Over the last few weeks I have been frustrated by a number of descriptions from a range of ‘experts’ about what radicalised Muslims look like, and the tell-tale signs to seek them out. I’ve heard of teacher guidance speaking about banning or looking out for children wearing ‘Free Palestine’ wristbands. Another statement from Britain’s most senior Muslim commissioner talked about tell-tale signs, including boycotting shops such as Marks and Spencer and being teetotal. Last week a questionnaire came to light that was being circulated in schools in East London which used leading questions about identity to identify the seeds of radicalisation.
There is a huge flaw in these methods. Firstly they are not about seeking out radicalisation. An assumption has been made that radicalisation is closely related to religion; therefore we are using approaches to assess how strongly people identify themselves as Muslim. A strong Muslim identity is being seen as a negative thing challenged now by the importance of holding a strong British identity based on ‘British values’. Many different people have a strong identity that extends beyond being British. Our environment often impacts how we see ourselves, making us focus on what makes us unique rather than the same as others. Would the same questions with similar answers lead to alerts when they were asked of other communities? One of the question from the BRIT survey asked if it was right to marry someone from a different race or religion. The 2011 census published figures about mixed race relationships in the UK. Yes Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups had low levels of interracial marriages but so did the Indian and African community in the UK as well as Chinese men. Yet I’m not sure if this would lead to their Britishness being questioned in the same way.
There is no evidence to suggest that it is the most devout Muslims in the UK who are joining ISIS. That is a deep oversimplification of the issue which criminalises a community. The term Moderate Muslim for me really reinforces this idea. Jihadi John has become the poster boy for radicalised Muslim youth, involved in the grotesque torture and executions undertaken by ISIS. He was identified a few months ago as Londoner Mohammed Emwazi. Many of those that knew him before joining ISIS do not describe him as a religious man. He was described as smoking marijuana, drinking, loving rap music and not wearing Islamic dress or praying. In the case of Jihadi John it was not a practicing Muslim with a strong Muslim identity that was radicalised. On the other hand there are many examples of where a strong Muslim faith and identity can have very positive impacts on young people. The Young Review published in December 2014 looked at how to improve outcomes for young black and Muslim men in the criminal justice system. The final report highlighted how many Muslim prisoners and ex-offenders saw religion as a positive force in coping with prison and release.
Another tell-tale sign we have wrongly accepted about radicalised Muslims is their political views. Many people across different communities are concerned with global conflicts and are critical of the West’s role in the Middle East. People are free to show this in different ways such as protests, boycotts and, yes, the occasional wristband. Stephen Hawking, Brian Eno, Mike Leigh and Alice Walker are just some of the names of people who have taken part in the Israel boycott in some way. However young Muslims are being identified as possibly radicalised when they hold similar views. As a country we are increasingly concerned with political apathy amongst young people and yet we are in effect drawing negative connotations from those that are politicised in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable. We should not forget that young people were important voices in the campaign against the Vietnam War and the Civil rights movement. The Occupy Movement has also been described as a youth movement.
Radicalisation of young Muslims may in fact be a new form of youth anti-establishment behaviour and while that is terrifying it is not new. If we explore gang culture in this country we can see that young people have always played a role in this violence. From the Teddy boys in the 50s to the current postcode gangs found in areas such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, the UK has a long history of disaffected youth being attracted to criminal behaviour and violence. Waltham Forest, the council which used the BRIT questionnaires to seek out extremism, interestingly has a significant gang population – in 2011 Gang expert Prof John Pitts estimated some 600 to 700 young people there were part of gangs. More research is needed to understand the causes of radicalisation and compare this to the drivers of other examples of violence in youth culture such as gangs and extreme activism. This will give us a greater understanding of the issue so that we can tackle it in a more sophisticated and evidence based way, rather than based on the sweeping assumptions we have made thus far.
If we reflect on the approaches used to address other youth issues we could learn so much. For example when dealing with teenage pregnancy, programmes that are successful focus on identifying and building low self esteem rather than concentrating on the negatives of being sexually active. Successful approaches to dealing with gangs focus positively on the identities of vulnerable youth. Would it not be damaging if we used questionnaires asking about music preferences, clothes choices and other irrelevant behaviours to identify the ‘initial seeds’ of gang violence. What we need is to begin from a positive framework about people’s identities. In another incident which has not been widely reported on, a letter was recently sent from an academy in Luton to parents, informing them about a course students would be attending on ‘Extremism’. Topics in the unit included terrorism, sexual exploitation, radicalisation and arranged and forced marriages. These issues are not confined to Muslim communities, and neither do they have any direct connection with extremism. How isolating must it be for students and families who received this letter to see a list of negative stereotypical issues related to Islam. What must they think about how they are viewed by this school? If there are young people who could potentially be radicalised at this school, this course would be more likely to drive these children away rather than re-engage them. What we need are approaches that are positive about people’s identities and that bring communities together, rather than drive them apart.