Why the public reaction to one man's brutal murder could push Britain to become a stronger ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
LONDON — "David was like so very many of us," his brother wrote in a statement released by Britain's Foreign Office on Sunday morning. The image of 44-year-old David Haines kneeling in the bright orange robe next to his executioner in the video released by the Islamic State (IS) on Saturday night was -- at least to his family and many in the U.K. -- of "just another bloke," a good man and a father who cared deeply about his work. Haines, a British aid worker, was the third captive executed on film by IS fighters, following the murder of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
LONDON — "David was like so very many of us," his brother wrote in a statement released by Britain’s Foreign Office on Sunday morning. The image of 44-year-old David Haines kneeling in the bright orange robe next to his executioner in the video released by the Islamic State (IS) on Saturday night was — at least to his family and many in the U.K. — of "just another bloke," a good man and a father who cared deeply about his work. Haines, a British aid worker, was the third captive executed on film by IS fighters, following the murder of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Haines’s humanitarian career began after a stint as an aircraft engineer for the Royal Air Force; he worked to help refugees returning to their homes in the former Yugoslavia and was head of mission in Libya for Handicap International. And for many in Britain, his execution has underscored the viciousness and senselessness of IS — the murder of a journalist is inexcusable, but the murder of an aid worker is incomprehensible.
Just two weeks ago, public opinion polls revealed a sense of hesitation and cautiousness in Britain over possible airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria. A ComRes poll (conducted for The Independent between Aug. 29 and 31) found that only 35 percent of those surveyed in Britain backed airstrikes, while 50 percent were opposed, and 15 percent were undecided. At the time, the news that a British hostage was being held had not been revealed. The voluntary 19-month media blackout on reports about Haines — a measure enacted to help ensure his safety — ended only when he appeared at the end of the video showing the beheading of Sotloff on Sept. 2.
But in coming weeks, similar polls may return some very different results. As the news of Haines’s death reverberates around the country, many are using social media to criticize Prime Minister David Cameron for failing to take swifter and stronger action. "Just what does it take for @David_Cameron to join the fight against #ISIS?" wrote one commenter. "A weak leader and the world knows it." Another referred to the recent debate over airstrikes: "How many more have to be beheaded before we send in our jets, @David_Cameron? Strike."
In the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Sept. 10 announcement that the United States would be extending its use of force, Cameron was reported to have endorsed but not confirmed the possibility of British involvement in airstrikes against IS forces in Syria. After which, there was some embarrassing confusion in the cabinet, as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond appeared to rule out British action entirely, stating at a press conference in Berlin that the country "will not be taking part in any airstrikes in Syria." But the prime minister’s office quickly denied this, arguing that Hammond had been referring to the possibility of airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad, rather than against IS. There were reports that Cameron intended to ask Parliament to support airstrikes, but that the other major parties were reluctant — little had been confirmed. (Hammond is today in attendance at a summit in Paris to discuss a coordinated international response to IS. Representatives from 20 countries attended the meeting, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.)
Public support for action against IS continued to rise in recent weeks in Britain, and the video of Haines’s brutal killing has been a unique trigger. Parliament is now under unprecedented pressure to show that they’re doing something, and Cameron is already offering a new response to the mood of the country. Speaking on Sunday, he promised to take whatever steps are necessary to defeat the "monsters" responsible for the death of "a British hero."
"The murder of David Haines at the hands of ISIL will not lead Britain to shirk our responsibility, with our allies, to deal with the threat this organization poses," Cameron said. He further emphasized the importance of taking action "at home and abroad" — an acknowledgment of the rising fear of a reported 500 British jihadi fighters returning home to the U.K.
Shortly after the British fighter nicknamed "Jihadi John" first featured in the video showing the murder of Foley, Cameron unveiled a package of proposed anti-terror measures. But uncertainty about the measures’ legal validity and a lack of cross-party support forced the government to shelve their key proposal to ban British jihadists from returning to the country. If popular support for anti-extremist action continues to rise, however, Parliament could reconsider stronger measures against British jihadists in the coming months.
