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Archive for September 2015

When is a mosque not a mosque? When it’s an Ahmadi mosque

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A large fire broke out at a prominent mosque in South London on Saturday. The blaze, at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, was tackled by 70 firefighters, and a man was taken to hospital suffering the effects of smoke inhalation.

About 50% of the building’s ground floor was reported to be damaged as well as part of the first floor and a section of the roof. Thankfully, only a handful of worshippers were inside the mosque when the blaze started and they were evacuated safely from the site.

Usually, such incidents unite most Muslims (and non) who will find a common humanity to express commiseration. Instead, what we have seen is certain Muslims more preoccupied with semantics. The reason – this was an Ahmadi mosque.

The Pakistani channel Geo News describes Baitul Futuh as an “ibadatgah“, or place of worship. Not a mosque. This is, unfortunately, expected from a country where Ahmadis are officially declared as being non Muslims.

Sadly, such views are not confined to the Indian subcontinent. The 5 Pillars website, which runs the tagline “What are Muslim thinking?”, repeatedly refers to the mosque as a “temple” and its name is inserted in very snide quote marks.

Considering that its deputy editor Dilly Hussain once alluded to Ahmadi Muslims as being worse than monkeys, one should not expect any less.

On their Facebook page, there are comments lauding 5 Pillars’ “correct” use of the word temple to describe the mosque.

The Muslim Council of Britain states on its website that it is a “non-sectarian body working for the common good without interfering in, displacing or isolating any existing Muslim work in the UK”.

How ironic then that not only did the MCB not refer to the Baitul Futuh as a mosque, but it once put a statement on its website declaring it as “not a mosque”, adding “It is clearly misleading to describe [Ahmadis] as Muslims”. So much for non-sectarianism. The statement disappeared from the website quite recently.

These are the same people who often cry Islamophobia, when in fact a lot of the bigotry towards Muslims comes from fellow Muslims themselves.

Perhaps they should take note of the Ahmadi motto: Love for All, Hatred for None.

UPDATE: Two teenage boys have now been arrested on suspicion of arson

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Written by Iram Ramzan

September 27, 2015 at 12:44 pm

I was in danger and my family was in danger: story of a young Iranian asylum seeker

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For weeks, months even, the news has been dominated with reports of refugees and migrants who are fleeing their countries and seeking sanctuary in Europe. It got me thinking: who are these people and what are their stories? What lives did they lead before they were forced to leave their countries, and what are their hopes and aspirations now? Last month I met a young, Iranian asylum seeker in Manchester and found his story so interesting I felt I had to share it.

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To all appearances Peyman seems like any other foreign student in Manchester learning English as a second language. He always has a smile on his face, giving the impression that he lives a fairly straightforward life with little or no complications. He volunteers at the Red Cross twice a week and his dream is to become a counsellor one day, as he is interested in psychology. But his dream may remain just that.

Peyman (not his real name) fled the Islam Republic of Iran and came to the UK to seek asylum in September 2010. He insists that he went into the nearest police station as soon as he arrived in the UK, but unfortunately for him, the authorities did not believe him. Five years on, the 30-year-old is still appealing his deportation and fears being made homeless again if he loses his right to accommodation and the potentially deadly possibility of being deported to Iran. Under the theocratic regime political and religious dissent is often conflated, mirroring the fusion of state and religious power, and blasphemy/apostasy are common charges against dissidents..

On August 26 2015, Amnesty International reported that Behrouz Alkhani, a 30-year-old man from Iran’s Kurdish minority, was executed while awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal. A Revolutionary Court had charged him with “effective collaboration with PJAK” (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) and “enmity against God” for his alleged role in the assassination of the Prosecutor of Khoy, West Azerbaijan province.

Zeynab Jalalian, also from Iran’s Kurdish minority, has been convicted an “enemy of God” and sentenced to death by an Islamic Revolutionary Court for allegedly being a member of PJAK, which she denies. These cases are a drop in the ocean.

