The Prime Minister believes that some Muslim communities quietly condone the ideology of ISIS, paving the way for young people to join the terrorists. During his speech at a security conference, David Cameron said “we’ve always had angry young men and women buying into supposedly revolutionary causes” whilst simultaneously laying the responsibility for this at the door of Muslim community leaders. He is right to recognise that the desire for social change is strong with our youth today.
The Prime Minister’s response to radicalism is new counter-terrorism measures where schools, health services, local authorities and universities will be legally required to monitor students and patients for signs of extremism. The statutory duty of teachers and public service workers to report suspicious behaviour, has echoes of the McCarthy era – but instead of reporting politicians and actors, this is all about children, teenagers and young adults.
Three years ago the Institute for Social and Economic Research published research that revealed British Muslims identify more closely with Britishness than their white counterparts. Figures showed that 83% of Muslims are proud to be a British citizen, compared to 79% of the general public. It is a sad state of affairs when such statistics need to be sourced, but undoubtedly necessary in today’s climate of fear and finger pointing.
The failure to acknowledge the role of British foreign policy in the Middle East as a radicalising factor is a continuing blind spot of the current government. Opposition to military intervention comes from all sections of British society regardless of ethnicity, gender or class. The continuing “War on Terror” is the elephant in the room when trying to access threats to our national security. The government must accept that military intervention in foreign lands is not part of the solution, until it does it will not be able to fully address the problem of radicalisation.
While it is important to recognise the existence of radicalisation, we must ensure that any reaction is proportionate to the scale of the problem, and should not affect the way we treat the majority of British Muslims. It is well documented that following any terrorist attack on Western soil, there is an immediate rise in hate crimes against Muslims. Tell MAMA, a charity that monitors anti-Muslim hate crime in Britain, reported nine incidents in British schools following the Charlie Hebdo killings, including an incident where a child was assaulted and called a “terrorist”.
The demonisation of the British Muslim community is proven to be counter-productive and could be a factor in radicalisation. It is the messages put out by our government, our media and our society that has the greatest power to counter extremist narratives – increasing surveillance, curtailing our civil liberties and fuelling paranoia are likely to stigmatise and isolate Muslims. Instead of blaming communities and their lack of integration, the government should be leading by example and working with British Muslims to build a genuine multi-agency partnership that is sufficiently equipped to bridge any perceived divide and build up trust.
If we look back to the Troubles in Northern Ireland we can see that the experience of the Irish community living in Britain has a relevance: the entire Irish community was viewed as a ‘suspect community’ and the consequence was to create a heightened climate of fear and suspicion. Many Irish living in Britain felt that this constrained group activities of all kinds including cultural and social events making community life very fragile. Anti-Irish prejudice led to miscarriages of justice with innocent people convicted and serving long prison sentences for terrorism charges. We must do all that we can to ensure that the Muslim community of today is not subjected to the experience of the Irish in the Britain of the 1970s.
In Tower Hamlets we experienced the tragic loss of three school girls who are believed to have joined ISIS in Syria. These girls, and others like them, were groomed via the internet – not coerced by local faith leaders, as many have been led to believe. Their disappearance has sent shockwaves of fear and disbelief in parents of children who attend the same school, as well as other parents in the area. Working with families and community groups in the borough, there is a sense that part of tackling extremism should include tackling Islamophobia and understanding Westernophobia – both of which requires commitment, debate, inclusion, participation and critical thinking.
With ISIS atrocities happening at an alarming frequency – the most recent horrifying attack killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia – it is important that we engage with the Muslim and non-Muslim communities to bridge the growing gap of suspicion. If the government wants the community to take action, then it requires collaborative strategies that reach out to and educate our young people at a grassroots level. One way the Government can help safeguard our young people from radicalisation is by demonstrating a commitment to aggressively tackle racism and Islamophobia. We need to find ways of working together co-operatively, this cannot succeed if at the same time the Muslim community feels demonised.
The radicalisation of young Muslims is a very complex matter. Understanding what drives ISIS and how they see the world will make it easier to undermine them. Radicalisation is something that crosses social class and can affect Muslims from families that are well educated and integrated as well as those who feel rootless and without purpose. British Muslims are in the front line when it comes to combating radicalisation, although you would never hear it from most of the mainstream press. Everyday British Muslims, along with citizens of different faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds, go about their daily lives playing their part in everyday multicultural Britain at the same time contributing billions of pounds to our national economy. Much of our modern media contributes to the demonisation of Muslims, this is difficult to address but the BBC, as our publically owned national media, must lead the way in addressing the anti-Muslim narrative.
David Cameron, when still the leader of the opposition, quoted Edmund Burke saying, “To make men love their country, their country ought to be lovable.” He continued, “Integration has to be about more than immigrant communities, ‘their’ responsibilities and ‘their’ duties. It has to be about ‘us’ too – the quality of life that we offer, our society and our values.”
Muslim values of charity, tolerance, hospitality and social cohesion are also British values perhaps, as the Prime Minister once speculated.
( Rabina Khan: Local Politician, Writer and Campaigner ex LBTH Cabinet Member for Housing & Regeneration, European Diversity Award Winner 2014 )