By Hoda Abdelhady
The Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011, has attracted many British volunteers and aid workers who travel from the UK to this increasingly hostile land to provide much needed humanitarian assistance. They are welcomed home with a never ending stream of questioning and interrogations under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act.
According to the police, the number of Britons arrested for suspected Syria-related terror offences has increased six folds since 2013. Moazzam Begg, an activist from Birmingham was one of those arrested. He went to Syria to investigate the British involvement with the Assad regime and returned to seven terrorist related charges against him. He pleaded not guilty before being imprisoned for 7 months at HMP Belmarsh, after which the Crown Prosecution services had no choice but to drop all charges against him just days before his trial, subsequent to the release of ‘new material’. Furthermore, it was revealed that MI5 had failed to disclose to the Crown Prosecution Services that they knew why Begg was planning to travel to Syria, and assured him that he would not be prevented from going.
There is no doubt that the counter-terrorism act was abused in Moazzam’s case as it has been in many others. The criminalisation of any Muslim travelling to Syria has drastically increased, immediately being labelled and treated as terrorists. But what the British media and government have conveniently failed to highlight as often, are the number of non-Muslim British men and British Kurds openly travelling to Syria to fight against ISIS. They are neither labelled terrorists nor prevented from going, despite them travelling there for the purpose of war. Two former British soldiers, Jamie Read and James Hughes, spent three weeks on the front line fighting ISIS, before returning to the UK without being arrested or charged for terrorism.
The introduction of new laws by the British government extends police power, enabling them to strip anyone who returns from Syria of their citizenship at police discretion. Furthermore, the home office has made it clear that fighting in a foreign war could be an offence under both criminal and anti-terrorism laws. Thus, one cannot help but wonder whether these non-Muslim British males and British Kurds will be allowed to enter the country upon their return, similar to Read and Hughes, or whether they will be arrested under the same law as many Muslim aid workers are. David Cameron has insisted that there is a fundamental difference between fighting for the Kurds and joining ISIS which perhaps many cannot argue with. But the difference is even greater between those fighting ISIS and those providing much needed humanitarian aid. He claims that “highly trained border staff, police and intelligence services” are capable of differentiating between Islamic extremists and individuals fighting them. However these ‘highly trained staff’ which he speaks of have failed to get it right on so many occasions, frequently detaining and on some occasions arresting Muslim aid workers.
The media has incessantly neglected to draw attention to the abuse of the counter-terrorism act, continuing with their habitual stereotyping and fear mongering. They have ignored raising the issue as to why British Muslim aid workers, including doctors, are detained, humiliated and interrogated at UK airports, out of fear that they have been radicalised whilst they handed out blankets and food to the impoverished Syrian people. On the contrary, non-Muslim British men travelling to fight in a war that is not theirs are labelled as soldiers saving beleaguered cities in Syria. This isn’t something that requires a lot of thought in order to find the answer: Being Muslim means you are now guilty until proven innocent.
The dominant narrative surrounding the conflict in Syria has been altered as a result of this criminalisation of Muslims. The government, in partnership with the vast majority of the media, have managed to steer the public away from donating to charities that help the cause, by instilling a sense of fear and promoting the idea that there are particular charities funding terrorists and aiding to take Jihadists through the boarder. Consequently several charities have seen a decline in donations.
The Syrian narrative is no longer about the 12.2 million people in desperate need of humanitarian aid, but rather it’s about counter-terrorism legislations.
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