Joanna Bogle is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. She is the author of some twenty books, including several historical biographies and A Book of Seasons and Celebrations with information on traditions and customs marking the Church year. Her most recent book is John Paul II - Man of Prayer with colleague Clare Anderson, exploring the spiritual life of St. John Paul the Great. She broadcasts regularly with EWTN and has recently initiated popular Catholic History Walks around London. She blogs at “Auntie Joanna Writes” and EWTN’s “Catholic Journalist in London”.
In the wake of the recent attack at Westminster — where a man named Khalid Masood rammed his car into people at Parliament, killed four people and seriously wounded several others before being shot by police — there has been much talk about how and why he became convinced that he should do this thing. Can we discover his motivation? And what does it tell us about modern Britain?
His name until recent years was not Khalid Masood, but Adrian Russell Elms. It is not known specifically how he came under the influence of Islam, but it was not while he was young. Of his two grown-up daughters, one has become Moslem but the other has not: their mother, a successful businesswoman left him some while ago and has a new husband.
Following the Westminster attack, there has been much newspaper and internet comment about the need to prevent extremist Islamic groups from making headway in Britain. But a much more important thing to discuss is why extremist Islamic ideas seem so attractive to British men, and why the alternatives on offer seem to lack appeal.
A general assumption has been made that his conversion to Islam took place while he was in prison. There are obvious attractions for young men in Islam: it offers apparent certainties couched in strong and militant language, it seems very masculine and assertive, and it brings a sense of membership. To a young man brought up in a very fatherless culture, and lacking a sense of authentic male identity in an increasingly feminised Britain, it speaks of strength and purpose and masculinity. It also speaks of God in a largely godless nation, and it speaks of traditions and a sense ordered time and of history, in a country where the everyday culture is of consumerism, instant gratification, and individualism.
From my — admittedly limited — experience of voluntary work in prisons, I would hesitate to affirm with certainty that it was while in prison that Adrian decided to become Khalid, though it is certainly a strong possibility. In any case, calls for segregation of all might-be-militant Moslems in HM prisons will not really resolve the problem of how to prevent young British men from becoming fanatical killers in the name of Islam. We need to look a bit deeper.
Young Adrian grew up in a middle-class home in Sussex. He seems to have been popular at school, and photographs show him with the rest of the football team, and, later, in a village tug-of-war. His mother was 17 and unmarried when he was born, but later married Philip Ajao and gave Adrian his name. Mr and Mrs Ajao had two more sons, and now live in Wales.
Adrian — who in later life sometimes continued to use the surname Elms — seems to have turned to crime in early adulthood, acquiring a strong of convictions for violence and criminal damage from 1983 onwards. His involvement with Islam began when he was already approaching middle-age, and after a split with his earlier partner, he took a Moslem wife by whom he had a child.
What made him turn to Islam? Why did this man turn against the values and beliefs that have made Britain? He was of mixed race: perhaps made him feel slightly different at his Sussex school where most of the children were white. But in the 1970s mixed-race families were becoming very normal, and there has been no suggestion that he felt “out of things”. He enjoyed prosperity, a comfortable home, a country with a strong tradition of freedom under the law and in which it is illegal to insult or belittle anyone on grounds of race or ethnic background. He lived in attractive places in a particularly pleasant part of England, and went to a good school with excellent facilities offering opportunities unknown to previous generations.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, he failed to learn authentic manhood: how to live generously, work well, develop skills, show leadership, control anger. Did he ever encounter Christianity? At home? In school? In the common culture of everyday life? What did he know, and understand, of Britain’s history, achievements, traditions? Was he helped to understand about mutual service, neighbourliness, taking responsibility for the common good of the whole community? Did he learn about saints and heroes, about courage and nobility of purpose? About grand and large ideas, and the men who put them, into practice?