Peyman’s Kurdish-Iranian family have experienced similar fates. His older brother was imprisoned and tortured for 20 years, as were some of his other relatives for their political activities. One of his childhood memories is visiting his brother in prison. When he was a teenager, Peyman was once detained by the police who were looking for another brother, who had been spotted with his girlfriend. As his brother had run away, the police took Peyman instead to the station, where he was beaten before his family managed to get him released a few hours later.

“That was the time I started hating the Iranian government,” Peyman told me. “Most Iranians hate the government but they can’t say it. I wanted to talk about my ideas. I was scared for my family – I wasn’t happy. I’m not safe there anymore. It could be dangerous for my family.”

Iranians were among the top five nationalities applying for asylum in Britain in the year ending June 2015. However, it is difficult to determine how many asylum applications to the UK are based on fear of persecution on the grounds of religion. Peyman decided to come to the UK as he knew some people who had already come here and because he spoke a little English. Prior to leaving, he worked in a government department.

“When I was in Iran I had a car and motorbike,” he explained. “I lived with parents so I didn’t pay for bills. I spent my income just for myself or for going out with friends. I didn’t come here for financial reasons. I came here because I was unable to live there. I was in danger and my family was in danger. They had proof I was an atheist, that I was against Islam and against the Ayatollah. But here I don’t have proof to get refugee status.”

Like many Muslims, Peyman came from a largely nominal Muslim family – his father, he is certain, did not even know how to pray correctly. He started becoming more religious in his late teens, before his compulsory military service aged 18, due to a fear of going to hell and a desire to go to heaven when he died. When he got involved in political activism, however, a conversation with a communist about Islam turned him into an atheist. Now he does not identify as an atheist but he does not have any religious views.

In the UK, he initially found it difficult to make friends. He could not be part of religious communities and had no desire either to go to nightclubs as he is not a heavy drinker.  Although he was not afraid of Iranians here, he felt he could not trust them so did not want to join any community groups either.

When Peyman first arrived in the UK he was placed in Bury, Greater Manchester, while a decision was pending on whether he could remain here. He found out shortly afterwards that his father, his friend and mentor, had died. This led to a period of depression and suicidal tendencies, worsened by the fact that his application was rejected.

He lost his accommodation in July 2011 and managed to rent a room in Rusholme after working illegally in several jobs and saving money. After he lost his job, he then went to London to stay with an Afghan friend and tried to find another job. When he ran out of savings he came back to Manchester as it was smaller and cheaper. He stayed with a few friends but pride stopped him from staying with them for longer than two weeks. Peyman then ended up on the streets, relying on a night shelter for a few nights a week. If there was one advantage to being homeless, it was that it helped with his speaking skills – throughout the interview, however, he still apologised for his “poor” English despite having a good command of the language.

He then decided to sign a form to voluntarily return to Iran. He did that, not because he wanted to go back but because section four of the asylum support provides failed asylum seekers with temporary financial support and accommodation while they make arrangements to return to their native country.

For a couple of months Peyman was also able to take free English classes. But then he was told to leave his accommodation and return to Iran. Once again he appealed and made his way back to London to stay with his Afghan friend, but wound up on the streets once more, sleeping at night shelters for three days a week or on park benches and the night bus when he got change from begging. Being in this situation led to him being “emotionally fucked up” and trying to commit suicide.

Fortunately he was able to get counselling while in hospital and was then transferred to Liverpool and subsequently Manchester, where he still lives. He made a fresh claim in May 2013 and received accommodation and was able to receive English classes, where he has made many friends. Currently each person receives £36.95 or £35.39 on a payment card for food, clothing and toiletries if asylum has been refused.

Despite an uncertain future, not knowing whether he could be homeless or made to return to Iran, Peyman has a cheery disposition and does not want any sympathy.

“I’m not complaining,” he insists. “My situation is better than it was three or four years ago. For the last few weeks I was thinking, what if I’m here for 20 years and I still don’t get my stay? Maybe I should go back to Iran. Maybe there at least I’ll die for something. Here I’ll die for nothing. But then I remember my voluntary work with the Red Cross and tell myself, no, you’re doing something here. I’m really enjoying it at the Red Cross.

