Sections of Muslim Britain in denial about extremism

The 7th July 2005 changed London forever and has brought about a new reality for everyone. It was the first time in London that we have experienced multiple & simultaneous home-grown terrorist attacks that were indiscriminate in nature and resulted in mass fatalities and casualties across all communities.

So as we reach the one year anniversary of the enormous tragedy of the 7th July 2005, it is important to reflect back on the innocent people that died or were injured that day and all the other people and communities that have been affected in the aftermath.

Much will be written over this period about the bombings, policing and the subsequent impact on the Muslim community. As a British Muslim serving as a senior police officer in London, I bring both a personal, professional and community perspective to this debate. Importantly, over the last 12 months, I have had time to reflect on what happened, including the high profile incidents at Stockwell and Forest Gate, and to consider the various reactions and responses.

Firstly, I think it is important to underline the almost universal condemnation of the bomb attacks by the Muslim community. Equally, since July last year, there has been a corresponding willingness from Muslim communities to come forward in active participation. At the same time, in the face of the global terrorist threat, the police have had to come to terms with this new reality and learn a number of important lessons. I remain optimistic about the operational capability of the police to tackle this new terrorist threat.

However, I also see some unique and unresolved problems around the current ability of the Muslim community to engage in an effort to prevent another spate of bombings.

In the aftermath of the July bombings and attempted bombings there has been an enormous focus on the Muslim community, which hasn’t gone away. There has been much debate about the perceived social and political re-engineering of the Muslim Community, but we must never lose sight of the overriding aspect of safety. Everyone wants to feel safe, irrespective of which community they belong to. To achieve this mutual safety, communities must work together to prevent another terrorist attack.

However, the community aspect remains problematic.

Three key surveys recently all produced similar findings: while tolerance and respect for Muslim society was higher in Britain than in other continental country, British Muslims still feel more resentful, more alienated and more suspicious than Muslims polled in Germany, France and Spain. The findings of the polls highlight a lack of confidence in the police and it’s leadership and show that a significant proportion of Muslims have experienced hostility or suspicion since the July bombings. (Pew Global Attitudes / Guardian/ICM / Populus – 2006).

There has been a Muslim presence in Britain for at least 300 years and the estimated 1.6 million Muslims living in the UK today represent the largest non-Christian religious group. However, the community picture is both complex and multi-dimensional. Muslims’ represent a broad range of different ethnic origins, identities and backgrounds, which are reflected in the diversity of Muslims’ lives and experiences in Britain. Just as there is no ‘one’ Muslim community, equally, there is no one ‘Muslim viewpoint’. This therefore requires a much more sophisticated approach to policing issues involving Muslim communities.

At the present time, one of the key challenges facing many British Muslim communities is that of disadvantage. The 2001 Census found that Muslims are generally concentrated in areas of multiple deprivation with disproportionate rates of low academic achievement, unemployment, poor and over-crowded housing, illness and disability. Similarly, there has been extremely limited penetration of the public sector, particularly at a senior level and few public role models.

Another major challenge is tackling ‘Islamophobia’ – the fear or hatred of Islam and, by extension, Muslims. Islamophobia is nothing new, but since September 11th and 7th July, Muslims have found themselves subject to increasing levels of scrutiny and surveillance.

There is a view that since the collapse of communism, Islam has emerged as the new enemy, representing an ideological and physical threat based on an historically polarised relationship. As a consequence, different forms of anti-Muslim expression have been emerging, including attacks and abuse against Muslims, Mosques and other Islamic centres.

Muslims are also increasingly being seen as a ‘law and order’ issue, which has led to strong feelings of injustice. Not only has anti-terrorism and security legislation been tightened across many European countries that have indirectly discriminated against Muslims, but other equally unwanted practices have also emerged, including increased stop and search and ‘passenger profiling’.

Post 11th September, Islam and Muslims have become more frequently covered in media news reporting, particularly linking Islam and Muslims with terrorism. To a degree, Islam has become demonised and distorted by the West. Despite the moderate Muslim majority condemnation of terrorism, giving a platform to extremists makes good television.

The result is that Muslims everywhere are seen through the same negative stereotypes, where Islamic terms such as ‘jihad’, ‘fatwa’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are now part of popular vocabulary, albeit with a new ‘media-ised’ meaning. This has led to some biased reporting about Muslims and insufficient treatment of the concerns of Muslim communities. Opportunists, both in the form of extremist Muslim Organisations and Right Wing organisations, such as the BNP, have sought to capitalise on this situation.

