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Radicalisation: The Enemy Within?

Radicalisation: The Enemy Within?

Issue 1 Sept / Oct 2003

Omar Sheikh, the Redbridge Grammar School student turned Kashmiri fighter Richard Reid – the “Shoe Bomber” from Brixton Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abassi, two of the nine Britons held in Guantanamo Bay Asif Muhammad Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif both implicated in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv

 With such a list it is not without reason that the psyche of Muslim youngsters in today’s Britain is being widely discussed by social and political commentators alike.

 Robert Kilroy Silk fanned the flames in The Express on Sunday: “The Moslem (sic) problem is an important one. How we deal with the ‘enemy  within’ will have momentous and long-term consequences for race relations in this country for years.” (28 October 2001)

 Melanie Philips writing in The Times post September 11th was warning that, “The attitude of many British Muslim should cause the greatest possible alarm that we have a fifth column in our midst… thousands of alienated young Muslims, most of them born and bred here but who regard themselves as an army within, are waiting for an opportunity to help to destroy the society that sustains them. We now stare into the abyss, aghast.”(November 4th 2001)

 ‘Enemy within’, ‘fifth column’, ‘thousands of alienated young Muslims’… is this the reality? Are Kilroy-Silk and Philips right to sound the warning bell? Or are these what Robert Merton would have called ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’? Tell a young man he is nothing but trouble, and he will grow into exactly that; drum into the youth they are a threat and you will ensure that they are.

 Mohammed Mamdani, volunteer coordinator at the Muslim Youth Helpline, argues that many commentators have taken their eyes off the ball and are looking to analyse Muslim youngsters without understanding the realities they face every day. Whilst sections of the media are obsessed with all things 'terror,' Mamdani argues that equally relevant issues such as underachievement, unemployment and economic hardship are being completely sidelined.

 Talking to emel, Mamdani said: "Whilst there is no doubt that the current political climate has had an adverse impact, it has only aggravated a situation that has always existed. Identity conflict remains central to the problems faced by young Muslims. The inability to reconcile one mode of living with another and to reconcile Western culture with Islamic culture can place immense pressures on a young person, without providing the necessary support channels within a community structure," believes Mamdani, adding that "whilst some Muslims are able to maintain a balance, others fall victim to discrimination or peer-pressure."

 Ahtsham Ali, Youth Project Co-ordinator from Halifax, member of the Cantel Committee reporting on the Northern disturbances and Deputy President of the Islamic Society of Britain, has many years' experience in dealing with disaffected Muslim youngsters. He agrees with Mamdani vis-àvis the identity crisis, giving an example of an individual who encapsulates this particular mind-set. "A few months ago, I was working with a Muslim lad in his early twenties. I had spent a Saturday with him on an anti-war march, during which time he had been extremely vociferous. I needed to speak with him on the following Monday. I called him at his workplace, said 'assalaamu alaikum'. My greeting was returned with a firm 'Can I call you back later mate?' He later told me he was embarrassed to return my Islamic greeting because he was in the company of non-Muslims."

 Mamdani urges mainstream Muslim institutions to “strengthen their organisation, reach out to marginalised members of the community and provide adequate services that meet their social, educational and spiritual needs." And the government too has a crucial role to play. Mamdani says that anti-terrorism laws are perceived by young Muslims as a tool to unjustly target them, resulting in "a deep mistrust for the government and everything that is perceived to be associated with the government."

 In similar vein, Tony Parsons writing in the Daily Mirror on 5th May 2003, says "When the politicians on TV seem like uncaring, mealy-mouthed, ineffectual hypocrites, extremism flourishes and grows. And then the unthinkable suddenly becomes thinkable." Sensible social analysts realise that rather like the predator that smells the blood of its prey before moving in for the kill, extremist groups can often exploit the general despair of young men by offering them entry into their clique of "holy" warriors. Built on the foundation of a black-and-white worldview, militant groups can often provide refuge from the world which has not elcomed the young Muslim. Whilst the vast majority are able to successfully differentiate between good and bad, the socially excluded youth has the meaning of life spelt out for him. He becomes 'unconfused'  as he is told by his new allies that life is not all that complex: it is ‘us versus them’, brother. The believers against the disbelievers, good versus evil.

 But the lure of extremism cannot be the full explanation. Moazzam Begg, caged in Guantanamo Bay, was an exemplary pupil at the Jewish King David School in Birmingham, and Omar Sheikh, likewise, made his mark at his Redbridge Grammar school, going on to the London School of Economics. Whilst the family of Begg vigorously protest his innocence, Sheikh has been convicted of killing the American journalist Daniel Pearl. The former Bishop of Barking, Roger Sainsbury has a convincing opinion on the actions of Omar Sheikh. At an interfaith gathering in Ilford the Bishop discussed the young man with a good future ahead of him. “He was deeply affected by what happened in Bosnia. He changed after that. He felt we had failed the Bosnians by our policies there. This is what radicalised him. In the sense that nothing was being done and there was nothing that he could do. There is a Biblical verse that ‘your sins will find you out’.  aybe our actions in Bosnia have come back to us in Omar Sheikh.”

 If Bishop Sainsbury’s analysis seems controversial, Tony Blair’s speech to the US Congress noted not Bosnia as a catalyst for violence, but Palestine. “I want to be very plain. This terrorism will not be defeated without peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine… You cannot teach people hate and then ask them to practice peace. But neither can you teach people peace except by according them dignity and granting them hope.”

 To Palestine he also added other hotspots which Muslims find so unjust: Kashmir, Chechniya, Indonesia. And he rallied Congress: “We are fighting for the inalienable right of human kind, black or white, Christian or not, left, right or merely indifferent, to be free. Free to raise a family in love and hope. Free to earn a living and be rewarded by your own efforts. Free not to bend your knee to any man in fear.”

 But it is free men who appear to be radicalised; it is not only poor, un-free, young men who present a problem. It would seem that the impotence at world events felt by educated and well-to-do young men is a powerful factor. Justice is powerful and beautiful and it is instinctively desired. Injustice is also powerful, but it is ugly and needs to be defeated. Muslims feel very passionately about justice – it is the defining reality of Islam: “Be just, for that is closest to God-consciousness”, says the Qur’an. The oppression and brutalisation of people thousands of miles away has the power to transform the youth in Britain; the economic and military stranglehold over weaker nations are powerful reasons to feel angry and frustrated at one’s own impotence.

 Of course, the underachievement of Muslim youth in Britain is a major issue. One of the primary tasks for the British Muslim community, and those in wider UK society, is to make sure that young people are helped in the key areas of education and employment. Society must open up to Muslim youth and not dismiss them as traitors and trouble-makers. There will then be considerably less breeding ground for the haters. However, there has also to be a channel for the feelings of international injustices. Blair recognises that the problems have to be solved internationally, but there is deep mistrust whether this is sincere or genuine.

 Muslim youth must be allowed to make a positive contribution. They need to remind themselves that wherever Muslims have gone in the past, they have always enriched that society. They must not become alienated or stigmatised into isolation. Muslim-bashing and anti-Muslim sentiments remain respectable amongst certain quarters and need to be eradicated. For Mamdani, the need for powerful role models is desperately needed. He sums it up rather succinctly: "If our leaders were to appoint youth workers to act as role models and service providers, I believe that our community will progress far." With optimism, he adds: "I believe that extremist organisations have little role to play in the future of Muslim youth if we begin to fulfil our  fundamental duties to the youth of our community." And maybe to the youth of the world.


words: Qaiser M. Talib

images: Rehan Jamil

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