He was born in 1964. There were still a good many people teaching sound values in Britain’s schools in the 1970s — and Christianity was then, and is now, officially part of the curriculum. But increasingly — and certainly throughout Adrian’s adult life — the main message of officialdom — and of much common culture — in Britain has been a denigration of the whole idea of traditions and values centred on the Christian faith, especially in the most important personal things — marriage, sexual fidelity, and family life. Throughout the 1980s and 90s there was endless official messaging about “safe sex” — meaning promiscuity facilitated by the use of contraceptive devices — and this combined with a pop culture glorifying vulgarity and a massive spreading of pornography and crudity across the mass media. More recent decades have seen widespread promotion of the homosexual lifestyle, against a background culture of marital collapse, much casual sex, and an explosion in internet porn.
How and where would Adrian Elms have encountered a culture encouraging faithful matrimony, wise parental authority, and healthy patriotism with a spirit of goodwill and community service? Where and how would he have learned about God, about prayer, mercy and forgiveness? Where would he have learned about Jesus Christ — after whose birth we number our years and around whose life, death and resurrection our annual calendar is based?
Before we all start to announce that officialdom ought to “do something”, let’s start with ourselves. Evangelisation is not the task of public authorities. It’s a task for the Church and for each Catholic. We really do need to take seriously the Church’s call for a New Evangelisation. Christians have a place in the community life of Britain, but are often just too shy of taking it up. We should perhaps start being more vigourous about our Christianity.
This is the faith that is vibrant in modern Africa. Long ago it conquered the pagan tribes of Europe and created an entire civilisation with cathedrals, schools, universities, hospitals, art, music, and the rule of law….and more. It conquered the New World and Australasia. In recent years it has seen off Communism across Eastern Europe (in no small measure due to a saintly heroic Polish Pope), made massive inroads into Asia, and become a byword across India (thanks largely to a small Albanian nun and her Indian sisters). Its story has been written by saints and heroes, by missionaries and martyrs and teachers and writers and inventors and soldiers and statesmen, by teachers and artists and philosophers, by architects and builders, by men and women who based their lives on great truths that they taught to their children...it is the faith that has produced of the greatest achievements known to man.
Today the Government is promoting the idea of making schools teach “British values” — which sounds a good idea but in practice is turning out to mean enforcing the promotion of same-sex marriage and the whole idea of “gay rights”. Meanwhile in the wider culture, the crucial things we and other Christians have to offer are being somehow sidelined all the time. Schools are meant to teach Christianity as one of the world’s great faiths, but many teachers are conscious of their own ignorance on the subject, and many local authorities are somehow convinced that too much formal promotion of Christianity is a “hate crime”. (It isn’t. In fact there is absolutely no reason why a local Council can’t allow and even encourage a public Christmas nativity scene, a Cross in a public park at Easter, and so on).
The problem is often not actually one of legal restraints on Christianity, but of Christians failing to be vigourous enough. Think about it: in Poland in the 1970s, all sorts of quasi-legal restraints on public demonstrations of the Faith simply tumbled as Catholics asserted themselves with Corpus Christi processions, open-air Masses, the opening of new seminaries, and the eventual building of the great new church at Nowa Huta. Here in Britain, I have had Catholics asking “Are we allowed to sing Christmas carols?” when I talked about getting a group to sing at a railway station. (Yes, we most certainly are allowed to do so — it was hugely popular, the railway authorities were enthusiastic and helpful, we got dozens of people taking “selfies” with us and/or joining in the singing, and we collected over £600 for charity).
London has seen a lot of history and a lot of destruction over the years, from the Gordon Riots in the 18th century to World War II bombs in the 20th. We aren’t about to be cowed by Moslem terrorists — or by a lone wannabe with a new Islamic name and a criminal record. But we need to understand that to secure our future we must ensure that the young people growing up in Britain know what our country’s values are all about and on what they are based. If we produce men and women who are spiritual and cultural orphans we can expect them to search for a faith and meaning somewhere... and to find it in the wrong places, with ghastly consequences.
Adrian Elms may just have been a lone thuggish criminal with a taste for violence, for whom Islam was the latest in a series of enthusiasms. But his life and actions are a warning to us. How many other young people, smiling out today from a school photograph, will grow up to have hatred for the country that has given them comfortable homes, security, good health, peace and prosperity and more... but which has failed to answer their deepest spiritual needs and teach them the central truths on which any civilisation worthy of the name depends?