British-born ‘jihadis' have been wreaking havoc at home and abroad for generations, lured by a heady mix of idealism, romance and rebellion.
Armed with eleventh-hour intelligence, security services were able to foil a conspiracy to blow up parliament and destroy the government by a fanatical sleeper cell of religious zealots led by a foreign-trained British convert.
Before this news causes undue alarm, this thwarted attack did not occur in the aftermath of the botched strikes in Glasgow and London over the weekend. The convert in question was not a Muslim and he did not receive his foreign training in Afghanistan or Iraq.
This ‘jihadi' was of the pure-blooded English variety and his name, as every child learns at school, was Guy Fawkes. Born a Protestant, Fawkes converted to Catholicism at the age of 16 and went off, in the 1590s, to fight for the Spanish in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands.
When he returned to Britain, equipped with the explosives training he had received in Europe, he became involved in the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament, thereby killing King James I and the Protestant aristocracy in the hope of replacing them with a Catholic monarchy.
The plot was a reaction to both the harsh anti-Catholicism instated by Queen Elizabeth I and the so-called Hampton Court Conference, through which the more moderate King James (of English-language Bible fame) tried to steer a middle course between extremist Puritans and Catholics. The plot served the interests of the Puritans very well and set back the cause of Catholic emancipation for at least another two centuries.
Although wits have often quipped that Fawkes was the “only man ever to enter parliament with honourable intentions”, the English have condemned him to eternal damnation right here on Earth by burning his effigy every year and urging the world to “remember, remember the fifth of November”. The only thing going for the poor bloke is that we are all (men and women), in a bizarre twist of etymology, “guys” now.
Since 11 September 2001, much has been made of the phenomenon of British-born Muslim terrorists and “jihadis” (possibly coined to rhyme with “baddies”). But there is nothing new about a minority – even a fully indigenous one – being singled out for excessive suspicion. As Fawkes amply demonstrates, small groups of young – and not so young – Britons have been lured by various ideals and the romance of rebellion to get involved in subversive and insurgent activities at home and in distant lands for generations.
The Catholics were probably the first group in modern Britain to be stigmatised collectively as “the enemy within” for the actions of a miniscule minority – as well as their association with their coreligionists in other parts of the world. Another group were the Irish.
With a name that would befit a modern Muslim salafist organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (aka Fenian), one of the precursors to the IRA, carried out attacks against British interests in Ireland, Canada and on the UK mainland. In Britain, Fenian's botched Clerkenwell Bombing in 1864 left 12 dead and 50 injured. In the 1880s, they carried out a dynamite campaign in which, among other things, they destroyed Scotland Yard.
Whether or not the Brotherhood advanced the cause of Irish independence is open to question. What is certain is that their armed tactics led to the collective stigmatisation of the Irish citizens of and immigrants to Britain, no matter how much the Irish community condemned the attacks or tried to distance themselves from them.
And British radicals have not just limited themselves to British soil. Much has been made of the lone British Muslims opposed to British foreign policy who have ended up in Afghanistan or Iraq. But there are plenty of earlier precedents of Britons taking up arms to change British foreign policy or for the glory of a distant cause.
Lord Byron was not just Britain's most famous romantic poet and dandy who scandalised conservative England with the tales of his sexual misadventures, including his quest to find homosexual love in the fabled “East”. Byron's career as wealthy agent provocateur and freedom fighter has parallels with Osama bin Laden's mujahideen days in Afghanistan.
Byron was perhaps the most prominent of the Philhellenes, volunteers from the European and American aristocracy who – besotted by visions of classical Greece – took up arms against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence. In 1823, Byron spent an enormous £4,000 – around £10 million in today's money – of his own funds to refit the overstretched Greek fleet and increase its fighting capacity. But as he sailed to do battle, his life was cut short by a fever. In fact, it was Byron's intervention that drew Britain reluctantly into the conflict after the Ottomans failed to assert their dominance.
While there has been a tiny trickle of British Muslims going off to fight as “enemy combatants” abroad, earlier conflicts were like a magnet for the young and idealistic. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s drew hundreds of Britons, including novelist and diarist George Orwell. In fact, it is estimated that 2,000 British citizens joined the International Brigades against Spain's as yet uncrowned rightwing dictator Francisco Franco. Again, this was at loggerheads with Britain's declared position of neutrality in the war.
After receiving British backing in the form of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to establish a homeland in Palestine, some extremist Zionists were unhappy with Britain's more gradualist approach to Jewish immigration and decided to take up arms against Britain in mandate Palestine. One of the most spectacular of these attacks was carried out by the Irgun on the King David Hotel, claiming more than 90 lives. The Jewish community in Britain felt the heat of the rising tension in Palestine, in the form of anti-Jewish hate crimes and suspicion.
The earlier situations of the Catholics, Irish and Jews provide lessons both for the British mainstream and the Muslim community. It illustrates that we have been here before and that the situation of contemporary Muslims is by no means unique. In fact, Muslims can draw some consolation that, by today's more tolerant standards, they enjoy better protection than previous shunned minorities. In addition, it shows that, with time and effort on the part of inspired community leaders, a minority can become well-integrated and accepted.
For mainstream society, it is important to recall that, despite concerns aroused by the tiny number of violent extremists, people should not let their fear guide them into collectively punishing a minority – as has occurred so many times before – or giving up their hard-earned freedoms to a potentially cynical political establishment in the name of security.
This article first appeared on 4 July 2007 in The Guardian.