Why do I disagree with right-of-centre commentators on social issues when I tend to agree with them on economics? Perhaps it’s to do with applying our experiences to any given view, which is certainly the case when it comes to the rise of Islamically-inspired terrorism and, critically, its attraction for adolescent Muslim males brought-up in Europe’s inner cities.
Not that I have any experience of Islamic culture, but that’s the point. My experience is in disaffection – and, most acutely, in the alienation of bored, excluded youth. Let’s face it, most right wing commentators come from somewhat privileged (and certainly “insider”) backgrounds. As do most left wing commentators, come to that, but they’re not the ones claiming the problem of Islamic radicalisation is largely down to the religion itself. Having never experienced alienation, they find it difficult to accept the subordinate role religious doctrine plays in the minds of those Isis/Daesh foot-soldiers bred in the backstreets of Cardiff and Birmingham, Brussels and Stockholm.
So here’s a comparison – with the disaffected youths of my own background who became football hooligans. Being from Essex, West Ham and Tottenham split the dubious honour of their loyalty, although some of the hardest nuts in my school followed Chelsea. Come Saturday, these committed hoolies were on the Liverpool Street train ready to do battle on the terraces of Upton Park, White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge.
As for the football – by which I mean the contest between two sides of 11-men in different coloured kits – it mattered, but was also incidental. I do not exaggerate when I state that they (we? – such is my “outsider” status I couldn’t even commit to being a full-on disaffected youth) were utterly committed to their respective clubs. It was life and death, or – at least – felt that way. West Ham or Spurs gave these adolescents the meaning they otherwise lacked. But the game itself was often disrupted and sometimes abandoned because of crowd trouble, which meant events on the field were secondary – and only relevant as part of the battle for tribal ascendancy.
And it was purely tribal: a collective calling penetrating deep into individual souls. Certainly, it trumped our mediocre education as a path to spiritual enrichment – not least because, as part of the exurban diaspora from East London, we lacked the spirituality of our native pastures. We’d been uprooted, hence the need for extremist displays of tribal loyalty, and hence the comparison with those alienated, second-generation Muslim immigrants in European cities.
The football stadia of our teams acted as the cathedrals of our religion. They were the grand mosques, calling the faithful from far and wide to prayer every home game. It was certainly ritualistic, as well as nonsensical to outside observers. Why travel to stand on barren terraces in the biting cold or lashing rain? Why sing about “blowing bubbles”? And why the threat of sending opposing fans – sometimes friends and neighbours – home in London ambulances?
So we have the disaffected young men, and we have the tribal cause by which they found meaning. Yet we also have the claim of just about every sensible voice within football and academia at that time (the 1970s-80s, pre Hillsborough) that the hooligan problem had nothing to do with football. Football was the conduit by which the testosterone-driven yearning for meaning and adventure within young men of limited prospects expressed itself, they claimed. As now, conservative (somewhat snobby) commentators begged to differ, saying that this was football’s problem. And that the sport must put its house in order or face the consequences. The hooligans claimed to be football fans and certainly looked and acted like football fans, they said: ergo, they were football fans, making it the problem of the sport Alan Hudson called the “working man’s ballet”.
Clubs were therefore punished for the actions of their ”supporters”, especially abroad, which – too late to prevent the damage done to the game’s reputation – forced the clubs into taking action. They initiated membership schemes and upped the security within the grounds, which – perversely – pushed the problem onto the surrounding streets and railway stations: hence West Ham’s hooligan gang naming themselves the Inter-City Firm (ICF) after their preferred mode of travel to that most holy-crusade of adventures, the away game.
In fact, mention of the ICF reveals how the nature of youthful radicalisation progresses. Just as the clubs were disowning the hooligans, the hooligans themselves were developing their own loyalties independent of the club. Indeed, the ICF was no more than a label for violent behaviour undertaken on behalf of West Ham, despite the club’s disapproval. It soon became the colours behind which most of the hooligans rallied, irrespective of any match that may or may not be taking place.
Sure, there was an inner core and some leading characters, but mainly the ICF was a brand: and one taking precedence over West Ham once the club sought to distance itself from its own “ultras” (as the Italians label their hooligan tribes). The same can be said of the Headhunters of Chelsea the Service Crew of Leeds or the Bushwackers of Millwall. Sure, the football club was relevant from a tribal perspective – but those 11 overpaid men chasing a ball on the pitch may as well have been playing tiddlywinks for all the “firms” cared.
And, as with the “firms”, so it is with Isis (and Al-Qaeda before it). Please note, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, David Starkey et al – Islam is to Isis what football was to the ICF and the Bushwackers. It’s the conduit, the platform, the excuse. It offers a cultural context for the adrenalin-pumping adventure and tribal mayhem these bored and often alienated young men crave. The religion matters, for sure, but only as the latest vehicle for the age-old problem of disaffected young men.
So what can be done? Well, football was also slow to act – only making the radical moves to eradicate its association with hooliganism after the tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough. Even then, it would have probably missed the lessons if not for the wisdom of Lord Justice Taylor. In investigating Hillsborough he noted that, if you treat young men like animals, that’s how they’ll respond. Caging hooligans was therefore counter-productive. The culture around football had to change, which meant creating an entirely new brand for the sport. It had to go upmarket, he stated – leaving its tribal roots behind so that the hooligans no longer saw it as a relevant cultural totem for their distorted loyalties.
Eventually – thanks to Sky TV, all-seater stadia and rocketing ticket prices – that’s exactly what happened. England’s club-football brand was not only rescued but became probably the most powerful of any sport in any country: not bad for a sport on its reputational knees in the late 1980s. As for the hooligans, some are still around, of course, but they look rather ridiculous and certainly out of sync with the modern zeitgeist – like 1950s Teddy Boys at a death-metal gig.
And as for Isis/Daesh, just maybe the attacks in Paris can become a Hillsborough moment – forcing religion and radical apart. It just needs a Lord Justice Taylor to point the way.