by Ghulam Esposito Haydar
While Muslims around the world have been fasting during the holy month of Ramaḍān, both terrorists and politicians alike have continued in their respective destructive crusades which currently show no sign of abating.
Last Friday saw the deadly destruction of a mosque in Kuwait, the decapitation of a man at a gas plant near Grenoble in France and the mass killings at a tourist beach hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. These are the latest atrocities which have shocked people of faith and no faith to the core. According to statements on Twitter, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait. (It was interesting to note the language used to describe these attacks differed somewhat to the Charleston and Chapel Hill massacres respectively.. Both of these crimes Stateside were proven to be driven by a far-right ideology where the perpetrators hate for Black and Muslim citizens led to a devastating terror attack, yet, the term “terrorism” was seldom used nor was there such a public outcry).
How do we stop such atrocities from taking place? Our Prime Minister David Cameron believes it solely boils down to taking on a poisonous ideology. According to the radicalisation hypothesis, it is an extremist interpretation of Islām known as Islamism which is exclusively responsible for terrorism around the world.
Just last week, Cameron addressed an audience in Bratislava where he said:
“The cause is ideological. It is an Islamist extremist ideology: one that says the West is bad and democracy is wrong, that women are inferior and homosexuality is evil. It says religious doctrine trumps the rule of law and Caliphate trumps nation state, and it justifies violence in asserting itself and achieving its aims. The question is: how do people arrive at this world view? I am clear that one of the reasons is that there are people who hold some of these views who don’t go as far as advocating violence, but do buy into some of these prejudices – giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims ‘you are part of this’. This paves the way for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent. To go from listening to firebrand preachers online to boarding a plane to Istanbul and travelling onward to join the jihadis. We’ve always had angry young men and women buying into supposedly revolutionary causes. This one is evil, is it contradictory, it is futile but it is particularly potent today. I think part of the reason it’s so potent is that it has been given this credence. So if you’re a troubled boy who is angry at the world or a girl looking for an identity, for something to believe in, and there’s something that is quietly condoned online or perhaps even in parts of your local community then it’s less of a leap to go from a British teenager to an Isil fighter or an Isil wife than it would be for someone who hasn’t been exposed to these things.”
This is not the first time Cameron has taken to foreign lands to address concerns regarding Muslims. Many have found it deeply concerning that Cameron felt the need to address the subject of national security from foreign shores. If he wanted to attack British Muslims by accusing them of “quietly condoning” terrorism, he should have had the decency to do it on British soil rather than in front of a foreign audience of arms dealers at a security conference in Slovakia.
Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), commenting on Cameron’s address said there was a “risk” of oversimplification given around 2.7 million Muslims live in Britain but just a few hundred had joined ISIS in the Middle East. The comments contrast with Cameron’s keynote speech on radicalisation where he toughened his rhetoric on the responsibilities Muslim leaders had to stamp out extremism. Speaking at a Jewish News conference on Israel, Farr warned of the dangers of playing up the numbers of Britons who have headed to the Middle East to join ISIS: “It’s not to say the challenges they pose are not significant, they are. But, the more we overstate them the more, frankly, we risk labelling Muslim communities as somehow intrinsically extremist, which actually despite an unprecedented wealth of social media propaganda, they have proved not to be. So I think we need to be cautious with our metaphors and with our numbers.” 
Just as David Cameron did with his Munich address in 2011 which paved the way for the “revised” Prevent strategy,  his address in Bratislava was simply a precursor to the implementation of the new Counter Terrorism and Security Bill and the intention to draw up a new “Counter Extremism” bill where he and his neoconservative allies are preparing the ground for the government’s next onslaught. The target will not be terrorism, but “non-violent extremism”. The new Counter-Terrorism measures will legally require nursery schools, teachers, health care service professionals and universities to monitor students and patients for any sign of “extremism” or “radicalisation”. The new powers represent a level of embedded state security surveillance in public life unprecedented in modern times. We already know from the government’s Prevent programme the chilling impact of such mass spying on schools, where Muslim pupils have been reported for speaking out in favour of Palestinian rights or against the role of British troops in Afghanistan. The “counter-extremism” bill announced in the Queen’s Speech  is about to take the anti-Muslim clampdown a whole stage further. The plans include banning orders for non-violent individuals and organisations whose politics are considered unacceptable; physical restriction orders for non-violent individuals and groups deemed “harmful”; powers to close mosques; and vetting controls on broadcasters accused of airing extremist material.
