Britain’s most senior Muslim officer says potency of Islamist propaganda means five-year-olds are so radicalised that some see Christmas as forbidden
Teenagers read a children’s edition of the Qur’an. Mak Chishty said friends and family should intervene earlier, watching for unexplained subtle changes in youngsters’ attitudes. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters/Corbis
Islamist propaganda is so potent it is influencing children as young as five and should be countered with intensified monitoring to detect the earliest signs of anti-western sentiment, Britain’s most senior Muslim police chief has warned.
Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty said children aged five had voiced opposition to marking Christmas, branding it as “haram” – forbidden by Islam. He also warned that there was no end in sight to the parade of British Muslims, some 700 so far, being lured from their bedrooms to Syria by Islamic State (Isis) propaganda.
In an interview with the Guardian, Chishty said there was now a need for “a move into the private space” of Muslims to spot views that could show the beginning of radicalisation far earlier. He said this could be shown by subtle changes in behaviour, such as shunning certain shops, citing the example of Marks & Spencer, which could be because the store is sometimes mistakenly perceived to be Jewish-owned.
Chishty said friends and family of youngsters should be intervening much earlier, watching out for subtle, unexplained changes, which could also include sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol, social occasions and western clothing. They should challenge and understand what caused such changes in behaviour, the police commander said, and seek help, if needs be from the police, if they were worried.
Chishty is the most senior Muslim officer in Britain’s police service and is head of community engagement for the Metropolitan police in London. He said Isis propaganda was so powerful he had to be vigilant about his own children. But some will argue that his ideas walk a fine line between vigilance in the face of potent extremist propaganda and criminalising thought.
Scotland Yard has recently said police are making nearly an arrest a day as they try to counter a severe Islamist terrorist threat. On Friday, the Met confirmed they were investigating the potential grooming and radicalisation of a 16-year-old east London girl to run away and join her sister in Isis to become a “jihadi bride”. Police estimate that about half the 700 thought to have gone to Syria to support Isis have since returned to Britain.
Chishty said communities in Britain had to act much earlier. He said: “We need to now be less precious about the private space. This is not about us invading private thoughts, but acknowledging that it is in these private spaces where this [extremism] first germinates. The purpose of private-space intervention is to engage, explore, explain, educate or eradicate. Hate and extremism is not acceptable in our society, and if people cannot be educated, then hate and harmful extremism must be eradicated through all lawful means.”
He said that what was new about Isis was the use of social media and the internet to spread their message and urge people lured by it to join them or stage attacks in their home country.
Asked to define “private space”, Chishty said: “It’s anything from walking down the road, looking at a mobile, to someone in a bedroom surfing the net, to someone in a shisha cafe talking about things.”
He said friends and family were best placed to intervene. Questions should be asked, he said, if someone stops shopping at Marks & Spencer or starts voicing criticism. He said it could be they were just fed up with the store, but alternatively they could have “hatred for that store”. He said the community should “look out for each other”, that Isis were “un-Islamic”, as proven by their barbarity.
In February three teenage girls from a school in Bethnal Green, east London, slipped away from their families to travel first to Turkey and then into Isis-held territory in Syria. Their families said there had been no clue, but Chishty said there must have been some change in the children: “My view as a parent is there must have been signs.”
The propaganda of Isis was so powerful, the officer said, that he feared his own children might be vulnerable. He said his message to fellow Muslim parents was: “I am not immunised.” “If I feel the need to be extra vigilant, then I think you need to feel the need to be extra vigilant,” he said.
He said he had heard of cases of children seemingly influenced by Islamist views in stable families in which the parents or guardians had moderate views.
In the example of primary school children defining Christmas as “haram”, he insisted this was “factual” and said that while it may not be a police matter, parents and family needed to ask how children as young as five had come to that view, whether it be from school or their friends. Chishty said: “All the ugly bits of the problem, which are uncomfortable, you have to … deal with them properly, as a state, as a nation, as a community.”
He added that Muslim communities had done a lot to fight extremism but, given that there was no end in sight to the struggle and no slowing up in the stream of young people being attracted to extremism, it would need a level of vigilance not seen before, he said, and that current strategies were not working. “We are in unchartered water … We are facing a risk, a threat which is global, which is powerfully driven by social media, reaching you on your own through your mobile phone.”
The UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy has been criticised for co-opting those trusted by the young, such as teachers and youth workers, to inform on them to the authorities.
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Chishty said it did not make someone an extremist if they criticised “British values”, but friends and family should ask why, especially if it marked a change in their view. He said more work was needed to understand why youngsters were attracted to Isis: “Some are bored, overqualified, underemployed … It is not a holy war.”
Chishty warned of a very real threat to Muslims in Britain from the backlash that might follow a terrorist attack, which counter-terrorism officials believe is a matter of when, not if.
After the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 by two men espousing jihadi views, attacks against Muslims increased from one to seven a day, and there were 28 attacks on Muslim buildings. Such an attack, and even terrorist atrocities abroad, such as January’s massacre in Paris of Charlie Hebdo staff, were making community relations in London more challenging, but he said police had boosted their efforts to reassure and protect all communities.