Imtiaz Ameen: Engaging with British Muslims - the losing battle
Unless moderate Muslims and politicians engage in dialogue with young British Muslims, the Islamists seeking to radicalise and recruit them to their cause will win the argument.
Does Britain’s foreign policy have a detrimental effect on the mindset of British born Muslims or is there no causal link between radicalisation of young British Muslims and Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? This is one of many questions surrounding the issue of radicalisation of young British Muslims that has been discussed at great length by Government Ministers, opposition politicians, journalists, political commentators and vexed the Muslim community. Many including Government Ministers religiously state there is no causal link between extremism in Britain and foreign policy but Muslims simply don’t believe them. They argue that while there is no justification, excuse or explanation for violent crime and terrorist activity, Britain’s foreign policy gives ammunition to those who want to radicalise young British Muslims, and acts as a potent catalyst.
The majority of well established moderate Muslim organisations argue that what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and of course Palestine is being allowed to adversely affect British Muslims, to such an extent that some Muslims are prepared to engage in extreme acts of violence either as revenge, as an expression of anger and as part of a wider Islamist ideology which seeks the establishment of Sharia rule across the world. Whichever view of foreign policy impact is taken, it is a debate that will vociferously continue in the next few years.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the mainstream political parties are losing the argument among the Muslim community that our foreign policy isn’t targeted specifically at Muslim countries. Muslim’s point the finger at wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the chest beating against Iran and Syria while North Korea is left to do as she pleases without ever being mentioned. This is further confirmed by the failure to attract young British Muslims to mainstream politics who find all mainstream parties equally distasteful and whose policies especially those concerning foreign and international affairs they cannot sign up to. As a result, instead of engaging in democratic debate an inward and insular looking community is being allowed to fester its concerns and anger to the detriment of its own well-being. Allied to this are factors such as low levels of academic attainment, high unemployment, poor housing, disproportionately high numbers in prisons that are affecting Muslims on a daily basis and we begin to sense a picture of despondency among many younger Muslims.
Despite living in a democratic society these despondent young men play no part in the democratic process and are becoming part of a fertile breeding ground for radical Islamists who not only misinterpret Islam but the UK political structure as well. Perversely; engaging in the democratic process is fervently discouraged as supporting any legislation creating body is viewed by the Islamists as challenging the word of God who alone has the authority to create legislation through religious scripture. This argument has more chance of succeeding with those who have little or no involvement in electoral activities than with those who regularly participate in the political process.
The Islamists argument is very simple – Muslims are helpless against the naked aggression of ‘the west’ (UK, US and some EU countries) whose real motive is to destroy Islam and conquer Muslim lands. Therefore before it destroys Islam, the west should be destroyed and defeated. This ideology concludes that Muslims are perpetually at war which means that everyone including civilians are fair game – due care and consideration is not given for non-combatant citizens including women, children and the elderly who aren’t spared from the violence. The apparent failure to deal with social and economic problems in Muslim communities is fuel for the Islamists for whom the solution lies in further radicalisation.
And for these Islamists the ideal way to ensure the West backtracks in its adventures in foreign lands is to strike the west’s citizens at home who are the soft under belly of the ‘Infidel Monster’ which the Islamists believe will result in the ousting at the ballot box of any political party that endangers its citizens and allows them to be killed. And abroad the removal of western forces gives the Islamists the opportunity to take control of these lands and establish their austere and violent brand of Islam in which any Muslim who does not conform to their version of Islam also becomes an infidel and is treated in the same way. That is why a civil war in Iraq is the Islamists ultimate aim - the opportunity to take control after a long and bloody battle is an opportunity that must be grasped at all costs.
How do the Government and opposition parties tackle this downward spiralling problem in the Muslim community? The liberal interventionists argue that it should be tackled at the roots which are entangled among the radicalists in the Middle East who are influenced by the thoughts of people such as Sayyad Qutb and Hassan al Banna who are the founding fathers of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and by the Shia ideologies of Ayatollah Khomenei and current President of Iran, Ahmadinejad.
If democracy is established across the Middle East argue the interventionists then the Islamists with their violent ideologies will be marginalised and in the end will have to lay down their weapons and engage in democratic government. If they do not lay down their arms a powerful and robust army accountable to the elected leadership will eventually defeat them. While this is perhaps over simplistic there is little doubt that vibrant democracy is needed in the Middle East to replace the autocratic and theocratic regimes that erroneously cite Islam to maintain their absolute and dictatorial power on the nation and pay lip service to universal human rights and religious freedoms. It is these regimes that for many years have been supported and propped up by the west to guarantee their energy supplies at reduced prices, and previously in the battle against Soviet influence. To this end the debate initiated in this country by the Henry Jackson Society and Conservatives like Michael Gove MP is most welcome.
This change is unlikely to happen overnight and concentrates solely on actions that need to be taken abroad. However, little thought or consideration is given on how to tackle the menace of radicalisation at home in the short term. The regurgitated advice is that the Muslim community must do more to tackle extremism as though there is evidence to suggest the Muslim masses were harbouring and protecting known and would be terrorists. Foreign Imams are an easy target and the good work that so many of them have done is overlooked because the one or two firebrand Imams often of Middle Eastern extract have hit the news headlines for preaching violent hatred. It is those who are ignorant of how Mosques operate that cite a problem with foreign Imams. If evidence exists of Imams preaching hatred then legislation is in place which allows the Police to deal with them, and any responsible committee of a Mosque will undoubtedly take decisive action if this is brought to their attention.
