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The danger of trusted friends

04 March 2016

From experience: the Revd Sue Boyce gives evidence at the Old Bailey, as reported in the Telegraph

From experience: the Revd Sue Boyce gives evidence at the Old Bailey, as reported in the Telegraph

THE most wrenching story of the week turned up from the Old Bailey: the story of a “vicar’s” son who left to fight, and die, for Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

The Revd Sue Boyce, then in Walsall, had first to cope with the disappearance of her son, then with his phone call to say that he had gone to fight in Syria. Six months later, she had to identify his body from footage on the internet.

The story came to light because she had gone to the police, who used her information to expose and then to unravel a network that helped and encouraged converts to go to fight, or simply to raise their children, in Syria. The Times story focused on the women who had not even become mothers yet: “Young pregnant women who wanted to give birth in Syria so they could provide the next generation of jihadists were found to be at the centre of one of Britain’s largest networks of Islamic State fanatics.”

In all, 11 people from Walsall tried to join IS in Syria or Iraq. Two or three young men were killed fighting for them. Four were converts, two were trainee teachers, and one of them, Lorna Moore, a trainee maths teacher from Omagh in Northern Ireland, seems to have wanted to take her three children, the youngest 11 months old, to the war.

The Telegraph led with Sue Boyce: “Police uncovered Britain’s largest group of Islamist fanatics and Isil supporters after a desperate phone call from a Church of England minister, whose son had run off to Syria.

“Muslim convert Jacob Petty disappeared from the family home in Walsall in the summer of 2014 and later contacted his family to say he had gone to Syria.

“His mother, the Reverend Sue Boyce, alerted the police who unearthed a network of friends in the town who had either gone to join Isil, were planning to or helped others.”

Apart from the sad human element, there is a wider point to all these stories, first remarked on by the American researcher Scott Atran, which is that propaganda, if it is to be credible, must flow through networks of trusted friends.


THIS isn’t strictly true: propaganda can be pretty effective when backed up by sufficiently ruthless governments. The Independent carried two stories of religious persecution in the Middle East: four Christian teenagers were given five years in jail for making a video that mocked Muslim prayers, while in Saudi Arabia a young man was sentenced to 2000 lashes and (if he survives) ten years in prison, for atheistic tweets.


A RARE example of the headline-writer’s craft turned up in The Sun on Sunday (formerly The News of the World), which had caught a Roman Catholic priest from Banbridge in Northern Ireland rounding off a two-day bender with a few lines of cocaine. The caption for the picture of him in the act of snorting the powder was very simple: “Blowman Catholic”.


ATRAN’s research into the men who carried out the dreadful Madrid train bombings of 2004 found that what bound them together were things such as football teams quite as much as jihadi ideology. In a horribly twisted sense, IS uses the same insight as animates the Alpha course: you believe what your trusted friends believe. This is an entirely value-neutral observation about evangelism: whether it is applied for good or evil, what really matters is that the personal is the persuasive.

In this light, John Bingham’s story about the popularity of choral evensong in universities might be read as a story about what groups of students do in herds rather than one about the attractiveness of formal worship.

“College chaplains have seen a steady but noticeable increase in attendances at the early evening services which combine contemplative music with the 16th-century language of the Book of Common Prayer.

“It mirrors a similar trend reported by cathedrals across England for growing congregations at choral midweek services, which appears to challenge the view that the Church is in irreversible decline.”

Bingham quoted the Revd Dr Daniel Inman, of The Queen’s College, Oxford, who put in a word for the Prayer Book: “Although the language of the Prayer Book is rather alien to modern ears, precisely for that reason it’s also less threatening and more inclusive. . . You’re not really asked to signal your own dogmatic beliefs or lack thereof, but invited to join in a pattern of worship that has shaped our national life for centuries.”

This is certainly borne out by my own intermittent research in my local cathedral, where attendance at Prayer Book morning communion is anything up to five times as great as in the Common Worship morning prayer that precedes it. That would be a proportion of five to one. Literally. I find the silence more affecting than music could ever be.

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