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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Losing a Son to the Holy War

It is shocking to learn of Muslims from Britain who have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq. The summons to jihad has proved irresistible. These young men are often bright and talented with great futures opening up before them. Now they are committed to killing in the name of a holy war.

I have been moved by listening to the father of Nasser, one of these young men. Nasser is from Cardiff and planned to go to medical school. He was brought up in a committed Muslim family whose values are 100% British. ‘This is my country’ says his father. ‘It is his country. He was born here in the hospital down the road. He has been educated here.’ Now he features in a recruitment video called 'There’s No Life Without Jihad'What has devastated his parents is that this has come out of the blue. ‘I was shocked, I was sad, I cried’ his father says. ‘It feels as if the ground under my feet has disappeared.’ Another of his sons is also missing, presumed to have gone with his brother. It’s a double tragedy.

It seems that the lad’s idealism wedded to his feeling for suffering people has made him a ready victim to those who have set out to radicalise him and others like him.The video depicts a man his parents can’t recognise any more as the son they love and have nurtured, so far-reaching has been the change in him. They have to conclude that his mind has come under not just the influence but the control of others; it has flipped into a wholly different way of reading the world from his moderate (his father’s word) Islamic upbringing. This kind of extreme religion is a world away from his formation as a child and an adolescent. He has, so to speak, been kidnapped by practitioners of religious craziness. He is a hostage. 

Every parent will empathise with this father’s moving testimony to his lost son. You worry about your kids: will they pass their exams? will they get involved with drugs or crime? will they find good partners? will they turn out to be the responsible citizens we bring them up to be? But jihad isn't on the radar. When something like this happens, I imagine it is a kind of death. I think of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. He had no choice but to watch his son abandon his family and leave for a far country. He could not know if he would ever see him again. He knew the sorrow of bereavement.

But that father never stops loving his son. When he falls on hard times, comes to his senses and decides to return, his father goes running to meet him. There is embracing, reconciliation, the joy of a welcome home. From the way he talks about him, I sense that Nasser’s father is like that. Far from disowning his son, he will go on loving him. It’s too painful to keep the family photos on show, so he has put them away. ‘Then we will have to wait.’ This is precisely what love entails. Like Jesus in the upper room, when we truly love, we go on loving to the end. However much waiting it means. 

And I believe that this is the clue. It would be so easy to be furious with a son who has done something as bizarre as this. The point is, he is a victim too. It's hard to see it this way, but it's important. He is no longer his own person: he has become someone else. This is how radicalisers work. Young men don't join radical jihadist groups. They are recruited. The blame lies not with the victim but with those who are exerting coersive power over him, altering his mind, reducing it to a state of unthinking obedience to the group’s doctrine. To see this happen to your child must be heartbreaking.

These are parents who have done all they could for their son. Now there is nothing left for them to do except to wait, and say their prayers, and if possible, try to find hope. In all its precariousness and pain, this is what love means: to go on holding and embracing him in their hearts, right to the end. 

We are with them in this terrible ordeal. As is God who is always the Compassionate and Merciful.