David Cameron says we “have a problem” if we do not realise there is an issue over the radicalisation of young British Muslims. The prime minister’s disgraceful exploitation of the politics of the far-right in order to win votes at the expense of the Muslim community is beneath contempt. In his latest attack, Cameron said that it was right for one of his senior ministers to write to Muslim leaders asking them to “explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”.
The barbed letter was sent to more than 1,000 Imams and community leaders, warning them about radicalisation and saying that the problem “cannot be solved from Whitehall alone”. Eric Pickles, who sent it, stressed that everyone has a responsibility to fight extremism. The same Muslim leaders are bewildered because they have turned themselves inside out to try and please and appease those in Westminster, from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown and now David Cameron.
The reality is that there are no “hate preachers” left in Britain’s mosques. Many of places of worship are exclusively that; they have signs on the walls banning political discussion therein, especially about Palestine, Iraq, Syria, etc. The very fact that Muslim community leaders have engaged in a mass act of self-censorship–out of fear of breaking the law – means that any young lad wanting to know what is happening in the Muslim world has to go online or tune in to the BBC or Sky News, because they will not find out from their local masjid. Moreover, what they see on the screen or hear on the radio is usually dominated by the pro-Israel narrative, which distorts further their ability of understanding the reality of events in the world’s main conflict zone.
The real reason for the astonishingly ill-judged letter is that one of the most unpredictable General Elections ever is on the horizon in Britain and, quite frankly, the government is panicking at the prospect of losing power because of the unprecedented rise of UKIP. This unashamedly right-wing party is also attracting the disillusioned left-wing vote, not just those on the right.
UKIP’s meteoric rise under the leadership of public house habitué Nigel Farage is down to the fact that the gap between rich and poor is widening and the blame for this is being put firmly at the door of too much immigration. This is the code word for olive-skinned people, particularly those who are Muslims.
If anyone doesn’t quite get the message, the even more odious extreme right-wing groups such as the English Defence League, British National Party and Britain First will spell it out in their vile, less subtle literature and rallies held deliberately in traditional white, working class areas. These communities thrived until the mines, steelworks, factories and shipyards closed down due largely to Tory policies under Margaret Thatcher, opening the way for poverty, poor health and a sense of abandonment. Similar far-right rallies feeding on fear and hate are plaguing other European countries where a recession or threat of recession looms large.
Successive British governments have presided over a real problem with disenfranchised British youth but the problem is not rocket science, nor is it down to religion in general or, to be more specific, Islam. The underlying causes are government policies at home and abroad; even the most poorly-educated young person can see the double standards at play whereby the rich and powerful appear to win at every turn.
Villains no longer wear bandit masks and striped jerseys with swag bags over their shoulders. They dress in Armani suits, rub shoulders with some of the world’s most evil despots and run roughshod over ordinary people to make money any which way they can. Their gospel tells them that “greed is good.”
It is now six years since the world’s financial system was brought to its knees by criminal mismanagement. In Britain alone, billions of pounds’ worth of taxpayers’ money was used to bail out the “banksters”. Millions of ordinary people have been affected by job losses or suffered from lower living standards because of the recession brought on by the financial collapse. Yet not one banker in Britain has faced legal action for their role in the crisis which has affected us all. Although the British taxpayer had to bail out three of the country’s biggest banks, not one senior official has stepped inside a courtroom to face any charges.
The courts, meanwhile, are full of so-called benefit cheats, even though the government’s own figures show that less than one per cent of total benefit expenditure was overpaid due to fraud. The most vulnerable in our society are ending up in prison for petty crimes while those who swindled billions by manipulating the markets have, so far, escaped prosecution.
The reality is that those with their perfectly manicured fingers in the till who steal ten times more – at least – than welfare cheats are society’s high rollers who are involved in tax avoidance and tax evasion. This also includes the upscale middle classes who shave a little more off their tax returns, or the billionaires who run elaborate offshore schemes and scams.
Of course, there’s no way that Cameron is going to take a dig at his privileged mates in the Square Mile or other traditional Tory voters; sadly that is pretty much the view shared by the Labour Party, which also prefers to support the banksters and the corporate high rollers on the quiet. Labour’s traditional voters are feeling abandoned and alienated too. As a result those at the bottom of society make soft targets for the politicians.
What has this to do with Islam in Britain? Many Muslim youth feel disenfranchised as they search desperately search for an identity and a sense of belonging. Opportunities to volunteer to help the needy in places like, for example, Palestine are stifled by the Israel-led siege of the Gaza Strip and accusations of “terrorism” against legitimate providers of humanitarian aid. The same government which tells them to have respect for the law is led by a prime minister who offers his “staunch” support to Israel even while its army was killing more than 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children. Is it any wonder that young British Muslims are confused and seeking a way out?
