Not all fighters going to Syria are extremists, says former UK minister Shahid Malik

Natalie O’Brien

A former British justice minister has warned countries such as Australia and Britain not to be too heavy-handed with young people wanting to go and fight in Syria because they risked radicalising them.

Shahid Malik, who was also the home office minister with responsibilities for preventing extremism in Britain in the wake of the 2007 London bombings, said youths were often idealistic, but that did not mean they were extremist.

Mr Malik said it was understandable that governments were concerned about what might happen when volunteer fighters returned home from a conflict zone, but this had happened in other countries in the past.

”I do think the last thing any country or security agency wants to be doing is to make people feel like they are foreigners in their own country and that they don’t belong,” Mr Malik said.

”If you start to make them feel not equal and turn them into people who don’t see themselves as citizens, then you will go down the road of a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Mr Malik, the first British-born Muslim to be made a minister in any British government, was speaking at the 14th Doha Forum in Qatar.

Mr Malik’s remarks come as Australia grapples with the Syrian conflict. Dozens of Australians have had their passports cancelled in the past year, criminal charges have been laid and many have been questioned by the ASIO spy agency about their intentions to fight in Syria.

The Australian authorities believe there are already more than 100 Australians fighting in Syria. There have been 10 reported deaths of Australians in the country.

Australia’s intelligence agencies have raised concerns that volunteer fighters returning home will be battle-hardened, radicalised and have the skills to carry out violent acts, but Mr Malik told an international audience there were historical precedents for this situation.

British (and Australian) volunteers went to fight against fascism in the Spanish civil war in 1939, he said. Among those considered ”radical” at the time and suspected of wanting to fight in Spain, according to recently released files from the British intelligence agency MI5, was author George Orwell (who later wrote Animal Farm and 1984).

But Mr Malik pointed out that while the government did not want them to go, there was no issue when they returned. Those volunteer fighters were now seen as heroes and freedom fighters, he said.

”The point I was making is that we should not jump to conclusions that the young people who want to fight are extremists,” he said.

”But also we can’t be naive that those who return home from such places won’t have altered views and perceptions.

”I would say that countries like Australia and the UK need to be alert to these possibilities but panic and alarm is not the solution.”