“For the last five years I have been trying to change myself. I’m not saving the world but I’m trying to save myself first. For a few years I felt I was wasting my time. Now I feel better. When I’m at the Red Cross I feel like I’m part of a community.

“I’m happy. It doesn’t matter what will happen tomorrow or if I lost my accommodation. Well. It does matter because I will end up on the streets. But I’m not thinking about that. It’s not easy all the time but I just appreciate life.”

Part of Peyman’s story originally featured in an article for the National Secular Society on 9/9/2015

Sectarianism in modern Britain

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From Iranian dissidents fearing deportation after seeking asylum from theocracy, to ex-Muslims driven from their homes in Bradford, Iram Ramzan looks at some worrying examples of sectarianism threatening Britain’s reputation for tolerance.

Peyman (not his real name) is to all appearances like any other foreign student in Manchester. He’s 30 years-old, learning English and was drawn to Britain because of its reputation for religious and political pluralism, a sort of default secularism protected by the rule of law. Peyman hopes to become a counsellor after his studies.

But his smiling face hides his desperate situation. In 2010 Peyman fled the Islam Republic of Iran to seek asylum. Unfortunately for him, the authorities did not believe he arrived when he said he did and he had his application rejected. His political and religious views (Peyman is an ex-Muslim and a critic of the theocratic regime) placed him and his family in grave danger. However like many ex-Muslims applying for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution Peyman found this difficult to prove and is still appealing his case.

“[In Iran] they had proof I was an atheist, that I was against Islam and against the Ayatollah. But here I don’t have proof to get refugee status.”

Peyman fears being made homeless again if he loses his right to accommodation and the potentially deadly possibility of being deported to Iran. Under the theocratic regime political and religious dissent is often conflated, mirroring the fusion of state and religious power, and blasphemy/apostasy are common charges against dissidents.

Peyman’s Kurdish-Iranian family have more experience of this than many. After the revolution in 1979, the regime would round up any dissidents. His older brother was imprisoned and subsequently tortured, as were some of his other relatives for their political activities. Peyman was also beaten at a police station. “Most Iranians hate the government but they can’t say it,” he added.

On August 26 2015, Amnesty International reported that Behrouz Alkhani, a 30-year-old man from Iran’s Kurdish minority, was executed while awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal. A Revolutionary Court had charged him with “effective collaboration with PJAK” (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) and “enmity against God” for his alleged role in the assassination of the Prosecutor of Khoy, West Azerbaijan province.

Iranians were among the top five nationalities applying for asylum in Britain in the year ending June 2015. However, it is difficult to determine how many asylum applications to the UK are based on fear of persecution on the grounds of religion or belief. Some Christian groups have done important work highlighting the cases of Christians (including ex-Muslim Christian converts) facing persecution in the Middle East and/or seeking asylum. But groups supporting atheists and other religious minorities are often less resourced or politically connected.

Iranian-born Maryam Namazie helped found the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007 to break the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam. Eight years on, it seems that little has changed. Today, apostasy is a crime in 23 out 49 Muslim-majority countries. In Saudi Arabia and Iran it is punishable by death. In some countries, like Pakistan, people are accused of “blasphemy” by their fellow citizens.

Maryam said: “Those accused can be religious, including Muslims, or atheists. They may not have even done anything ‘wrong’; it’s an accusation that can be used by states and others in order to silence, threaten and even murder those deemed ‘undesirable’.”

Nissar Hussain, a Muslim convert to Christianity, pictured with his car which was vanadalised.

Nissar Hussain, a Muslim convert to Christianity, pictured with his vandalised car

But persecution of minorities and the enforcement of ‘apostasy’ taboos is also an issue in the UK. Many of those who leave the Islamic faith in this country can often be ostracised from their communities and families. Nissar Hussain (49), a married father-of-six found this out when he admitted he had converted to Christianity following the death of his older brother. His family promptly disowned him, refusing to inform him when his father had died. Even his 45-year-old wife Qubra was horrified at first, but after spending time with his Christian friends from church she also decided to convert to Christianity.

When word of Nissar’s conversion got out “like wildfire”, what initially started out as name calling quickly escalated into acts of vandalism.

