By Ali Nobil Ahmad
28 Feb 2019
The legal and moral conundrums posed by the return (or not) of British Jihadis following the collapse of the Islamic State “caliphate” has triggered renewed anxiety about the place of Muslim youth in western society. The home secretary, Sajid Javid’s populist bid to strip Shamima Begum of citizenship has heightened the pitch of an emotive debate. But little has changed in Britain’s approach to counter-terrorism, soon to undergo independent review following years of heavy criticism.
The Prevent strategy places entire communities under suspicion without necessarily being effective. European equivalents have fared similarly. A €2.5m French deradicalisation boot camp in the Loire valley asked participants to sing the national anthem, eat non-Halal food and learn “Republican values” without rehabilitating a single individual.
When policymakers talk about preventing “radicalisation”, they are missing the point: there’s nothing inherently wrong with being radical. The term can simply mean rejection of the status quo. The French and American revolutions, universal suffrage and the end of colonialism all involved political subversion. Politics has long been ideological and international. (Think George Orwell and the Spanish civil war).
Yet still we talk about Muslim youth in the hackneyed language of the early 2000s, in which “radical” ideas must be neutralised through social engineering. A good (Muslim) citizenry, in this logic, is politically docile, disengaged from world affairs and discouraged from combining religion with political activism.
Muslims of my generation, growing up in the 70s and 80s, were inspired by radical ideas derived from secular humanism. Confronted with racial and social injustice in Britain, many of us found solace and solidarity in third worldism and socialist internationalism – without subscribing to indiscriminate violence.
Muslims in the UK who have grown up after 2001 have done so in an era of nihilistic surrender to the capitalist world order and the political status quo. Unsurprisingly, some have veered towards one or the other current extremes of political Islam.
Of course, the reasons hundreds were seduced by the death cult of Isis cannot be explained solely by a lack of alternatives. Recruitment was driven as much by crass adventurism and bloodlust. The public is justified in feeling revulsion towards returning marauders, whose crimes should be prosecuted with the full force of British and international law.
But the choices of a few cannot be allowed to bar generations of young Muslims from trying to change the world. Rather than view them with fear, a supposedly open society like the UK should ask how their dynamic potential can be allowed to flourish.
The Ummah, or “community of believers”, wherever in the world they are, is a powerful idea among many young British Muslims, attuning them to suffering and injustice in other countries. Many have family that originated in Asia and Africa. Visiting relatives can have an impact on them in ways that go beyond the fleeting experience of the average student gap year.
British education generally fails to engage positively with this cosmopolitanism, offering few opportunities to study Islam’s complex encounter with modernity. From Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the “Frontier Gandhi”) to the Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati and Malcolm X, there are many examples of religiously inspired figures playing a legitimate role in opposing colonialism, racism and injustice. To be clear: theologically grounded attempts to bring social change are beset with problems. But rather than treat young British Muslims as children in need of inoculation against the dangers of politics, how about providing an authentic political education, distinguishing progressive ideas from retrograde ones through informed debate?
The introduction of Muslim history to the curriculum would no doubt be controversial in Britain. The rightwing press loudly protests against the addition of “world history” at the expense of British kings and queens. But the fears of parents reported to be removing children from RE lessons to prevent them learning about Islam can be allayed with facts. Since 2014, three of Britain’s five exam boards have actually removed discussion of Israel-Palestine or the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict from their GCSE offerings. In 2015, white students were twice as likely to opt for history A-level as students of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage. At university level, Britain’s 94% white academic staff in history is significantly less diverse than the UK population.
As the school strikes movement and broader youth mobilisation on climate change are showing, youthful idealism and radical political action are indispensable. Young Pakistani and Bangladeshi Britons, whose parents’ countries of origin will be among the worst affected by global warming, could make important contributions to this fight and others, such as the struggle for fair pay and conditions for workers in cities such as the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.
The smattering of British Muslims who already occupy prominent positions in public life may identify with Islam, or reject faith-based politics altogether. An unknown number, perhaps taking inspiration from our own home secretary, will have no truck with socialism whatsoever. That is their prerogative.
It is also the right of British Muslim organisations doing charitable, social or political work for local communities and distant societies to espouse theology as a source of inspiration without being met by oppressive policing.
As for the secular left, whose tendency to view religion as “the opium of the people” retains some currency in radical environmental circles, it may find there is something to gain from reflecting on Muslim history, and indeed other religious traditions. Bruno Latour admitted as much in a 2008 lecture on ecotheology, in which he speculated on reasons for the green movement’s failure to capture people’s imaginations.
So, rather than intimidating British Muslims or viewing them with condescension, perhaps British society could consider how their concern for the ummah might actually be a resource for this country, and indeed the human species in its battle against extinction. (God knows) we need all the help we can get.
• Ali Nobil Ahmad is a researcher at the Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin and former recipient of the Scott Trust bursary