by Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow, ICSR
This article was originally published in The Guardian
What links a white Englishman from Buckinghamshire with a second-generation British-Asian man born in Dewsbury and a missing family of 12 from Bradford? Such is the mercurial world of Islamist radicalisation that all are believed to have left the UK in order to support jihadist causes overseas.
These cases demonstrate that radicalisation is born of a multiplicity of factors which are often inextricably intertwined. This complexity is frequently lost in polarised public debates that either identify Islamic scripture as the sole reason for all terrorism or blame everything on government policies.
The experience of those who join the Islamist insurgencies rampaging across Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria demonstrates that there are no easy answers to the issue of radicalisation.
Yet, strip away all the grievances and myriad individual triggers that might drive an individual to join an extremist group and you find underlying issues of identity and belonging. None of this is new. When Mohammad Sidique Khan led the 7/7 London terrorist attacks almost a decade ago, he said his actions were in retaliation for “the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people”.
Isn’t it the case that Khan was killing his own people, the ordinary citizen-stranger commuting to work, when he detonated his bomb on the London underground? Instead he identified with the citizens of Iraq — a country he had not even travelled to and whose language he could not speak?
Issues of identity have long been recognised as being central to radicalisation and are not unique to Muslims. Look at the jackboots of the English Defence League and Britain First, or their counterparts like Germany’s far-right party, Pegida to get a sense of how others are moving towards violent — or at least confrontational — extremism.
The underlying ingredients are always the same: righteous indignation, defiance, a sense of persecution and a refusal to conform. Put this way, it is easy to imagine another life where the po-faced Islamist preacher Abu Waleed is a beer-swilling lout hurling abuse from the terraces of his underperforming team.
Addressing the issue of identity is difficult and contentious. The government has decided that the best way to do this is to pursue an agenda of promoting British values and wants to inculcate them into our education system.
This makes sense. Britain was able to mobilise the largest volunteer army in history during the first and second world wars (that is to say, people elected to join and were not conscripted) when fighting fascism. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from across the empire mobilised in Britain’s cause — not least against the Ottoman Empire, when it entered the great war.
That is a shared history of common endeavour and enterprise. It shows British Muslims how their place in modern society is borne of experience and contribution. Put another way, what proponents of the values agenda want is that when British Muslims think of “their people”, they imagine the Rhondda rather than Raqqah.
Government has a role to play in this but civil society will need to do much more. WhenAmira Abase left Tower Hamlets to join Islamic State, her distraught father dominated national headlines. Nothing could explain her departure, he said, while also blaming the police for not doing enough.
Later it emerged that Abase had been attending angry rallies organised by Anjem Choudary outside the American embassy. He was at the very front as they burned American flags and denounced the west. Amira had accompanied her father on these demonstrations.
A hilarious Twitter account called Mo Dawah (his last name means “preaching” in Arabic) parodies Islamic extremists and captured the hypocrisy of men like Abase perfectly. “Apart from teaching how Islamic States are great, I have no idea why my son would have joined the Islamic State,” he wrote.
A number of Muslim leaders are critical of this approach. They regard any discussion of British values as a hostile attempt to engineer a new — and pacified — form of Islam.
When proponents of the values agenda pick the wrong fights they don’t help their cause. There is now controversy over the decision by several schools to “ban” their students from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — which starts tomorrow. Many parents will regard this as an unacceptable assault on their religious identity, and over an entirely private and personal issue too.
Flashpoints such as this are a distraction from much more important discussions we need to have over precisely what society we want to build. The cause of secularists who need to convince a sometimes sceptical Muslim constituency about the merits of maintaining a neutral public space where everyone — from orthodox Salafis to hedonists in Haymarket — can live freely is lost over pointless debates on matters of private faith.
They will have to scale this back and appreciate that some people wish to live highly orthodox, segregated, and quietist lives. That is their right in a free society. But there is also a challenge for those who oppose the idea of projecting British values into British Muslim communities.
If they resist this, then they must propose an alternative model to resolve the underlying issues of identity and belonging that play a significant role in the radicalisation of so many. It cannot be enough for the west to accommodate Islam — Islam must also accommodate the west.