Earlier this week Theresa May announced details of her new counter-terrorism bill as the government steps up its campaign to tackle the threat of home-grown terrorism. A raft of measures have been drawn up, from giving Ministers the power to intervene against public organisations that invite ‘extremist preachers’, to the obligation for internet service providers to retain IP addresses so that individual users can be identified. The announcements coincided with a week long initiative to inform the wider British public of the role it can play in tackling extremism, as counter-terrorism officials commenced awareness campaigns in schools, universities, shopping centres and even cinemas.
However, it was Mrs. May’s statement that the terror threat is ‘greater than it ever has been’ that was particularly troubling and should concern us all since it establishes that counter-terrorism strategies such as Prevent and the Channel Programme have spectacularly failed to achieve their overall objectives. During such times of austerity, it is surprising that there has been little critique of the politicians who initially coined these strategies, and the work and progress of the beneficiaries who received the generous public grants on offer. Furthermore, it is puzzling that Mrs. May’s recent measures seem to strengthen the legislative basis of the failed strategies (e.g. giving the Channel Programme a statutory basis) – as if the solution to our problems lies in continuing and reinforcing years of redundant policies. Surely if our counter-terrorism strategy has failed to curb the threat of extremism, the real question we should be asking is whether there needs to be a serious re-evaluation – have we misunderstood the causes for religious extremism altogether?
A number of theories have been put forward for the root causes of Islamic extremism. In his recent speech in Australia, David Cameron strongly asserted that extremism wasn’t as a result of social deprivation and isolation, nor was it related to foreign policy, but it was in fact the ‘extremist narrative’ that lies at the root of extremism.
Whilst research remains inconclusive as to the role of socioeconomic deprivation in religious extremism, to completely disregarding foreign policy as a factor in radicalising young Muslims is somewhat naïve. In his piece for the Huffington Post, Mehdi Hassan makes the point that the overwhelming majority of extremists cite foreign policy as their catalyst for committing acts of terror. Whilst there is a legitimate debate to be had as to whether foreign policy plays a central role in the radicalisation process, to disregard it completely as Mr Cameron and his Government seem to, suggests a basic lack of understanding and a complete disconnect from the Muslim community.
On the other hand, for Muslims to suggest there is no such thing as an ‘extremist narrative’ among certain individuals is equally naïve. A handful of Muslim speakers continue to misappropriate verses of the Qur’an and ahadith, and in doing so tarnish the divine message. But this is not the ‘root’ of anything – in fact Theresa May’s proposed legislation (which centres around quashing ‘extremist ideology’) has already been tacitly enacted in various ways, from the banning of speakers on University campuses to briefing of NHS staff on the role they play in alerting the authorities to individuals at risk of extremism. If extremist ideology was indeed the root cause of radicalization, we should have seen a significant fall (as opposed to a rise) in the terror threat.
Moving away from the clichés of foreign policy and extremist ideologies as root causes of religious extremism, could it possibly be the case that the religious extremism is merely a symptom of a far wider problem where people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with a political class that is ‘out of touch’ with the average citizen? In his piece for the Standard, Matthew Goodwin suggests that the rise of UKIP is rooted in deep divisions within British society, which have gradually widened. Could similar divisions also explain the propensity for some Muslims to be drawn towards extremism? With divisive policies enacted by recent Governments, ranging from the profiling of guiltless Muslims through Schedule 7 legislation to the complete shambles of the Trojan Horse affair, the fault lines between Muslims in Britain and the political class are perhaps the widest they have ever been.
The problem of disillusionment seems to be particularly prevalent amongst young people in Britain. Demos research into British teenagers illustrates that they are particularly concerned about their employment prospects and the rising levels of debt they face, and they see negative media portrayals as having a detrimental impact on their futures. In contrast to the widely held belief that teenagers are apathetic to societal problems, their research concluded that teenagers today are more engaged with social issues locally and globally than previous generations, however they also generally believed that traditional politics wasn’t the most effective means to tackle these issues.
Applying the findings of Demos’ research to the Muslim youth may help to explain the attraction of a few young Muslims towards groups such as ISIS. They are likely to have exactly the same concerns as young non-Muslims of rising levels of debt and bleak job prospects. The general concerns around negative media portrayals are likely to be compounded amongst Muslim youth, who have the added effect of negative media stereotypes against Muslims. Moreover, given that teenagers are extremely likely to be engaged in social issues globally, we can begin to make sense of the desire many young Muslims have to help the oppressed Syrian people, given that they probably feel that the solution to alleviate their oppression unlikely to come from politicians. Amidst this backdrop, if one were to add in the factors of the resentment towards the muscular Western foreign policy of the last decade, alongside fringe ‘Muslims’ misappropriating religious scripture, we can easily see how young Muslims in particular might be prone to being severely misguided.
The problem of religious extremism amongst a faction of Muslims therefore is a symptom of the wider failure of mainstream politicians to relate to the grievances of the electorate, and empathise with the concerns of their constituents. Whilst politicians may now start taking the issue of disillusionment more seriously as the rise of UKIP puts their positions at risk by reaching out to voters, politicians need to be equally bold in their engagement with the Muslim community. This excludes the pretentious photo opportunities with Muslim organisations looking to score political points, but rather engaging with the Muslim community at the grassroots and liaising with academics who understand the make-up of Muslims in Britain, for it is only through understanding the causes of disillusionment amongst the Muslim community can one go on to try an address it, and ultimately deal with the true root cause of radicalisation.