Beyond Sidique

Shiv Malik reads too much into one case study.

Mohammad Sidique KhanShiv 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 ( and his personal blog is

Reproduced courtesy of Prospect Magazine (c) 2007. The original can be accessed here.



Filed under Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, war-on-terror

3 responses to “Beyond Sidique

  1. Salaams Yahya,

    The copy of Prospect magazine lies open on my kitchen table at this very moment, and I’m most of the way through it. So without wanting to go further than I’m currently able to, I have to say that I thought this article was one of the most useful mainstream discussions of of the current intergenerational conflict issues that I have seen out there recently. Sure, it’s pretty far-fetched to say that there is a direct link between 2nd generation identity issues and terrorism – but I don’t think that’s really the message. Instead, it merely suggests how some Muslim teenagers cannot benefit from strong positive role models (in the shape of family etc) as they try to resolve the identity issues all teenagers face, because the wells have been poisoned by intergenerational strife, unthinkingly strict parental enforcement and the parents’ own identity issues. Into this vacuum, organised militant identity-mongers can easily step in to provide alternative role models. As far as I read it, that’s as far as Shiv Malik goes.

    Of course it is right that no militant recruiter will pick on the issue of arranged marriage to set people on the path of violence. But as Malik does say, instead of the flat “No brother, haram, haram” denials of the traditionalists, militants see the energy inside a dislocated youth and use it to steer him away from traditional sources of human support towards their own “purer” and “more brotherly” set.

    As you say, however, the tone of this article is to judge the mainstream by the fringe – and perhaps more importantly to judge the mainstream by the fringe of 10-15 years ago. It seems to me that the inter-generational conflict that radicalised people like Siddique Khan in the early 1990s depended on his own parents’ identity issues in the UK: but 10-15 years on, the parent-generation has itself moved on the path to being comfortable in a multicultural British society along with all the loss of authoritarian control over their children this implies. A desire to tighten the reins hasn’t disappeared, certainly, but it has lessened. And moreover, as the wild youth of the 1990s moves into parenthood itself, their own attitudes change. Some of them have even become conventionally successful, producing genuine role models for their children…

    Both of these factors make it harder for the militant recruiters to peddle identity as easily as they did before, when parents and children had (sometimes literally) no common language.

    Does this make sense? I’ll try to work this thesis up a bit more, once my thoughts on the Prospect article settle – and hopefully we can discuss further.

  2. Yahya Birt

    Salams, dear Dal Nun,

    I don’t think we are essentially in disagreement. Some of the religio-cultural and intergenerational factors that Malik discusses are necessarily contingent but not necessary drivers; in other words, not irrelevant, but, on the other hand, too tight of a causal nexus should not be drawn either. That is my main point.

    Extremist ideas about the use of political violence, the globalisation of Muslim political dissent (i.e. ummatism) and the military, political and para-legal response to 9/11 have all been much more salient in my view as drivers in the last six years. Why? Because most terrorist experts would say that there is no such thing as a typical terrorist profile, for one. A proper analysis would profile all those British citizens or residents who have pleaded guilty to, or committed, terrorist acts, and would find wide cultural, ethnic and class diversity. After all, to be slightly provocative, when the son of a Conservative Party constituency worker was arrested in connection with the airliner plot in 2006, there was no fine parsing of the cultural mores of Young Conservatives. I am not being entirely facetious here — the point being that cultural distance does play a malign role in the way “cultural issues” are invoked in these debates. Thus I would prefer to say that while such tensions that do exist, as Malik describes in his article, these are circumstantially exploited. The other way in which culturalist explanations are misleading is that I believe they underplay the intensity of political motivation at play here, and it is a shame that public debate on this particular aspect of the terrorism issue has become a political football in recent years between the government and many in the Muslim communities. At the same time, I don’t think it would be that difficult to turn that debate around if everyone was prepared to be a bit more honest.

    Finally I am also concerned about the way culturalist explanations for extremism have obviously unbalanced policy and public debate on multiculturalism, migration, race, national identity and belonging, the public role of religion and so on. But that’s another whole article.

    On changing intergenerational dynamics, as the nineties generation who are now young parents and emerging community leaders can now attest, things have certainly moved on as you suggest. I think I indicated as much in the piece and indeed in the review of Ed Husain’s book.

    I look forward to your review.

    Kind regards, Yahya

  3. Salams,

    Some more responses to Shiv Malik’s piece include an articulate and thoughtful piece by Dal Nun Strong:

    and also “official” and “unofficial” responses, noted by Tom Nuttal of Prospect Magazine, here:

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