In an address on BBC Radio 4, David Cameron called for a “full spectrum” response to the Tunisia attack, crushing the “appalling death-cult of IS in Iraq and Syria but also fighting extremist’s “poisonous narrative” elsewhere in the world: “Frankly, we cannot hide from this thinking if you step back you become less of a target. They are attacking our way of life and what we stand for, and so we have to stand united with those that share our values. We need to recognise that we’re not just fighting terrorism here, we’re also fighting extremism. There are many extremists who fall short of actually condoning terrorism, but they buy into a lot of the narrative of the terrorists [e.g.] they support [belief in a] Caliphate. We have to say in our country, those views while they fall short of condoning terrorism, they’re not acceptable either. We need to do more to help integrate people into our country. There are some organisations and some people. To those people we have got to say, that is not an acceptable view, and we’re not going to engage with people who believe that their ought to be a Caliphate.” 
According to the Prevent strategy , non-violent extremism consists of a belief system which opposes ‘British Values’ which has been defined as; democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs . This ideology is the precursor to violent extremism and subsequently terrorism. The theory that was engineered in the right ring neoconservative offices of the Henry Jackson Society (formerly known as the Centre for Social Cohesion) and Policy Exchange (who’s founding Chairman was none other than Michael Gove, the former Education Minister at the heart of last year’s false Trojan Horse allegations and now the current Secretary of State for Justice) is known as the ‘Conveyor Belt’ theory  . The theory has already been challenged by many leading academics and practitioners alike who not only cite the total lack of empirical evidence for this theory, but also provide us with a more comprehensive and holistic alternative which references a plethora of driving factors which often leads to an individual turning to violent extremism and terrorism. Earlier this year, Professor Arun Kundnani published an account on how the rhetoric of radicalisation has created “a decade lost”. In it, Kundnani summarises the flimsy empirical basis on which the connection between radical theology and terrorism has been built and the extent to which the burgeoning radicalisation industry, especially in academia, is linked by a revolving door to conservative political lobbyists keen to blame conservative Islam for terrorism.
For any meaningful discussion on “Islamic Extremism”, the government needed to attain a genuinely nuanced understanding of Islam and the make-up of the many different Muslim communities that reside Britain, but in 2013, the government-proposed measures to tackle “Islamic Extremism” failed to engage in any meaningful way with the plethora of voices within the Muslim community . It failed miserably in defining “Islamic extremism”, conflating it with religious conservatism. The report made Muslims feel like a suspect community, further alienated them and caused a great deal of mistrust in the process. This method of disengagement is likely to backfire and cause many Muslims to become even more disenfranchised, disempowered and resent the government. To the majority, it does seem that the government officials in Whitehall are only keen to listen to the opinions which agree with their ideas about Islam and Muslims. Some of the selected (and funded) think tanks researching the causes and threat of terror were specifically set up as “Counter Terrorism” or “Counter Extremism” to receive government funding in the first place. This alone should raise suspicion since these organisations solely rely on government funding for their continual existence and thus are likely to doctor up or exaggerate their findings in order to a create climate of fear.
It does not come at any surprise that proponents of the ‘Conveyor Belt’ theory, the Quilliam Foundation are happy to support characters who re-enforce their narrative . Earlier last week, the fiery foreign cleric Tahir ul-Qadri who is a self-proclaimed supporter of the blasphemy law in Pakistan launched what he referred to as the first Islamic curriculum on Peace and Counter-Terrorism in the world. During an interview with BBC Radio 4 , he explained the purpose of this curriculum and the target demographic. When asked why many people are being radicalised he responded: “I have heard the Prime Minister’s speech and I agree that some Muslim communities are silently condoning extremism and it opens the door to justify acts of terrorism. This problem of radicalisation has not been tackled properly. The government have been dividing extremism into two different categories; violent extremism and non-violent extremism. By defining extremism into two different categories they have allowed extremism to grow into terrorism. Extremism is extremism, so non-violent extremism will become violent ultimately because it will convert into terrorism. Lessons against extremism should be taught at state schools as part of the curriculum. De-radicalisation and counter-terrorism studies should be taught as subjects. It should be made compulsory for Muslim children and optional for non-Muslim children”.
