An alleged Islamist plot, dubbed ‘Trojan Horse,’ which seeks to bring hardline practices into Birmingham’s schools, has stoked fears that Islamic fundamentalists in Britain are cultivating a new generation of radicals. Prime Minister David Cameron has responded by calling for schools to promote ‘British values’ such as freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, and upholding the rule of law.
The plot has fuelled Islamophobia, with Myriam Francois-Cerrah alleging that the discourse on British values “smacks of neo-imperialism and casts British Muslims as subordinate to white, secular liberal Britons.” The episode has ignited a cultural battle against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the UK. To negate the spread of fundamentalism however, it is more important to understand the reshaping of Islam in Britain, and how this change has led some young British Muslims to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq.
Muslims in Britain
Muslims having been arriving on Britain’s shores for decades. The majority were subjects of the British Raj where the political economy was based on communalism, with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, in open conflict. When British rule ended in the subcontinent, Muslims began to migrate en masse to Britain, where the segregated experience of the Muslim community under the Raj was duplicated in Britain. The creation of a multicultural polity allowed Britain to appear tolerant by showering Muslims with rights while segregating them from, rather than absorbing them into, the rest of British society. Multiculturalism in Britain is thus responsible for the creation of a semi-secluded Muslim community.
The media have led us to believe that the ‘values’ of this British-Muslim religion-based culture are non-compatible with Western society. There is a confusion however between Islam as a religion and ‘Muslim culture.’ A religion is usually embedded in one or more cultures, but cannot be reduced to a single culture; this is why Islamic fundamentalists seek to define a ‘pure’ religion untouched by culture. The role of Islam in shaping contemporary societies has been overemphasised. The westernisation (or globalisation) of Islam is happening. The perceived opposition between British and Islamic values is biased because British values are perceived as being consensual among all Britons bar the Muslim community. David Cameron has failed to realise that Britain holds no monopoly over these values, as they are values that all human beings aspire to - including British Muslims.
We must now consider Islam a Western religion due to the second and third generation Muslim population which has taken root in the West. The fading of borders between Islam and the West is not just a consequence of immigration, it is linked with a more general phenomenon: deterritorialisation. Islam is less and less ascribed to a specific territory. The deterritorialisation of Islam has lead to a quest for definition by the individual on what it means to be a Muslim living as a minority in Britain.
Their quest may mean liberalism, but it can also lead to a suicidal rejection of British society in the form of Islamic fundamentalism. In both cases, the liberal and fundamentalist view are based on the individual, not the collective. ‘Re-Islamisation’ never occurs through the social pressure of the family or community, but as the result of an individual quest that often leads to an encounter with a radical preacher at a local mosque, or through websites propagating militant Islamist ideology.
The fluidity of the Islamic religion and the absence of a hierarchy of authority within it has made Islam very easy to manipulate by fundamentalists. They target individual British Muslims rather than communities for the simple reason that they have no political or social project, only the implementation of sharia. Islamic fundamentalism has a strong appeal among disenfranchised second-generation Muslims as it addresses individuals who have doubts about their faith and identity. It offers a way for believers to break from the bonds of families and religious institutions, and encourages a personal return to the ‘true’ tenets of Islam.
For hundreds of British Muslims, their individual journey has taken them to Syria and Iraq as combatants of the jihad. There are now fears of a blowback of the Syrian and Iraqi civil war with fighters returning to Britain even more radicalised. Britain experienced a similar phenomenon after the Soviet War in Afghanistan, when London became a centre of radicalisation due to the number of ‘Afghan veterans’ who settled there.
Countering radical Islam
To combat the radical narrative, Britain must realise that the battle isn’t with religion, but with the ideas that are driving people to extremism. The war of ideas is a delicate phenomenon as many who get involved in extremism do so out of a desire to “do right,” whilst others struggle to distinguish between credible and non-credible sources of religious scholarship. To navigate Muslims away from the path of fundamentalism, the Muslim community must break the monopoly that older foreign born imams hold over UK mosques, as the rising generation gap has disconnected and alienated many young British mosque-goers. A change of guard is needed, with young liberal imams given the opportunity to gain popularity and influence, not just within mosques, but also on the internet. With a stronger presence and a louder voice, these new liberal leaders will act as a visible source of information for disaffected British Muslims.
The radical narrative will not simply disappear however, which makes it necessary to address the socio-cultural issues that are making people receptive to radical ideas when presented to them. In this sense, Britain must amend the sources of mistrust in the Muslim community based on concerns about British foreign policy, domestic counterterrorism policies, and the anti-Islamic rhetoric of the media. David Cameron’s policy on ‘British values’ will ultimately fail to curb radicalisation as it simply casts undue suspicion on the Muslim community. By building relationships with, rather than demonizing the Muslim community, many young British Muslims will begin to reinvent their faith within the British context rather than a fundamentalist context.