Chasm of incomprehension
By: Neil Berry
The phenomenon of young UK Muslim men fleeing their homes to go and wage jihad in Syria is impinging sharply on British national consciousness. Millions of television viewers have seen an ISIL recruitment video featuring young British militants; they have also witnessed distraught Muslim fathers condemning the police for failing to prevent their fugitive sons from being brainwashed by preachers of jihad.
Now Imams all over the UK are speaking out against young Muslims traveling to Syria. This follows repeated warnings by the British government and security services that the young men in question could return to the UK primed to carry out acts of terror. The other day, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer, Cressida Dick, spelled out the enduring threat to the United Kingdom of such attacks. It is a threat, she declared, with which the UK will be contending for “many, many, many years to come.”
Yet why, one may wonder, employ such extravagant language? After all, who could say in relation to any almost issue whatsoever how things will stand a decade hence, let alone ‘many, many, many years’ from now? It is one thing to be a well-briefed counter-terrorism officer; it is another thing altogether to be a clairvoyant. Too often, official British pronouncements on the threat of terrorism serve only to entrench a debilitating climate of fear.
The danger is growing that the UK’s 2.7 million Muslims will be forever regarded less as British citizens than as a chronic security problem. It hardly helps that ignorance about the Muslim community among both the general public and the authorities is profound. In an eye-opening new book, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, the BBC radio journalist, Innes Bowen, reports that in one British city where she undertook research the police were on familiar terms with the management committee of only 5 of the 100 local mosques. One officer told her that he despaired of how little his colleagues knew about the Muslim community while himself proving to be unaware that a favored local Muslim organization had recently welcomed a jihadi leader from Pakistan.
Innes’ book demonstrates the barely credible diversity of British Islam. Britain’s 1,700 mosques cater to Muslims of all manner of ethnic, religious and geographical backgrounds. British Islam embraces Deobandi, Tablighi Jamaat and Sufi movements with roots in the Indian subcontinent; Salafi groups; Shi’ite sects whose origins lie in Iran and Iraq; Ismailis who came to the UK from East Africa — the list goes on. In some ways, it is hardly surprising that even otherwise knowledgeable Britons are in the dark about the Muslims in their midst. In no country in the world perhaps are more manifestations of Islam to be found.
Bowen’s book underlines just how crass official misconceptions about the British Muslim community have been. For years the UK media has operated on the assumption that the self-styled “Muslim Council of Britain” is the voice of British Muslims in general, when in fact the Council is controlled by a group that presides over a mere fraction of British mosques. Consider, too, the ignorance betrayed by former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, about the predominant Deobandi strain of British Islam. On the evidence of Bowen’s book, Blair mixed up the Taleban with Al-Qaeda, failing to grasp that its austere form of Islam enjoys the respect of pious, law-abiding British Deobandis, for whom the Taleban and Al-Qaeda constitute very different things.
Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent does not explain why young British Muslim men are going to wage jihad in Syria (which, if truth be told, is a complex issue bound up among other things with the bleak employment prospects facing British youth and prevailing moral disarray of British society). All the same, Innes Bowen’s book has valuably exposed the chasm of incomprehension that separates mainstream Britain from its multifarious Muslim communities. British society and British Muslims alike have much work to do if that chasm is ever to be bridged.