Europe

Countering Radicalization Among British Muslim Youth

An Islamic protest at a parade of returning British soldiers from Iraq in 2009.

British universities have been under some considerable scrutiny of late, especially after it emerged that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted the "Christmas Day bombing" of 2009 on a flight headed for the United States, studied as an undergraduate at University College London. The ensuing inquiry and report, released earlier this year by Universities U.K.—the representative professional body of the sector—asserted the need for academic freedom and freedom of speech, while at the same time encouraging vigilance amongst youth on university campuses.

But even before this time, universities have been seen as a problem vis-à-vis the radicalization and politicization of Muslim youth. Even if, as the report "Seen and Not Heard: Voices of Young British Muslims" says, young Muslims feel just as opposed to radical views as any other sector of society, these youth tend to be spoken about, rather than engaged directly.

There is a very complex interplay of theological, sociological and political factors at work that leads some university youth toward extremism. Some theological arguments twist the teachings of Islam to portray a world split into binary opposites, in which current geopolitical events are given new meanings in line with a narrative of enmity between Islam and the West. Social realities of exclusion, poverty, inequality, weak community infrastructure and poor leadership also create the environment in which radical messages have more traction than they should. Add to this political complexities, not least of which include the role of Western governments turning a blind eye to injustice or waging war in countries without just cause, and a number of young British Muslims feel disenchanted with the current political realities.

For some, this means that there is no longer hope in a legitimate process. So a number of these youth find illegitimate ways to express their anger, then try to make that legitimate by creating their own theology of despair. Given the very complex nature of this picture, it is difficult to begin to think of what one does to counter it. Understandably, there is little patience to "get under the skin" of the problem, to examine the root causes of anger and frustration. The British government is realizing that the fight is a long-term one that involves "winning hearts and minds" of Muslims both domestically and abroad, but also bringing real change to the way in which foreign and domestic policies are thought out and implemented.

Muslim communities have also realized that a genuinely mature, open and reflective discourse about extremism from within needs to be effectively nurtured. There are signs of progress. Recently when a London-based scholar, Usama Hasan, was criticized for arguing that evolution was compatible with Islam (including receiving a death threat and an attempt to oust him from his position in the mosque), thousands came to his defense in an online campaign for free speech. The real issue wasn't about evolution per se, but that there should be the space for an open dialogue within the Muslim community.

Similarly, in universities there should be a space for open dialogue to challenge extreme views. To be truly open, the dialogue has to engage extreme views and concerns, even if the intention is to robustly counter those very opinions. Only an open discussion about the frustrations, anxieties and even anger that people have can generate a meaningful conversation. The law already sets the parameter for tolerance. Speech that advocates hatred or incites violence would most likely fall outside of that parameter.

One very innovative way of dealing with some of these discussions was pioneered by Campusalam, a project operating within U.K. universities that decided to adopt comedy as a means of talking about issues related to radicalization and extremism. The project has organized comedy events bringing Muslim stand-up comics to universities to open up conversations in a relaxed and lighthearted way about issues such as terrorism, but also wider topics such as identity or the headscarf. The point is that more dialogue, not less, is needed within our society. We need to foster a spirit of freedom rather than restriction. It is by confidently living the very values we feel are under threat, rather than constraining them, that we will win the battle of ideas.

Dilwar Hussain is head of the Policy Research Centre at the Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire, United Kingdom. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service: www.commongroundnews.org.

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