Linked intrinsically to all of this, is the growing challenge of anger amongst young Muslims. Young people have developed a strong sense of connection with Muslim around the world, particularly in countries such as Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya. The cumulative effect of Islamophobia, both internationally and nationally, linked to social exclusion, has created a generation of angry young people who are vulnerable to exploitation. The simplistic anti-western messages of extremist organisations can be attractive to such vulnerable young people, advocating closed and hostile views of other religions. The irony is that by demonising Muslims, the mass media is also erecting a romantic notion of opposition to mainstream culture.

An equally important challenge is that certain elements of Muslim communities are in various stages of denial, whether about the events of 7th July, Muslim extremism or the responsibilities of the Muslim community and leadership at large. Elements of the Muslim community have become intensely self-reflective, both in terms of individuals and communities. They remain inward-looking and are still in “survival” mode, thinking and feeling victimised, disconnected and separated. For some, there is an overriding preoccupation with conspiracy theories around the threat of terrorism and the significant political leverage of fear attributed to the West. The persistence of an attitude of denial will undoubtedly be counter-productive to any significant and lasting change.

Given these challenges, the options facing British Muslims fall into four key categories: flight, fight, separate and integrate.

A Guardian/ICM poll conducted immediately in the aftermath of July 2005 found that two-thirds of Muslims considered leaving the UK. However at the present time the opportunity of ‘flight’ is only realistically available to professionals emigrating to places like Dubai, USA and Canada or elderly people seek to return to their country of origin.

The Muslim communities as a whole understand that fighting back illegally will only serve to criminalise young Muslims in particular. The issue of ‘fight’ has already happened in the north in 2001 (Oldham, Burnley and Bradford riots). The five reports published in the aftermath of the ‘riots’ highlighted the role of the far right in creating fear and inciting racial and religious tension, as well how multiple social deprivation has led to deep alienation and frustration within the Muslim community, which spilled over into disorder.

The only option here is for increasing mobilisation to fight legally against such issues as religious intolerance, ‘hate crime’ and disproportionality, although proceeding through legitimate channels, particularly around religious hatred, remains difficult.

Separation remains a real risk for many Muslims. In the USA, Muslims are well represented in the professional classes and of course there are wealthy Muslim groups in the UK, such as the Bora and Ismaili communities, as well as London being the largest centre for Islamic finance outside the Muslim world. However, in the UK Muslims remain predominantly in the working class and are particularly concentrated in deprived inner-city boroughs. Any further dislocation from the main stream will lead to the creation of an underclass living in ‘ghettoes’ and widen the divide between haves and have-nots.

In terms of integration, Muslim leaders in Britain tend to be divided, particularly over where to draw the line between integration and traditional Muslim identity. However, while it is important to understand that integration does not mean assimilation, the British Muslim community needs to do more to integrate itself into mainstream culture. There is a need to belong – but with a strong faith.

So where are we right now? I believe we are standing at a critical crossroad. Of course Government needs to take responsibility for tackling the underlying causes of disadvantage – around education, employment, health, youth and safety. Of course the police and other agencies need to work together with Muslim communities to build community capability and capacity, particularly in tackling extremism among Muslim youth. But the overriding critical requirement is for real sustainable leadership and effort to be provided from within Muslim communities.

We must not under-estimate the role Muslims need to play in the process of generating goodwill in the wider community. Muslims need to be aware that they must firstly overcome the dangerous and prohibitive state of denial. Only then can they take the first initiative to reach out to the society around them to dispel the myths and misunderstandings. Muslim opinion leaders need to assist their communities to develop so that they can access established power structures. Equally, Muslims must be visibly active in the political, social, educational, economic and cultural activities of the country.

Muslims should be educated about how Islam can be applied practically in modern day Britain. Islam particularly has a vital role to play in the lives of young Muslims. We need to persuade young Muslims that they can be Muslim and British, and that Islam is not regarded with hostility. When they are persuaded away by extremist groups with their distorted views of Islam, it is vital that infrastructure is put into place to conduct theological de-briefing to ensure balance.

We need to ‘future proof’ by developing significant Muslim role models. While there are 1.6 million Muslims in Britain, if you look at the country’s most powerful people – in business, politics, academia, the media, the arts and sport – you wouldn’t know it. The emergence of credible Muslim role models is therefore critical. For example, there should be at least 20 Muslims in the House of Commons to reflect our population. In fact, only four Muslims were elected to the House of Commons in the May 2005 Elections. The need for greater Muslim engagement in the democracy of UK at all levels is essential.

In conclusion, if we are to prevent the flight, fight or separation of Muslim communities in the UK in the aftermath of 7th July, we need to work together to achieve integration. This will require a significant shift in mindset from harmful denial to a situation where the aim is for all communities to work together in partnership with the Police and other agencies. This can only be achieved once a real climate of trust and confidence has been established. Only then will we be able to build and sustain community cohesion and ensure that no community is left feeling isolated or vulnerable.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Times, UK
July 2, 2006
Tarique Ghaffur, Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 3, 2006.
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