Shiv Malik reads too much into one case study.
Shiv Malik’s essay, “My brother the bomber” (Prospect, June 2007), sets out a detailed account of the life and motivations of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the 7/7 bombings. But Malik reads too much into this one case study.
Much of the detail in Malik’s piece has either been previously reported or is disputed. Some locals argue that the name “Mullah boys”—the group Malik describes of young Muslim boys in Beeston that formed initially in response to local drugs problems—is media hype, that this loose network didn’t really go in for enforced “cold turkey” sessions, and that Khan had fewer associations with them in later years than did Shehzad Tanweer, his fellow cell member. Most importantly, some sources argue that Khan only become prayerful and pious in 2003, even if his political radicalisation came earlier. By contrast, Malik describes a long gestation over ten years, from Wahhabi literalist piety to jihadism to terrorism, which leads him to base his analysis on theological and cultural rather than political issues.
Malik’s explanation rests on a tendentious thesis—terrorism as the result of Islamic liberation theology and intergenerational dislocation. He argues that violent extremism is a fringe element in a broader religious revival among young Muslim people, driven by a generational shift towards more autonomy and choice in the name of Islam. This is set in the context of Beeston, where young Pakistani men are given free rein so long as they affirm (but not necessarily practice) traditional Islam, remain teetotal and marry within the clan (baraderi). Younger Muslims often criticise this combination of religio-cultural strictures with their elders’ myopic response to their wider concerns. Khan’s father cut him off when he married outside the clan, yet the elders in Beeston did nothing to tackle the rise of drugs in the area, leaving it to initiative-takers like Khan.
Youthful religious revival and extremism should not be conflated too closely. Arranged marriage is a common issue for many young Muslims, but those who contest the institution usually assert scriptural rights, or just individual rights, outside of any religious framework. In other words, while extremist recruiters seek to exploit a common concern, arranged marriage is only a circumstantial and not a necessary driver of extremism. The same holds true for identity—much of this religious revival is about formulating British Muslim identities, about piety in a new context; it is only the extremists who argue for absolute choices between Islam and the west. Islamic revivalism in Britain is maturing, which helps young Muslims in their search for a balance between culture and religion, text and context, modernity and tradition, nationalism and global Muslim fraternity, despite being guilt-tripped in various ways by parents, imams, old-style community leaders, jihadists and the august guardians of Britishness.
Traditional Muslim communities do seek to challenge extremism, but sometimes do so in an incompetent way that can actually exacerbate the problem. Malik’s account shows us that Khan’s father took steps to counter his rebelliousness, eventually cutting off all contact once he married outside the clan. For some British Muslims, being cast off in this way can set up a vulnerable isolation in which the jihadi network may seek to become a surrogate family. In a similar way, too many traditional mosques often chase away radical groups rather than taking them on.
Malik’s analysis of the radicalisation of the 7/7 cell is predicated on a conveyor-belt model. But it is important to understand that British Islam is also experiencing an ongoing process of deradicalisation, as disillusionment with utopian, millenarian discourses takes hold. For example, while nearly all extremists might subscribe in some form or other to Salafi theology—alongside a doctrine of global jihad and a radical Islamist reading of world politics—turning Wahhabi is not, most of the time, the prelude to becoming a jihadist.
Indeed, in the 1990s, many apolitical Salafis spent much time arguing against—and warning an officialdom then less attentive about—extremist preachers like Abu Qatadah and Abdullah al-Faisal. Many of these Salafis have been rewarded for this courageous stand by vilification by association, and death threats from jihadists, even if, after 9/11, the police have begun to discreetly support their work. Counter-terrorism is an unsentimental business that does not take account of liberal sensitivities in working with non-violent religious fundamentalists or Islamists, and, as such, it ought not to be confused with a broader integration agenda or debates around multiculturalism and Britishness.
Finally, it is hard to accept Hassan Butt’s contention that the extremists are winning by mainly recruiting from Islamists and fundamentalists, to use Malik’s terms, for this is to judge the mainstream by the fringe. Any serious reading of recent religious revivalism in British Muslim communities would do the reverse. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a convergence between an increasingly relevant traditionalism and a “post-Islamism” that articulates modern British Muslim identities more at ease with minority status in a secular liberal democracy. This process is far from over, and has not fully excised extremist ideas on the fringe. Yet if carefully handled, official encouragement to the mainstream may help to further reduce the influence of the extremists—if allied with greater honesty about the aggravating role Iraq has played in bolstering al Qaeda’s cause.
Yahya Birt is national director of City Circle (www.thecitycircle.com) and his personal blog is http://www.yahyabirt.com.