Clad in black, with a mask hiding his face, the jihadist speaks to the camera with an unmistakable London accent. As he mercilessly beheads his victim – the American journalist James Wright Foley – it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this individual’s barbarism threatens the landscape of England, too, the place from which he presumably hails. His ISIS-produced video, calculated to provoke the maximum amount of terror, is titled ‘A Message to America’. But everyone watching this morbid performance of inhumanity surely understands that this theatre of fear also represents ‘A Message to Britain’.
It is becoming increasingly common to see jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) boastfully communicate their threats to the world in British accents. Earlier this week, an ISIS video posted on YouTube showed a Japanese prisoner also being interrogated by jihadists speaking in British accents.
It is unlikely that there exists a vast army of young British jihadists ready to perform acts of barbaric violence for the cameras. But you don’t need thousands of willing executioners in order to cultivate a climate of insecurity and terror. Following the horrific stabbing to death of a young British soldier on the streets of Woolwich in London last year, it has been clear that such imagery and threats of inhuman acts can prey on the imagination of the public.
Earlier this week, the UK prime minister David Cameron said Britain needs to fight the ‘monstrous’ ISIS militants promoting havoc in Iraq in order to prevent them from causing ‘mayhem on our own streets’. That there is a connection between the unravelling of the Middle East and developments here in the UK should be in no doubt. But the important point to grasp is that the phenomenon of the British jihadist is not simply a reaction to events in Syria or Iraq – it is above all an outcome of, for want of a clearer phrase, the crisis of Britishness at home.
The answer to the question ‘What does it mean to be British?’ has in recent years proved very elusive. Nevertheless, this question continually haunts public life in Britain. Politicians are aware of this problem and periodically try to engage with it. Former Labour PM Tony Blair sought to outline what are the main British values, only to discover that he was not up to the task. His government wanted to launch a British Day, but it later quietly abandoned the project. His successor, Gordon Brown, was equally unable to give meaning to ‘the British way of life’. The humiliating failure of Brown’s government to produce a ‘statement of British values’ really showed that the meaning of Britishness could no longer be taken for granted.