Skip to main content

Why James Foley's murder was a message to Britain

By Frank Furedi, Special to CNN
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • ISIS releases video showing the beheading of journalist James Foley
  • Furedi: The executioner in the video appeared to have a London accent
  • Furedi: Many radical British Muslims reject, loathe cultural values of British society
  • Furedi: British leaders failed to define common purpose that can unite all parts of society

Editor's note: Frank Furedi is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, Canterbury. His book "First World War: Still No End In Sight" is published by Bloomsbury. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- It was a gruesome act performed atop the stage of the global theater -- the grotesque image of a masked man, dressed all in black, beheading an American journalist in a production intended to strike terror into the hearts of millions around the world.

This act of sadism was horrific enough on its own. But what some will also find deeply disturbing was that the jihadist executioner communicated his threat with a distinct London accent. The realization that there are people who grew up in Britain who are prepared to engage in such barbaric acts of depravity makes James Foley's murder feel more intimate than if it was perpetrated by a foreign-sounding killer from a different society.

Propaganda films from ISIS -- the Sunni militant group that has seized large tracts of land in Syria and Iraq in recent months -- regularly feature British recruits to demonstrate the group's capacity to influence young Muslims living in Europe. Earlier this week another threatening video from ISIS featured a group of jihadists speaking with British accents as they interrogated a Japanese hostage. Some of them weren't even hiding their faces.

Who was journalist James Foley?
W.H. reacts to journalist's beheading
Canadian jihadi video recruits for ISIS
An Iranian Kurdish female member of the Freedom Party of Kurdistan keeps a position in Dibis, Iraq, on Monday, September 15. Some of the world's top diplomats have pledged to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance." ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. An Iranian Kurdish female member of the Freedom Party of Kurdistan keeps a position in Dibis, Iraq, on Monday, September 15. Some of the world's top diplomats have pledged to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance." ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
Iraq under siege
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Iraq under siege Photos: Iraq under siege

The beheading of Foley was staged as a "Message to America," but it constituted a direct warning to Britain. It served as a reminder that the killing of a young English soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of south London by two home-grown jihadists last year was not an isolated event.

There has been a dramatic shift since September 11, 2001 in the way that the risk of terrorism is perceived in Britain and Western societies. Western governments have been forced to confront an unexpected and deeply disturbing reality -- that it is sometimes the people already living in these societies who constitute the greatest security threat.

The emergence of the "home grown terrorist" raises the fundamental question -- why do these radicalized jihadists reject the values and ways of life of the societies they inhabit?

Thankfully only a small fraction of a minority of young radical Muslims turn into hardened executioners of innocent victims. But a far greater number reject, even loathe, the cultural values of British society.

Many radical Muslims aren't fervent ISIS supports -- but some do regard the war to establish a global caliphate as a cause worth supporting. Their response is integral to an uncomfortable reality that British society ignores at its peril.

Losing the battle of ideas

Since the terrorist bombings in London in July 2005, the challenge of winning hearts and minds has been evident to policy makers. At the time, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared:

"It's important, however, that those engaged in terrorism realize that our determination to defend our values and our way of life is greater than their determination to cause death and destruction to innocent people in a desire to impose extremism on the world."

Unfortunately very little progress has been made in upholding and explaining the values and way of life that are at stake -- and the shallowness of this statement was exposed a few years year later when the government's plans to launch a British Day had to be quietly abandoned.

Why Americans should worry about ISIS?
Why do Western youth choose jihad?
How did ISIS rise to power?

The idea for organizing a British Day was a direct response to the London bombings. At the time, Chancellor Gordon Brown stated:

"We have to face uncomfortable facts that while the British response to July 7th was remarkable, they were British citizens, British born apparently integrated into our communities, who were prepared to maim and kill fellow British citizens irrespective of their religion.

"We have to be clearer now about how diverse cultures which inevitably contain differences can find the essential common purpose also without which no society can flourish."

Sadly the government failed to give meaning to the idea of this "common purpose" and gave up on the idea. The very attempt to celebrate "Britishness" only revealed an absence of clarity of what it was that ought to be valued and celebrated.

The answer to the question of what it means to be British continues to elude policy makers. Prime Minister David Cameron has called for teaching Britishness in school, in response to recent allegations about radical Islamist influence in the classroom. But if political leaders find it difficult to explain what Britishness represents, then how can teachers be expected to instruct their pupils?

Unless British values actually mean something in public life they cannot be taught. This is a challenge that has been evaded during the past decade. After the tragic murder of James Foley, this challenge must no longer be avoided.

READ: Foley's beheading recalls past horrors

READ: ISIS: Is it really a threat to the U.S.?

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frank Furedi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
ISIS
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Put yourself in the shoes (and sixth-century black robes) of ISIS' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious boss of the terror group.
updated 2:47 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Former Kremlin adviser says Obama may be ready to deal with Putin on ISIS.
updated 7:18 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
The owner of an upstate New York food store funded ISIS, tried to send jihadists to Syria and plotted to do some killing himself.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
By producing the magazine, ISIS is taking a cue from al Qaeda, which has advocated terrorist attacks in its glossy publication, Inspire.
updated 2:47 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
After the beheading of another Western captive by ISIS, an international conference convened in Paris to talk about how to tackle the threat of ISIS.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
The beheading of British aid worker David Haines by ISIS has intensified fears for other Western hostages being held by the jihadist group.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
The atrocious murder of David Haines puts the United Kingdom and in particular PM David Cameron front and center in the evolving battle against ISIS.
updated 5:19 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
CNN's Anna Coren is on the front lines with Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they fight ISIS in Northern Iraq.
updated 6:08 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Deb Feyerick explores the lives & dossiers of ISIS & Al-Qaeda's top leaders.
updated 10:41 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
The family of aid worker David Haines is speaking out about his brutal murder by ISIS militants. Nic Robertson reports.
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
These are the nations involved and what's known about their contributions.
updated 7:29 PM EDT, Sun September 14, 2014
Three brutal executions. Three horrifyingly similar scripts.
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
ISIS has captured the minds of a new generation of global jihadists. What does it mean for al Qaeda?
updated 10:53 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Is it ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Daiish?
Here's a look at some of the major instances in which the U.S. military took action against Islamist groups or international terrorism.
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Tom Foreman examines what we donĀ¹t yet know about ISIS.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
To the outside world, they're a force of ruthless yet mysterious insurgents bent on terrorizing civilians and expanding Islamic rule.
updated 4:21 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
ISIS has become the new face of international terrorism in the eyes of the United States and its Western allies.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
As its adversaries regroup, ISIS -- which now calls itself the Islamic State -- may begin to suffer setbacks on the battlefield.
updated 11:25 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
Will ISIS be the first terror group to build an Islamic state?
A CNN interactive showing the presence of ISIS in the Middle East.
updated 3:25 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Jim Sciutto explains the similarities and differences between these Islamist jihadis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT