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07 November 2014

Home-grown terrorism?

Home-grown terrorism?

With the rapid rise and advance of ISIL in Northern Iraq and Syria, and the recent resurgence of radical groups in Libya, the Church has been grasping for ways to respond.

This week the new director of Britain’s surveillance agency, GCHQ, accused big US technology companies of denial, claiming they are becoming “control networks of choice” for terrorists.

It seems to me that British Christians often feel hamstrung in their capacity to offer tangible resistance to radical groups, despite knowing such groups are aggressively recruiting using the social media networks that run through our own country.

One London church community faces the reality of terrorism locally. London vicar and Westminster Theological College lecturer, Azariah France-Williams, leads a church that sits on the council estate that harboured the 21 July 2005 bombers and recently saw the arrest of four men on suspicion of plotting terrorism.

The vicar recently met a family with a 7-year-old son, who fear he may be targeted as he gets older. They worry he is vulnerable to being groomed and indoctrinated. They want to move out of the estate.

Others want to put it behind them and embrace the 'keep calm and carry on' mentality, but a number of people who once enjoyed polite conversation with the arrested men say they now have a lens of suspicion on everyone, unsure of who can be trusted.

The estate has many disaffected young people. The absence of fathers is a factor blamed by some for the behaviour of these young men. Those on the estate who might be well-placed to be a father-figure tend to be wary or even afraid of the youth most in need their support.

It seems terrorist groups know they can lever Western military action to both recruit and harden people's resolve against Western powers. In today's technologically connected world, there is a distinct lack of boundaries.

Azariah says he’s seen the same resentment a Muslim Iraqi might feel in Mosul mirrored by a Muslim counterpart on his estate. He warns that young people’s access to inflammatory material and the ability to network with like-minded peers is dangerous when combined with economic factors.

The would-be bomber sees his dad disrespected and his mum working round the clock. They switch allegiance, wanting a different path. Their own gang on the estate becomes too small, so an international tribe is necessary to fuel and fund their new nomadic status as they exist within, but not of, the world of the estate.

Some Christians believe the Church needs to engage with this issue of home-grown terrorism by resisting Islam, or at least radical Islam. But Azariah doesn’t see the issues in his neighbourhood in those terms.

As a trustee of the local community centre, he was supportive of Muslim Eid prayers being held there because it brings families together. Eid provided a rare opportunity for these young men to spend time with mature elders who can help them construct a healthier personal narrative – one that supports citizenship and creative, positive protest for the issues they face.

St Francis Church on the estate is part of Citizens UK, which engages in deep listening to all aspects of the community. This listening is transformed into positive action. The church has a range of community building initiatives that centre around family, creative arts and space for different people to meet.

Isaiah 11:6 gives us the vision of the wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, and calves and lion lying down next to each other. Powerful predators alongside the weaker victims. This may be a place for the Church, refusing to alienate but rather ‘lying down’ next to these young people who have the potential of becoming the predator.

Some might call Isaiah 11’s vision of new creation escapist or even utopian. It doesn’t deal practically with problems on the ground. But we have to remember that Isaiah proposed that vision during one of Judah’s darkest hours, when the aggressors of the world were at the door.

Perhaps envisioning and seeing new alternatives is where the Church is — or should be — best equipped. It seems intrinsic to a worldview based on hope, and to a faith that claims to be good news. Maybe envisioning alternatives locally — with neighbourhood kids and parents — can be a powerful witness in a world constantly clanging with alarm bells and security warnings. As all radical groups know, an alternative vision of reality can really mobilise.

Matt Lynch is dean of studies at Westminster Theological Centre