As we hold a minutes silence to remember the victims of the London Bridge terror attack in London this weekend, my article for the Wall Street Journal back in 2015 is as relevant today as it was then. To see the original article click here. If you would like to keep up to date with my work on this issue and other areas then please click here.
My original article
The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last month led many people across Europe, including Muslims, to do a great deal of soul searching. How have we arrived at the point where young Muslim men would rather kill their neighbors in the name of “Allah” than live normal, peaceful lives?
There is no contradiction between being Muslim and being British or European. My religion is as much a part of my identity as being British, a proud Londoner, a father or a Conservative. Faith aside, I probably have more in common with a Christian in Peckham than with a Muslim in Peshawar. To me and other British Muslims like me, our identity is clear.
But for many younger people an identity crisis isn’t uncommon, regardless of their religion. Some teenagers react by rebelling. Others, more extreme, will turn to crime and gangs.
Many second- and third-generation Muslim children may be raised believing that their heritage is of one or both of their parents. Sometimes when these children visit the villages of their parents, they find they are teased because they don’t fit in. That yearning for a clear identity can leave them facing a personal crisis, vulnerable to radical exploitation in person or online.
In the simplest sense, Islam teaches us that our lives are a struggle, or jihad, to live a good life and refrain from bad deeds. At the end of our lives, we will be judged on whether the good deeds outweigh the bad. Those who seek to radicalize scare these young people by saying they can’t win that struggle while living in “decadent” modern Western culture.
The radicalizers anger the young by showing them propaganda and images of Muslims being killed by Western forces in Middle Eastern conflicts. Then they convince them that there is a shortcut to paradise by taking revenge in the name of God. We know this is nonsense. But a scared and angry young person with an identity crisis may not be so sure.
We can see radicalization in our prison system. When gang members meet radicals in prison, they are able to supplant one gang identity or cause with that of another: violent Islamism. In this context, Islam the religion is used as a cover for gang-like behavior. For example, Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman at the Jewish supermarket in Paris, had served a prison sentence for armed robbery. He was radicalized in prison by an al Qaeda recruiter. British Islamist Jordan Horner, a convert to Islam, admitted to having radicalized other prisoners under the noses of the prison officers, who he claimed were powerless to stop him.
To ensure that prisoners, who already possess certain personality traits, aren’t susceptible to well-trained radicals, we should think about whether those already radicalized should be segregated from the more impressionable. Maybe prison officers should have the support to spot the difference between a legitimate religious conversion and a radicalization. The two aren’t synonymous, as demonstrated by two British terrorists who were found to have ordered copies of “Islam for Dummies” before traveling to Syria. They became radicalized before they studied Islam.
Our religious leaders must also be vigilant. The imam at my local mosque recently preached that if a cartoon offends us, our response should be to say “peace.” However, I have visited mosques in Europe where sermons aren’t preached in the local language, potentially excluding younger people or giving them only a partial understanding of what is being taught. Left confused and frustrated, they become prime targets for radical recruiters outside the mosque offering literature in the local language. Invited to meetings in the local language, they may be radicalized by being taught a wholly selective version of Islam.
Tackling radicalization requires a great deal of work at the local level. More mosques can give sermons in the local language, giving younger people the confidence to live as Muslims in a modern Western society and respond with tolerance to anyone who may offend them.
Islam isn’t a hierarchical religion. The relationship that matters is between the individual and God. Mosques and imams guide us on the texts, so that we can interpret them in a modern age. They shouldn’t be afraid to teach us that the world has changed and our interpretation of Islam must fit into today’s world and not a world long past.
Most important, parents shouldn’t be afraid to show their children that identity is a complex issue and encourage them to mix with people of all backgrounds. The threat is not only from well-organized networks, but also from loners radicalized online. We can take action against propaganda that incites violence, but tackling the problem at its root involves sending kids out to mix with other kids of all religions and none. If we seek to segregate ourselves from each other, the identity crisis will only become more acute.
There will always be unscrupulous people who prey on the vulnerable. Those who do so must feel the full force of our laws. Yet the root of radicalization isn’t Islam. It’s an extreme, violent interpretation that provides lost young men with the security of an identity but results in a security risk for our society.