After an arson attack on the empty house next door, Nissar decided enough was enough and moved the family to the other side of Bradford, in Manningham. All was fine until he appeared in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on Christian converts. His Muslim neighbours took offence and he recently had to quit his job as a nurse after he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after 16 years of constant harassment.

“We’re in the frontline, in the trenches,” he said. “The fact that it’s from my own fellow Pakistanis is traumatic. The Pakistani, Muslim community needs to exercise tolerance and goodwill towards converts such as ourselves.

“They took offence, in general, to converts. We’re an offence here. This is a form of terrorism. It’s so very personal. It’s vindictive.”

Nissar worries for the fate of his children, including his Daughter Anniesa – a 21-year-old international relations student at the University of Nottingham, who has blogged about her experiences. Anniesa recalled painful memories of being rushed upstairs after dinner, in anticipation of the next brick through the window. Although the children were not brought up religiously, she says the experience has made her Christian; only her faith, she said, keeps her “sane”.

“We would get called Jew dogs, at school we were told: you’re a kaafir; my mum said I can’t sit next to you,” Anniesa said. “I realised we were different. Mum got asked in the playground, why are you wearing salwar kameez, why aren’t you wearing a mini skirt now you’re not a Muslim? Christianity is equated to whiteness. She said my colour is still the same, I’m still a Pakistani woman.

“I’ve bottled it up. Being the eldest sister you can’t let it show. I see the UK as having become radicalised. Political correctness has allowed this to ferment.”

When Naz Shah MP (Bradford West) was elected it was widely viewed a rejection of sectarian politics and Nissar wrote to his new MP to ask for help. Ms Shah’s office confirmed that they had received the requests for support from Nissar and a multi-agency meeting was held, with ongoing matters being dealt with by the police, though Nissar does not believe enough is being done.

Whether it is young men like Peyman or the Hussain family in Bradford, it is clear religious persecution and sectarianism are issues Britain must grapple with at home and abroad. Our politicians often speak about our tolerant nation and condemn those countries that persecute their minorities. The Government must then uphold the criteria – which includes persecution – for those seeking refugee status. Protecting them is our moral responsibility.

Here in the UK, there are growing numbers of ex-Muslims who can now be helped by various organisations (CEMB and Faith to Faithless to name a few). Such organisations should be given more platforms to talk about the vital work they do to assist not just asylum seekers but British citizens who need their help. Otherwise this sectarianism will threaten Britain’s long-held reputation for tolerance.

Originally published for the National Secular Society on 9/9/2015

Prevent strategy – misconceptions vs the reality

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Heard the one about the three-year-old jihadi? No seriously, have you? The Daily Mail and various other newspapers ran a story last month about a toddler from Tower Hamlets who is apparently among thousands of Londoners identified as “at risk” of radicalisation by police.

According to a report by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), 834 under-18s children were referred to Channel, the government’s counter-radicalisation authority, at a rate of one per day between April 2012 and June 2014. Around 10 per cent of the children were under age 12.

Don’t worry – tots are not turning into terrorists. The toddler in question was clearly not an extremist, but part of a family that was at risk, and hence needed to be safeguarded. Very few will understand that just by glancing at the headlines.

For several months now, various organisations and commentators have been inflaming the fears and paranoia about the government’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST), ever since wide-ranging powers were brought in under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, meaning  that teachers, social workers, prison officers and NHS managers will need to report signs of radicalisation.

There are four strands to CONTEST:

Pursue – to stop terrorist attacks;

Prevent – to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism;

Protect – to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack;

Prepare – to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack.

Of these four, Prevent is the most controversial one which has dominated the majority of the headlines, including a letter that was sent to the Independent newspaper last month.

“Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”, it said, quoting a point made in the letter, which was signed by 280 academics and public figures.

Either this letter was a knee-jerk reaction with most of the signatories not having read the full letter, or they are willingly complicit in pushing the narratives of extremists. Or both. One of the academics claims the letter was penned by the advocacy group Cage, whose research director, Asim Qureshi, came under fire earlier this year for describing Mohammed Emwazi, or ‘Jihadi John’, as a “beautiful young man”. Cage has a record of defending convicted terrorists, even inviting hate preacher Abu Qatada to speak via a video link at their recent Ramadan dinner. The group was identified in Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on extremism last month as being part of the problem.

