By Chizom Ekeh
More than a decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and seven years after the 7/7 bombings in London, British politicians and experts have failed to reach a consensus on the roots of Islamist extremism.
In his 2011 Munich speech, the prime minister, David Cameron, declared multiculturalism had failed and called for a “muscular liberalism” to restore British values. Announcing it was time to end the “passive tolerance” of recent years, he reaffirmed that tackling ‘non-violent extremism’ would remain a priority, as this was the first step on a ‘conveyor belt’ towards violence.
The Economist described the prime minister’s speech as “muddled”, and what is now known as the ‘conveyor belt theory’ has been widely contested.
Last month, the New Statesman published a debate on why Muslim extremism persists, with Mehdi Hasan, political editor at the Huffington post, arguing the role of botched western foreign policy in fuelling radicalisation has been downplayed or overlooked.
He accused neo-conservatives of being in denial about the links between the rise of extremism, Iraq, Palestine and the West’s support for Arab dictators.
Hasan asked Maajid Nawaz, of the Quilliam Foundation, to consider the positions of US political scientist, Robert Pape, and former CIA adviser, Michael Scheuer, who have respectively stated “radicalisation is an extreme strategy for national liberation”, and “people are going to come and bomb us because they don’t like what we’ve done.”
Scathing in his criticism of Cameron’s speech, to which Nawaz had provided input, Hasan called for the ‘conveyor belt theory’ to be dropped and an urgent rethinking of the processes that lead to radicalisation. Hasan argued there should be less emphasis on targeting non-violent extremists “who by definition pose no physical threat”.
In response Nawaz conceded western foreign policy may have inflamed grievances that were “perceived” or “real”, but argued this was just one of many factors; according to Nawaz, “grievances, identity crises, charismatic recruiters and ideological narratives” have contributed to the problem.
And taking the opposite view to Hasan, Nawaz agreed the government’s focus on ‘non-violent extremism’ was correct. While acknowledging the ‘conveyor belt theory’ is empirically flawed, he suggested the evidence to the contrary is inconclusive.
Although the debate was published in a mainstream left-wing publication and provided an illuminating ‘insider’ perspective, readers were left to make up their own minds. So, between Nawaz and Hasan, whose argument is closest to the truth? And which carries the most currency among policymakers?
Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at DEMOS, agrees that while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have contributed to the rise of extremism in the UK , other issues such as poverty, identity and political disengagement have also played a part. But in contrast to Nawaz, DEMOS rejects the theory of a ‘conveyor belt’.
The concept lacks credibility in the eyes of its researchers because, as Bartlett explained to me:
“It does not help to provide an accurate account of the problem and the reasons behind this. There is a need to understand the differences between those who agree with radical ideas and those who have similar views but react with violence.”
He calls for a more targeted approach that is less focused on religion, but which seeks to understand youth rebellion in context of the social alienation and deprivation.
“Young people are bored and frustrated. They are lacking opportunities for social mobility, such as through education and employment. There is a sense of alienation among young British Muslims.”
“The government needs to look at ways of providing alternatives, so that young people have the opportunity to fulfil their ambitions, such as travelling and doing charity work overseas.”
Comparing the experiences of young British Muslims to those of white British youths, Bartlett says rebelliousness is a phase all young people go through. In light of this, he says, DEMOS believes young Muslims should be allowed to be radical and speak their minds.
Furthermore, he stresses the government must stop “talking-up the power of al-Quaeda” as this makes it just seem more powerful and glamorous than it actually is; on the contrary, he says, in reality it is “an incompetent organisation made up of a lot of stupid people”.
He adds that it is al-Quaeda’s smart marketing strategy that enables it to attract young British Muslim recruits. However, Bartlett emphasises that even when specific conditions combine, it is still only a tiny minority who decide to take action through violence.
