. This was not met with any kind of media attention, which is appalling.

Appalling, but not surprising, when the media and the government are so busy framing the conflict as a national security issue. This is not to deny the potential terrorist threat but to recognise that there are real humanitarian concerns which should be at the very least as urgent as potential national security threats. But the current discourse is not doing that.

So we need to talk about Syria. Because what the government and media are not doing it right.

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