But these measures could have an impact on community cohesion in Britain, adding tension to relations with Muslim communities. While much of the early response on social media has been to express shock and contempt for Haines’s killers, others have turned their focus inward toward Britain, emphasizing the threat of homegrown jihadists: "A UK citizen beheads a UK citizen #DavidHaines… What are the British people to do" wrote one Twitter user. Some of these comments reveal a deeper skepticism about the place of Islam in Britain, arguing, "Islam obviously isn’t a religion of peace. Political correctness will be the death of us all." Another commented: "British tolerance will be Britain’s downfall, Islam is a dangerous threat that we … let live in our house."
On the other side of this conversation are those commenters calling for calm and tolerance, reminding others not to confuse IS fighters with the majority of Britain’s peaceful Muslims.
National newspapers reported that a letter from Muslim leaders called for Cameron and others to stop referring to IS as the "Islamic State," proposing the "Un-Islamic State" (UIS) as an alternative. Many on Twitter rallied behind the idea, as organizations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Society of Britain issued condemnations of the murder: "A great idea … to brand ‘Islamic State’ ‘Un-Islamic State,’" tweeted the journalist Jane Merrick. On her Twitter feed foreign correspondent Christina Lamb called jihadi fighters "warped psychos who should not be able to use the label Islam." Muslims on social media have been similarly quick to denounce British jihadists, accusing them of "treason against Britain & Islam."
With Scotland’s independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, the murder of Haines has also stirred up other questions about British identity. Haines’s history as an Englishman who was raised in Scotland has cropped up in news reports. Some have noted that he was known affectionately as the "Crazy Scotsman" by locals while working for aid agencies in parts of Croatia, and that he wore a kilt at his wedding. A few campaigners have used Haines’s death to make a quiet point in favor of their stance on the referendum. Lord John Reid, a pro-Union Scottish Labour politician, commented on Sunday that the best response to the murder was to be "neither frightened nor divided." Conservative Party candidate Louise Burfitt-Dons posed a provocative question on Twitter: "Would independent Scotland join a coalition taking action against #ISIS?"
Other pro-independence social media users have argued that an independent Scotland might have done more for Haines, or possibly have saved Haines from being implicated in the violence in Iraq. One Twitter user responded to a tweet about the graphic images of Haines’s execution, arguing that "Westminster was responsible … but yet you say no [to independence for Scotland]?"
Most of those tweeting and sharing the news surrounding Haines’s murder, however, have argued that the barbarity of the murder makes the debate look irrelevant, with calls for both campaigns to suspend their work for 24 hours as a mark of respect.
The leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, was careful to emphasize the importance of solidarity among communities and protection for Scottish Muslims in his first TV interview on Sunday, which some see as a move to bolster Muslim votes. Cameron followed his lead a few hours later, arguing: "ISIL … are not Muslims. They are monsters…. We have to confront this menace."
The two leaders have continued to mirror each other: While Cameron presided over a meeting of Britain’s crisis response committee Sunday morning, Salmond called a parallel meeting of the Scottish government’s resilience division. Salmond later tweeted that an operation had been "mobilized," though it isn’t yet clear what this involves. Cameron is now expected to announce British involvement in airstrikes against ISIS as early as next week; he is reportedly planning to seek U.N. approval at the upcoming General Assembly in New York, and from British MPs after Parliament is recalled next Thursday.
In the week that might see the end of the United Kingdom, questions of British identity seem more urgent than ever in responding to crises outside its borders. With a second British hostage’s life still hanging in the balance, the pressure on politicians to bring force to bear on the Islamic State is only likely to grow.
"These beheadings are awful, barbaric," wrote one woman on Twitter. "Cameron and Obama are losing the war on terror."
Nabeelah Jaffer is currently a PhD student at the University of Oxford.
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