One of the signatories is the extremist scholar Haitham al Haddad, who believes in killing those who renounce Islam, that Jews are the “descendants of apes and pigs”, and homosexuality is a “crime against humanity”.

Another signatory, Azad Ali, was suspended as a civil servant in the Treasury in 2009 after he praised Osama bin Laden’s key mentor. He has called Hamas “a true resistance movement”, and suggested that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq would be justified.

The aforementioned people will naturally be staunch critics of Prevent because the strategy is aimed at, well, preventing the influence of such people. If the likes of Haddad and Qureshi are against Prevent then that tells you which side you should be on.

Of course, there were some initial problems with Prevent when it was first introduced after the July 7 bombings 10 years ago, the main one being that it ended up becoming a cash cow for “airy fairy” community cohesion projects, sometimes with extremists being on the government payroll. One such person was Asim Hafeez, who has strong links to hardcore Salafi groups.  In 2009 Hafeez spoke at a controversial International Conference in India.  Other speakers at the conference included Zakir Naik, Bilal Philips and Hussain Yee, all of whom are banned from entering the UK for their extreme views.

They signatories of the letter – and other Prevent critics – go on to argue that it is not ideology but socio-economic factors that turn young Muslims into extremists. If ideology plays no role then how does that explain the increasing number of white converts who are going off to fight jihad?

The 7/7 bombers and the likes of medical student Nasser Muthana – who fled Cardiff to join ISIS – were most certainly not deprived. In fact, they lived affluent middle class lifestyles, taking advantage of all the freedoms and benefits of living in Great Britain. Denying the role of ideology is absurd.

The signatories believe the government’s strategy will lead to Muslims feeling criminalised simply for growing a beard or wearing a hijab. Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian that the policy will “seal the mouths of Muslim pupils”. Giles Fraser, also in the Guardian, suggested recently that “signs like going to the prayer room too much, or wearing modest clothing” could somehow lead the individual to be reported for being an extremist.

At best, such simplistic claims are inaccurate; at worst they are inflammatory and stoking fears. The majority of those who are critical of Prevent have little knowledge of the strategy; sensationalist headlines about “spying on toddlers” do nothing to alleviate the paranoia.

In fact, the Prevent strategy even states that converting to Islam or growing a beard is not necessarily a cause for concern. Far from stifling speech, debating difficult and challenging topics is mandatory under Prevent.

Everyone I have spoken to who has worked in this field insists that there is very little opposition to the Prevent strategy. One such person is Kalsoom Bashir, now the co-director of the counter-extremist group Inspire, who was the lead Prevent officer for Bristol City Council from 2008-2012. She was then seconded to the South west counter terrorism unit as the regional prevent trainer, delivering prevent training to staff in the NHS, police, local authority and schools as well as members of local communities.

“In the early days of Prevent the government was looking at promoting cohesion projects but Prevent really shouldn’t be about that,” said Kalsoom.

She explained that far from spying on Muslims – she also happens to be a practising Muslim as do many other Prevent trainers – the strategy is about bringing together all resources and agencies for safeguarding young people.

“Now Prevent sits in the right place,” she went on to say. “How we prevent or raise awareness, how we prevent people or persuade them from not going down the path of extremism, not cohesion projects. The local authority should still be promoting strong cohesion projects but not under the lens of counterterrorism.

“Sometimes I think academics don’t have a clue what’s happening in grass-roots communities. The anti-Western, anti-Kuffar (non Muslims) rhetoric is out there. I‘ve had people say to me, you’re too close to the kuffar. That rhetoric is becoming so widespread. Groups like Cage are abusing the laws we have for free speech to support their own ideology.

“They spread hysteria and fear by conflating Pursue, a completely different strand of the counter terrorism police with Prevent. Pursue is what happens when the law is broken and police need to disrupt terrorist activity. Prevent is protecting people from going down the path of criminality.”