The local mosque used to act as a community hub enabling youngsters to interact with the wider community around them. Now that self-censorship has been introduced by fearful mosque committees there’s a feeling of not quite fitting in, of being very different prevalent among young people.
Outside the mosque environment the alienation grows, especially vis-à-vis non-Muslims. It’s been worse in the last decade, with the unbridled growth in Islamophobia, often fuelled by politicians who see Muslim communities as vote-catching easy targets. The net effect is that young Muslims feel that they don’t belong and are targeted as the “them” in the politicians’ many “us and them” speeches.
It’s thus quite easy to see how some become radicalised and alienated without ever having to listen to a single so-called Muslim hate preacher in person or online.
How is this problem going to be solved? For a start, the government needs to understand the Muslim community. It is not a homogeneous group; it is diverse and has more than two dimensions to it beyond religious and cultural identity. Secondly, most Muslims would have just as many problems trying to identify “the terrorists in our midst” as anyone else. Nevertheless, I would say with confidence that around 97 per cent, possibly higher, would happily condemn the Islamic State (ISIS) and all the atrocities it carries out against other Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
There are those who’ve gone out to Syria with a genuine intention to help in the fight against the tyrant Bashir Al-Assad – a former close ally of Britain – and help the Syrian people. They might be misguided, but their intentions are good. Then there are the disenfranchised, alienated youth who’ve been seduced by ISIS, not for any sound religious reasoning but because its slick marketing on the internet (not in the local mosque) has persuaded them that it’s a cool thing to do.
In truth, the reality is that most of the ISIS recruits, whether from the slums of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt or the ghettos of America, Australia and Europe, probably have a poor understanding of Islam, are ill-educated and are unable to get jobs, money or status in their own communities. Suddenly on Planet ISIS, though, they get weapons and bundles of cash, and command instant respect and fear from those who cross their path. That is the attraction; it’s got nothing to do with ideology, hate preachers or religion. The have-nots suddenly have something.
The journey to Syria may have been triggered by images on the BBC of injustice against ordinary men, women and children. To learn more they search for the ISIS-supported website and, armed with very little knowledge of the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of Islam, off they go to find out more. The ISIS websites use Islamic verses out of context; we know that they do because the idiots from the EDL use the same verses to spew forth their own hate.
The net result is that these young Muslim men learn a lot about a small slice of Islam and, without proper context, anything can be misinterpreted and misconstrued. Fuelled with misinformation – which they dare not check or run by anyone at the local mosque because of the aforementioned self-censorship – joining ISIS becomes a practical solution. I would suggest that the lure is a bit like joining a street gang; Britain has a huge problem with gangs but the government is sweeping it under the Whitehall carpets. While Home Secretary Theresa May likes to talk about being tough on crime and tough on extremism and tough on radicalisation, she’s silent on the gang problem which is stalking Britain.
Since 2005, there have been a staggering 171 teenage gang murders in the UK; the most recent was the killing of Isaiah Ekpaloba, aged 18, who was stabbed to death on 9 January. That is the equivalent of a Charlie Hebdo-style massacre every year for the past 10 years in Britain alone, and the statistics don’t even take into account gun crimes and the murder of adults.
This map gives an idea of how prolific the teen gang crime problem is in London alone: http://www.citizensreportuk.org/reports/teenage-murder-london.html
More than 170 street gangs, with members as young as 10, have been identified by the Metropolitan Police. Many are loose affiliations of friends from the same area intent on controlling their own “turf”, or territory, often defined by a postcode.
Despite ignorance-fuelled hysteria from tabloid media about Islamic no-go areas in Britain and Shari’ah enforcement patrols there really are such areas in some parts of London due to street gangs. The penalty for straying into the wrong area is to be robbed, beaten or stabbed. Many teenagers now carry a knife routinely out of fear, in order to defend themselves if attacked.
Experts blame the breakdown of family life for the rise of gang culture. The gang has replaced the family unit and provides youngsters with a structure and a sense of belonging which generates the “post code pride” which leads to murder. The Home Office is losing the battle against gang and youth violence but doesn’t like to make a big deal about it because it’s not a vote winner and some academics and youth workers might just start blaming the widening gap between rich and poor as the main cause.
Britain does have a problem with young people but it’s not a religious issue, nor is it due to Islam and Muslims; this is a countrywide problem and for David Cameron’s government to start shooting at a soft target like the Muslim community instead of dealing with the real issues is disingenuous. Instead of writing to Muslim leaders again I would suggest in all humility that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles downloads this article and sends it to 10 Downing Street, marked urgent. He might not get promoted in the next reshuffle, but at least he will be able to have a clear conscience.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.