Muslim electorates have traditionally seen very high turnouts during elections and even among those who do not vote political discourse is high on the agenda of social intercourse. Yet the mainstream political parties seem unattractive to many young Muslims who prefer to listen to the rabid rantings of George Galloway and his cabal of conspiracy feeding politicians who created the one dimensional Respect Party; or to disengage from the political process altogether. It is this sense of helplessness and misunderstanding of how democracies operate that has to be overcome.
The mainstream political parties do not seem to have grasped this. Their dialogue with the Muslim community is limited to discourse with organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain whose former leader Sir Iqbal Sacranie was embarrassingly courted by leaders of all the political parties prior to the 2005 general election in the hope that this would publicise their ‘dialogue’ and attract Muslim support. These superficial activities have had limited effect. The open debate that should have taken place was substituted by ‘talks with Muslims’ that produced ill thought out roadshows and panel meetings with everyone except those who the discussions should have taken place with. As a result of the lack of a co-ordinated and well thought out policy, young Muslims appear to have moved even further away from mainstream political activity than before.
It is therefore imperative that all political parties robustly engage with the Muslim community and not just superficially. This will enable the building of strong bridges and will at long last weed out the culture of unelected ‘community leaders’ who have no electoral mandate, yet continue to believe it is they who speak for their communities, and deviously also engage in the worst practices and customs of the politics of the Indian sub-continent where family allegiances and village links are more important than discussion of relevant and often urgent issues. Genuine dialogue with the wider community is what is needed, not meetings with those who have vested interests, and have usually worked for the Labour Party since they first arrived in Britain.
The message must be conveyed that the debate surrounding the impact of UK foreign policy can be had without resorting to violence and extremism - many moderate Muslims as well as non-Muslims disagree with UK foreign policy without resorting to violence. It is the Islamists incessant targeting of young Muslims that is breeding violent hatred, not the fact that they have a better ideology and argument. The laid back and often complacent attitude of Government and opposition is what has given a free rein to those espousing their vitriolic diatribe – the response from state organs is to try and understand these people instead of robustly countering the argument and dealing firmly with criminal behaviour. With the carrot must come the stick.
Of course political engagement is a two way process and the difficulties of disengagement from the mainstream political process is a concern among all communities and people from all religions and racial backgrounds. But the concern with political disengagement among the Muslim community is something that needs to be addressed, and urgently. The energy that some Muslims are expending in joining groups with objectionable vested interests needs to be channelled into mainstream political activity. Equally publicity-stunts like the task forces that were set up last year by Government after the 7/7 atrocities should be assigned to the Labour Party talking shops such as Muslims for Labour cynically established prior to the last general election to arrest the haemorrhaging vote among Muslims after the war in Iraq. The task forces were an outrageous gimmick which the Government established to take the heat out of the charge that it wasn’t engaging with the Muslim community and whose recommendations were never going to be implemented regardless of how well thought out or evidence based they were likely to be.
Along with measures the political parties need to take, the moderate and mainstream members of the Muslim community need to wage their own ideological battle with the radical Islamists and present Islam in a positive light. In this regard the establishment of the Sufi Muslim Council is a welcome step to complement the work many other moderate and mainstream Muslim organisations are currently engaged in. It is not foreign Imams that are brainwashing young British Muslims, it is the uninhibited access to violent ideology available on the internet and in those circles that operate away from places of worship that is primarily doing the damage. Most radicalised Muslims think very hard about what they are being asked to believe; it is the lack of a counter-argument from within the Muslim community and others that give the Islamists an easy target.
The aggressive recruitment of Muslim students by various Islamist groups at universities and colleges present a new and wider challenge to mainstream political parties and moderate Muslims to challenge and counter the unconventional and often aggressive views of these groups. This is often the first step on the path to disengagement from the democratic process and acceptance of a politicised version of Islam that advocates violence. An equal amount of energy needs to be put in to counter these measures to try and recruit undergraduates to moderate Muslim organisations and mainstream political parties. Why is it that Muslim undergraduates find an opportunity to vent their anger at events organised by groups advocating disengagement from the political process yet do not seem to have this opportunity; or refuse to engage with mainstream political parties?
The Conservative Party has finally taken its first, tentative and long overdue steps and established the Conservative Muslim Forum under the guidance of Lord Sheikh which seeks to establish a link between the Conservative Party and the wider Muslim community, encourage debate to include non-Muslims to ascertain their views and concerns equally; and more importantly, to encourage people to become active members of the Conservative Party. It is also seeking solutions to tackle the problems of low academic attainment, poor housing, community cohesion problems etc that in some shape or form can be linked to the disillusioned Muslim youth.
As well as measures that are being taken by organisations such as the Conservative Muslim Forum, the Government must play its part. It must create a portfolio with ministerial responsibility to tackle extremism at home and abroad and to try and determine what is happening in areas where Muslims are being radicalised. The Home Office is in a mess and has enough on its plate without having to provide solutions to an issue which is unique and which requires constant attention. The intelligence services and the Police must be provided with adequate resources to counter the terrorist threat to allow them to infiltrate any organisation which provides a stepping stone to terrorist links abroad and leads to the involvement in acts of gratuitous violence. Providing security at home and seen to be doing so must be the Government’s main objective.
A well thought out, co-ordinated and practical policy to combat extremism must be put in place as a first step in an attempt to defeat the radical Islamists preaching their hatred on British shores. There hasn’t be an effective set of proposals implemented by the Government since 7/7 and with each terrorist plot comes a new round of meetings with ‘Muslim leaders’ and knee-jerk reactions that are talked about for a few days and then are quickly discarded.
Moderate Muslims and politicians must make strenuous efforts to try and engage in political discourse with young, impressionable and often disillusioned Muslims. It is only when there is a joined up approach and the security services, politicians and the Muslim community move in the same direction, that we will begin to win the battle against radical Islamists in Britain.