It is interesting to note that even Charles Farr disagrees with such a simplistic narrative bereft of a wider context. Farr revealed the kinds of people who are drawn to the likes of ISIS often have “personal problems” and can be seeking excitement. He said, “The background of broken families, lack of integration into what we might call mainstream society, some level of criminality, sometimes family conflict, are all more than normally apparent. People join terrorist organisations in this country and in others because they get something out of them beyond merely satisfaction of an ideological commitment. Sometimes it’s about resolution of personal problems, sometimes it’s about certainty in an environment which has deprived them of it, sometimes it’s about excitement and esteem, and we should not omit the last two factors. This is the reality in Syria and Iraq but also many other contexts we’ve worked on over the past five or 10 years.” 
Barring the exclusion to mention the role of foreign policy, Farr’s own conclusion is not much different to what the academic researchers, practitioners and activists on the ground have been saying for years. Those behind nearly every violent attack or terror plot have cited western intervention in the Muslim world as their motivation. In reality, it should not be difficult to understand why a small section of young alienated Muslims are attracted to fight in Syria and Iraq with ISIS and to blame it solely on ideology without focussing on the factors which lead to it is being wilfully negligent. After all, the pseudo-jihadi “ideology” has been around for a long time, but there were no terror attacks in Britain before US and British forces invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and nor was there such a pull to travel abroad and fight with some of these groups. The government’s admission that violence is driven by injustices and grievance of its own policies in occupying and destabilising of Muslim states, engaging in and supporting torture and state kidnapping on a global scale, and support for dictatorships across the Arab and Muslim world which contradict the apparent ‘British Values’ it stands for would be an admission of their role in creating terrorism here at home and abroad.
As the journalist Owen Jones mentioned, a History student would be graded a D- if they simply reduced the rise of Nazism to “evil”. In no way would understanding these factors behind Nazism be regarded as somehow legitimising or apologising for it . A fringe ideology does exist but as responsible human beings, we must not fall into the danger of exaggerating the numbers attracted to it nor should we shy away from the reasons why a small but significant number are becoming increasingly attracted towards it. A whole range of factors are involved in radicalisation. It may be different from one individual to another. As Giles Fraser recently put it, it would be facile to reduce it to one thing or the other but to solely focus on an extremist ideology is about as convincing as arguing that the murderous bits of the Bible were solely responsible for the brutality of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The language of terrorism may borrow its vocabulary from Islamic theology, it’s a useful marker of shared identity, but root motivation is as it always is: politics.  In the overwhelming majority of the cases, those who have been persuaded to go and take the law into their own hands by committing acts of terror here in the UK or abroad have not had any real meaningful engagement in the coherent study of Islam. Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher proportion of religious novices who’s lack of Islamic upbringing has made them susceptible to political manipulation coaxed in religious language. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation . If terrorism in the name of Islam is really all about politics, then we must acknowledge that the long history of disastrous western interventions in the Middle East is a part of the cause of the horror that continues to unfold both here in the UK and abroad. We have to face up to our responsibility.
Social and personal factors play a significant role in the pathway to radicalisation. Ideology does need challenging but this only gains traction through grievances. We need services which provide safe places to allow the discussion of grievances without the fear of reporting to Prevent. Under legislation that came into force this week schools are obliged to have“due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. A teacher’s position depends on trust as well as respect. Both could be undermined if teachers are transformed into de facto adjuncts of the police.. We must not shut down means for people to implement change using legitimate political avenues and subsequently accuse them of ‘entryism’ but rather educate and empower young Muslims to use legitimate avenues of British polity to do something meaningful about their current situation. We must explore and find solutions to factors such as social deprivation, inequalities and personal vulnerabilities which increase the likelihood of a person becoming disenfranchised or disillusioned with life in the UK. We must also explore the role of relentless media hostility, rampant Islamophobia, undue state surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities and the evidence of an increasing level of anti-Muslim attacks. Islamophobia now outstrips hostility to any religion or ethnic group in the UK and this cannot be good when it comes to preventing radicalisation.
This article is an updated version of one originally published earlier this week on Islam21C.com.
Ghulam Esposito Haydar is a Muslim community activist in Manchester. He is one of the Founding Members of the Myriad Foundation, a voluntary organisation that sets up and runs inter-faith initiatives in a range of areas – blood donation, feeding the homeless, hospice buddy support, and mosque collections distributed to Manchester food banks and shelters. He also volunteers with Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND).