Comment: British Muslims need to address extremism

By Muhammad Abdul Bari

The Muslim community has grown in numbers over the last decade, so its dynamics, challenges and opportunities have changed. One fact is noteworthy – it is blessed with a burgeoning youth population. While Muslims are about five per cent of the British population, its youth comprises at least ten per cent of our school population. One in seven Londoners is now a Muslim – but this figure should not worry us. This article explains why.

Although Muslims have had some presence in the past the community expanded and flourished after the Second World War, when Britain needed large immigration to run its factories and industries. The community's emergence was unplanned and complex, but one fact is clear – their beginnings were not overall on the level playing field.

Unlike in the States, where the evolution of the Muslim community is different, a majority in the British Muslim community arrived with weaker socio-economic backgrounds, having lower educational and employment skills. The situation has much improved, but challenges still remain high, even today.

There has been considerable improvement in statutory education of Muslim pupils and the number of students in higher education has gone up, but when it comes to employment, housing and health, they are still at the bottom of the pile. Most Muslims live in deprived inner city conurbation and, as such, they are disproportionately affected by many social diseases such as drugs, criminality and mental health problems.

As a microcosm of the Muslim world, which itself is undergoing a huge upheaval in recent times, the community has been fragmented from day one; Muslims were never a monolithic people. Its development was patchy. Mosques, centres and community groups emerged on ethnic and cultural lines. This build-up of hardware was not matched by the software of professional people running them effectively. British-born Imams are still few in numbers. The talents and potentials of young people, particularly of women, are still not harnessed.

There is still some reticence for change from the first generations that are still at the helm of community leadership. Only recently young professionals are pushing their way in taking over the batons of community leadership from their elders. While there is a desire from both sides, the progress in this area is slow for many reasons.

As a community of communities, it has had all the hallmarks of weak leadership until, for example, the emergence of the Muslim Council of Britain in the late 1990s after over three years of grass-roots consultation and a general 'buy-in' from most sections of the community. Given multiple odds, it is a great achievement for British Muslims; for the first time, the community was interacting and engaging with the wider society in a meaningful manner.

Demon of Islamophobia hanging over the community

However, in the aftermath of the 7/7 atrocities in London, a new challenge rose which the community was not ready to face – a few bad apples from within it were hell-bent to wreck the boat by mindlessly causing harm to fellow citizens. This brought a sharp response from the political class with measure after measures that were seen as scapegoating the whole community as a suspicious one. There arose then a small minority of powerful journalists and a few right-wing think-tanks who became obsessed with portraying Muslim organisations negatively and, in extension, seeing the community as the 'other'. Some have compared this recent prejudice with that spewed out in the past by far-right groups against the Jews, Catholics and blacks. Many, particularly from the Muslim youth, felt disheartened and dispirited with this unfair description.

Tory minister Baroness Warsi took on the challenge, saying that "hostility to Muslims has passed the dinner table test", and Lord Leveson's inquiry into the press presented a grim view of how Muslims have been deliberately targeted by elements of the popular media.

In the wake of the recent horrendous Woolwich murder last week by two Muslims of Nigerian origin, the community has once again felt the heat on the ground. According to an anti-Muslim hate crime project, Tell MAMA, 83 new incidents of threats or violence were reported by Muslims to its helpline in the first 24 hours after the murder; in total, more than 170 incidents and nine mosque attacks were recorded. The English Defence League (EDL) that was formed in 2009 has been at the forefront of some of this.

However, while there is no room for complacency and the Muslim community is still under pressure, one recent poll has given a positive picture; YouGov has found that prejudice against Muslims is 'both more complex and more positive' and young Britons' perception of Muslims is getting better than in the past and significantly more positive than the old generation.

Challenges that we all need to address

It is vital we (the Muslim community, the government and the wider society) properly diagnose the root causes behind violent extremism in a tiny number of Muslim youth, so that proper remedial actions can be taken with due proportion. Wrong diagnosis will lead us to knee-jerk reactions and piecemeal solutions, which will in turn simply make the situation worse.

Social activists and researchers have found that there is no one single cause of this. Some are determined to prove that social and religious conservatism is driven by religious preaching inside the mosques and political activism undertaken by mainstream Muslim organisations. Actually, out-of-mosque preaching by groups like ex-Muhajiroun extremists, sheer ignorance of the basic teachings of Islam, online fantasy, our interventionist foreign policy and some concerns about MI5's dealing with Muslim extremists come high in the list. For some in our political class foreign policy is a sacred cow, but a Home Office working group entitled Tackling Extremism formed after 7/7 clearly suggested that British foreign policy – especially in the Middle East – cannot be left unconsidered as a factor in the motivations of criminal radical extremists.

The Prevent strategy undertaken by successive governments did not help the situation. It proved to be counterproductive under Labour, because it conflated security with community cohesion. It is failing under the current coalition government because of the presumption of a 'conveyor belt theory' that has hardly any evidence to prove its validity.

We have a collective obligation to address extremism and radicalisation with a balancing act between freedom of expression and our security. We need to have evidence-based strategies and inclusive policies from the top and at the same time a 'buy in' from the Muslim community so that intolerance, extremism and hatred can be rooted out from all our communities. The lacklustre response that we have seen over the years on prejudice, discrimination and phobia of Muslims has not helped. A genuine partnership among all stakeholders, treating all communities equally, is absolutely necessary.

At the same time, the Muslim community from its side should invest heavily on improving its internal capacity through positive parenting. It should improve educational standards, putting Islam in context and highlighting the strong involvement of its young people and Muslims of European extraction. Contribution to all aspects of British life can only be achieved if the community becomes more confident in itself to fully interact and engage. Along with all this, the community has to remain vigilant against any agent provocateur so that no harm can be inflicted on it.

Time and again Muslims have proved to be Britain's most loyal citizens. With a huge talent pool within its large youth section, many now successful professionals, the Muslim community can only be a real asset for Britain, not a liability.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former secretary general of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant (  Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari.

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