British Muslim identity itself is cited as source of radicalisation. As a result, “identity crises” (as cited by Nawaz), have come under the scrutiny of researchers. Indeed, DEMOS has identified that third generation British Muslims are those most likely to become radicalised.
Bartlett says it is this group, which came of age in the wake of 9/11, that is most alienated and rebelling against the perceived ‘docility’ of their parents. This, he adds, is compounded by the fact that among this group there were high levels of political disengagement and social deprivation.
Other research (pdf) carried out by the Open Society Foundation has shown that in the borough of Waltham Forest - which has London’s third highest Muslim population – unemployment rates within the community are the higher than other faith groups; but in contrast to DEMOS research, OSF found Muslims are not especially disengaged from politics compared to other Britons. On the contrary, Muslims seemed to have higher levels of trust in both national and local political institutions.
Yet while Muslims in the study expressed relative confidence in the criminal justice system, they believed police stop and search powers were disproportionately used against them. It was also found that none reported to the police when they had been victims of hate crime. The study also found Muslim women frequently experienced verbal and physical abuse, but had “normalised this as part of their everyday experience”.
In addition it was revealed that while 82 per cent of Muslims identified themselves as British, only 41 percent thought they were perceived as such. A disconnect was also identified on cohesion. More Muslims than non-Muslims in the neighbourhood felt people shared the same values.
Overall, then, these findings contradict the mainstream view multiculturalism has failed because Muslims refuse to integrate or engage with the political process.
The establishment of the NGO, British Muslims for Secular for Democracy (BMSD), challenges this position even further. The organisation was set up by Independent journalist Yasmin Alibhai- Brown, and Cambridge academic Nasreen Rehman in 2006, in response to the rise of Islamophobia and violent extremism.
BMSD director, Tehmina Kazi, agrees there is a crisis of identity among British Muslims which in some cases is driving radicalisation.
She tells me:
“A lot of Muslims are in a situation where they don’t really identify themselves with the identity of their parents, who are the first generation and have come from Pakistan. The mentality is very different and at the same time they don’t really feel like they fit in with the indigenous British culture – so they’re stuck inbetween two worlds.”
She adds that while young British Muslims are at the formative stages of developing a new identity, following a hardline interpretation of Islam “can offer certainty and the feeling of belonging to a group”.
BMSD’s research among Muslim students showed that while there was concern about the economy and education, across the board all were concerned about the government’s foreign policy in the Middle East. According to Kazi, this is because religion continues to influence Muslims’ political choices.
As examples she highlights the campaigning activities of Muslim organisations against the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Burma and the advocacy work of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee on Palestine and Islamophobia.
In sum she says:
“Yes, Muslims are very much motivated by their faith when it comes to their political engagement – and the whole ‘Ummah’ concept is what underpins this. The ‘Ummah’ is anagalous to the human body, so if one aspect is hurting the whole thing hurts.”
However, she cautiously notes there can be negative ramifications to this and says her own personal politics is based on concern for all people regardless of religious backgrounds or beliefs.
In the past, BMSD has been critical of the government’s approach to tackling religious extremism. According to them, the overt emphasis on surveillance that was central to programmes like ‘PREVENT ‘and ‘Project Champion’ were deeply unpopular among Muslims and caused a backlash; however, Kazi is pleased the worst aspects of these programmes have gone and the government has separated its policies on cohesion from counter-terrorism and security. She says this is a “much healthier distinction”.
In its mission to combat violent extremism, much BMSD’s efforts are focused on challenging radical Islamist narratives that preach discrimination against women and that discourage young Muslims from voting.
Kazi agrees with Nawaz’s call for extremist ideologies to be challenged and says tactics employed by some extremist groups are “beyond the pale”.
However, she adds:
“But I won’t say that its Islam, because to my mind its nothing to do with Islam, but its associated with Islam and these extremist groups sort of use it as a hook for spreading that ideology, but yes, it needs to be challenged robustly and that’s part of the reason why BMSD was set up.”