Across eight cities in very diverse communities, I try to find out why those opposing radicalism struggle to find a voice
There is no uniform Muslim community in the UK.
On Friday, we learned that five east London girls, all from Bethnal Green academy – the school attended by the three girls who left home to join Islamic State in February – have been made wards of court, to stop them travelling to Syria. The news broke as I came to the end of four weeks visiting eight cities across the UK as part of Inspire’s Making a Stand roadshow.
Our purpose was to mobilise women to challenge extremism. (And to gain personal, specific commitment: “I will be #makingastand by confronting the men who are promoting extreme views at the Islam stall in the town centre,” said one contributor.) But for me it was a huge learning experience.
The first thing that needs to be emphasised, and which you note, as you move from Bristol to Birmingham, from Cardiff to Luton, is that there is, of course, no uniform Muslim community.
Raising teenage children is hard enough, but different first languages can widen this inter-generational divide
I met British Muslim women from Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadiyya denominations; women from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali, Arab, English, Welsh and Kurdish backgrounds. Young women, mothers and grandmothers. So diversity and complexity of views should always be reckoned with. However, three common themes began to emerge: barriers within families, barriers within communities and a lack of engagement with “outside” agencies that could help.
Within families, the barriers start with language. This was evident when group facilitators were needed to translate some of our workshops from English to Arabic, Urdu and Punjabi. Raising teenage children is hard enough, but different first languages can widen this inter-generational divide as a mother and daughter struggle to make sense to each other. Cultural, religious and gender expectations of parents also often differ to those of their children’s.
When children ask searching questions about extremism and religion, parents often close down the debate because they can’t answer theological questions. The lack of religious knowledge among families was recognised as a weakness.
Inevitably, some of these children go online to find their answers – and extremist websites are there awaiting their curiosity. Many teenagers feel their parents are not credible authorities; mothers, for their part, told us they were unaware of what educational resources existed to challenge extremist ideology.
Wider concerns were also expressed about the cultural gap that separates parents from their children. There is an identity crisis of the 9/11 generation, children who have grown up under a spotlight of suspicion, affecting their sense of belonging.
Thirtysomething YouTube sensations don religious clothing but have few qualifications to speak about Islamic law
This then leaves the mosques to fill a gap. While the work of some mosques was endorsed, and there was a general sense that radicalisation was not taking place across British mosques en masse, many women felt that some mosques were ill-equipped to teach counter-narratives with any confidence. One mother explained how, at a meeting between members of a local Muslim community and her mosque, parents asked the mosque what they were doing to counter the Isis narrative. The mosque replied that this was not their responsibility – it should be down to the parents.
Another woman described, how when she attended a madrasa in the 1980s, she was raised on what she described as a peaceful and tolerant interpretation of Islam; an understanding of Islam that embraced British society rather than rejecting it. It was this theological understanding that she believed made her resilient to the Islamist narrative of organisations such as Hizb ul-Tahrir during her time at university in the 1990s.
Others echoed good examples of madrasas in their areas, but there was widespread awareness of others that promoted a narrow and intolerant understanding of Islam. Some women wished for more “self-regulation”, but were pessimistic about this happening, believing instead that state regulation may be necessary.
One reason for this pessimism is a void in strong credible Muslim leadership – among both civil leaders and theologians. In recent years we have become too familiar with preachers who promote extremist views while pretending to be speaking on behalf of “normative” Islam.
Thirtysomething YouTube sensations don religious clothing but have few qualifications or authority to speak about Islamic law. However, with their pop star status, they dispense advice to thousands on social media. There has been some pushback however. Last week a group of imams and scholars met in London to announce the publication of an online magazine, Haqiqah (imamsonline.com), which would counter Isis’s online magazine.
Another key barrier, identified by women in particular and not often appreciated, is fear. Fear of challenging extremists and the possible repercussions. Having witnessed the insults other Muslim women have been subjected to in challenging extremism, many feared mudslinging, intimidation and abuse.
This is often instigated by men in an attempt to silence women’s voices. I saw this first hand when attempts were made to scupper the workshops we were organising by publicly smearing me and other women who simply wanted to safeguard their children. These women know that challenging extremism also means standing up to patriarchy and traditional gender roles that have stifled the contribution of women in both home and public life.
What’s more, not all women felt confident to engage with police and other agencies, not seeing them as there to help. Partly this was because of a lack of trust; partly a lack of engagement and dialogue.
Challenging extremism means standing up to traditional gender roles that have stifled the contribution of women
The experience of the roadshow has reaffirmed that the factors that lead to extremism are numerous, complex and multilayered. Focusing on the academic achievements of A-grade schoolgirls who join Isis fails to look at the wider picture. Religious illiteracy, exposure to extremist influences and the lack of strong credible religious leadership all play a part. But so does a limited life experience and a search for a sense of belonging. Weak familial relationships, where the emotional, language and cultural gap between parent and child presents a vulnerability, are often exploited by extremists.
Our campaign, I hope, will inspire women to take the lead. “I will be #makingastand because I want to make this world a safer place for my children to grow up,” one woman promised. Empower women to counter extremism and it is they who will take on this battle. But this is not a “community” challenge. We need to help as a country; we need to support these women.
Sara Khan is co-director of Inspire, a counter-extremism and human rights organisation (wewillinspire.com)