As for the many teachers who are supposedly frightened what impact this could have on their students? “The overwhelming feedback from teachers, once they’ve heard what Prevent is and it really challenges myths and misconceptions, is positive, and they’re confident after they’ve had the training,” Kalsoom continued. “They ask us to come back for follow up training. The chances of teachers ever having to report students are really low, but they need to be aware of any worrying signs.”

Kalsoom gave the example of Isa Ibrahim, a 20-year-old man who, in 2009, was found guilty of plotting to carry out a suicide bombing at a shopping centre in Bristol. There were so many worrying signs – asking his biology teacher about weapons and showing his drugs worker disturbing footage on his phone – but because he hadn’t broken any laws, nothing was done to stop him from going down the criminal path.

“If all these people had shared their concerns with with Channel for example, they would have the bigger picture,” she added. “They could have sent him a mentor. He had mental health and drug issues, so mental health services could have got involved. he needed sound faith advice and a strong mentor. This is what Channel does. It is a group of experts and practitioners that have the well being of the individual at heart.”

The Times ran a story last week about a 14-year-old IS supporter who pleaded guilty to plotting to behead an Australiam police officer. The teenager had been referred to the Channel de-radicalisation programme after expressing desires to become a martyr.

Court papers revealed that the boy’s uncle had been aggressive when an officer from the programme approached the house for an appointment, and refused to allow him in.

This case demonstrates that Channel is a voluntary process and nobody can be forced to engage against their will. Far from highlighting the failure of Channel, what it does show, sadly, is the failure of the family to safeguard their own child.

Student Rights, a group that monitors extremism on campus, published a detailed report ‘Preventing Prevent? Challenges to Counter-Radicalisation Policy On Campuswhich found that since the 7/7 attacks, student unions and organisations have actively sought to hinder the Prevent strategy.

A motion passed at the National Union of Students Conference in April this year pledged to oppose Prevent delivery on campus because it is “attempting to monitor and control Muslim students”.

In June 2013, the report goes on to say, the Federation of Islamic Societies (FOSIS) annual conference hosted a “Preventing Prevent” event, where words such as “McCarthyism” were thrown around. Ibrahim Ali, who was the vice president of student affairs at FOSIS in March this year, gave a speech at a Cage event in which he declared that “Prevent itself is a racist agenda; it’s an Islamophobic agenda”.

The perception is that Prevent is somehow anti Muslim, despite the fact that around 10% of referrals to Channel were in relation to far-right extremism. The report also highlights that of the 2,297 arrests on suspicion of terrorism offences between September 2001 and August 2012, 1,066 were listed as “Muslim” and 1,231 were listed as other or no religion, or unknown religion.

“Even when Prevent highlights other forms of extremism, CAGE dismiss it because it doesn’t support their argument,” said SR director Rupert Sutton.

“They portray it as an attack on communities. The big push for them is normalising their beliefs to say, when you attack us, what you’re doing is attacking Muslim communities in the UK. Extremists are trying to make their views mainstream.”

The Prevent strategy might not be perfect – which strategy is? – but it is the best we have at the moment. It does not help that there are people who are actively undermining it and helping the extremist agenda either willingly or out of fear that they might fuel anti-Muslim bigotry.

There are many people now speaking out against extremism and ISIS, keen on doing workshops and media interviews as often as they can. Perhaps I am being cynical, but it would not surprise me if they are doing this to merely to get funding

In order to ensure it is effective, the government firstly needs to defend its policy more robustly and dispel any misconceptions. This would explain why the Northamptonshire  Police Prevent officers have become active on Twitter. The people who run the account should be commended for hitting back at absurd claims about Prevent in a calm and rational manner which invites people to engage with them, rather than turning them away. They even appeared on Radio 4 to give an insight into the work they do.

Finally, the government must also ensure that the right people are given money to deliver Prevent training rather than allowing non violent extremists to slip through the net as they did in the past, who did nothing to counter the poisonous ideology turning our young people into extremists going abroad to join a death cult.

Originally published for Harry’s Place on 16/8/2015

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