Understanding Muslim RADICALISM in Britain

I WAS BRIEFLY A VISITING scholar with the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies during early fall of 2006. I spent my time in England interviewing and conversing with British Muslim intellectuals, scholars, community leaders, cab drivers, teenagers, imams and activists. I have come away with the rather disturbing understanding that Britain is a fertile ground for Muslim antiAmericanism and radicalism.

I found that there are three roots of Muslim radicalism in Britain: existential conditions, religio-political discourse, and British and U.S. foreign policy.

There are more than 1.6 million Muslims in Britain-close to 3 percent of the population – and two-thirds of them are from South Asia. Muslims, the largest minority in Britain, are the poorest, least educated and most marginalized of all religious communities in Britain.

According to the 2001 census, only 25 percent of British Muslims are engaged in economic activity, less than 20 percent own their homes and nearly 30 percent are described as people with no qualifications. They live in poor housing and have a very high rate of unemployment.

There are alarmingly high levels of segregation between Muslims and non-Muslims and, to some extent, within Muslim groups too. In a heated argument over how to engage with the mainstream, a community leader expostulated to me, “Why do we need all this liberalism? Our people hardly see any goras (white people) in this area. They have no interaction with them for months.” Many British Muslims live in their own ethno-religious universes, not ghettoes. Ghetto implies merely physical segregation. What I witnessed was physical, economical, intellectual, social, cultural and political segregation.

Although physical isolation in the ghettoes does clearly contribute to cultural isolation and political anger, such is not the case everywhere. While Birmingham is a great example of the ills of ghettoes, Oxford is different. Muslims in Oxford are more integrated; five of them are in the city council and community members on the whole seem to be far less angry than those in Birmingham.

Most Muslims acknowledge that in spite of the racism, ethnic and religious discrimination, and Islamophobia they face everyday, particularly in the job market, they still find British society very open and tolerant. In response to my question about racism, an Oxford cabby of Pakistani descent remarked, “Sure there is discrimination bhai sahib [brother], but tell me, who is more racist than us?” He was referring to Muslim prejudice against the mainstream that contributes to self-isolation.

Many scholars whom I spoke to acknowledge that there is growing radicalization of Muslims in Britain. There was anger and frustration among the youth as they watched Israel bomb Lebanon into devastation with American support, and watch chaos reign in Iraq, which they blame on Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Muslim leaders repeatedly assert that as long as there are injustices being meted out to Muslims in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as long as thousands of innocent Muslims are killed in invasions by Western powers, assisted or supported by Britain, the Muslim youth in Britain will remain angry and frustrated and lean more and more toward radical options.

Community leaders do not believe that rhetoric from angry radical Muslim intellectuals and imams has any significance, since they constitute a fringe minority. It is only the British media that pays them any attention, they say, because of some of their egregious statements. Muslim leaders place the blame for youth radicalization squarely on Tony Blair, who they say follows President Bush’s every lead on foreign policy without thought or criticism and often against the wishes of his own people and colleagues. It is Tony Blair, they say, and not Imam this or Imam that, who is primarily responsible for radicalizing Muslim youth in Britain.

My assessment of the British Muslim leadership is mixed. There are many young Muslim leaders who are successful, who understand and value the multiculturalism that has allowed them to thrive. They are opposed to extremism and racism, and are working hard to create a moderate and balanced Muslim community that fights Islamophobia and radicalism.

Then there is the traditional leadership with deep immigrant roots. They are estranged from the mainstream, have little access to media or government and do not have the linguistic ability to express and defend themselves. They are usually defined by the media, which often looks at them with a jaundiced eye. Some of these traditional leaders are politically liberal and forward looking, but unfortunately many of them are culturally isolationist and theologically conservative and politically Islamized. They live in denial. They do not recognize the threat of extremism and isolationism within the community. Their consciousness is entirely shaped by the geopolitics of Islam and the West. They are keeping the community theologically narrow and segregated from the mainstream. They are themselves marginal in their ability to influence things in Britain and keep their followers on the margins too.

In the absence of enlightened leadership, social alienation combined with anger at British and American foreign policies makes the community’s youth more and more amenable to the radical discourse coming from anti-Western imams and primes them for exploitation by al-Qaeda.

So far the British government has done little to address the problems of its Muslims or to find balance in its foreign policy. The Anglo-American war on terror has failed to diminish anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. On the contrary, misguided policies in Iraq and Lebanon have mainly angered and radicalized Muslims all over the world. Every time Blair says “aye aye” to Bush, some Muslim youth say “aye aye” to Bin Laden.
The British response is premised on a consistent denial that British foreign policy has any role whatsoever in radicalizing Muslims. No concerted effort has been made to address segregation, to empower the Muslim youth and to entice them out of their isolated universes.

Number 10 (the prime minister’s office) has tried to co-opt Muslim leadership by giving inordinate access to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). The leadership of MCB has created an umbrella organization that can legitimately claim to represent British Muslims. However, their political liberalism is subverted by their theological conservatism; as a result, they are acutely alert to British policy errors but blind to the community’s failure to reform and keep abreast with modernity and with British mainstream society.

Ultimately MCB is failing because it cannot deliver. The British government wants support from Muslims for its foreign policy – MCB cannot deliver that. Muslims want significant changes in British foreign policy – MCB can talk to policymakers, but cannot influence or reshape it. It is a bridge that, at this moment, leads nowhere on either end.

Law enforcement methods alone can preempt terrorism but not address its root causes. They have to be accompanied by a systematic overhaul of domestic and foreign policy. America’s problem with Muslims worldwide is only its foreign policy. Britain’s problem, however, with its Muslim population is twofold – its domestic and foreign policy need urgent revision.

British Muslim leadership, too, must pull its head out of the sand and directly address its own singular obsession with foreign policy. Surely they do not wish to sacrifice the future of British Muslims for causes overseas.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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