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We Need a Level-Headed Conversation About Muslim 'Others'

16/04/2015 10:19 BST | Updated 15/06/2015 10:59 BST

Poll after poll provides us with a consistent picture of Muslim loyalty to Britain, yet too many still seem to see the glass 'half full' when it comes to Muslims.

The narrative championed by these 'half fullers' is that Muslims are predisposed to all kinds of negative behaviour - grooming, crime, terrorism, mistreatment of women - and how incompatible Islam is in contemporary Britain. The problem arises when the positives of any community are lessened, and the negatives amplified, but not seriously scrutinised by those in government. When challenged by Muslims, accusations of hiding behind a charge of "Islamophobia" and "victim" mentality are thrown about.

The Survation for Sky News poll, although finding some very positive aspects of British Muslims, worryingly, finds a huge gap between Muslim perception on themselves and from the wider society on them - "on the issue of integration into UK society, the survey found 58% of non-Muslims believed their Muslim neighbours were not doing enough, with those aged over 55 more likely to be critical. Two thirds of Muslims, however, said they were doing enough." It also discovers an unpleasant feeling from Muslims about our authorities - "some 39% of Muslims who were asked said the authorities, including police and MI5, were a factor in radicalising the younger generation, compared to 29% of Muslims who said they were not."

As a mature democracy we must address these gaps; we need to do this with a level-headed debate and mature discussion.

Muslims (and others in society) have been trying to bring home the point that an 'unending' Global War on Terror (GWOT), post-the 9/11 atrocities, with its extreme destabilisation and loss of life in countries such as Iraq, has contributed to radicalisation and extremism among a section of Muslims. Of course, no sane person can justify violence in our streets because of this, but ignoring it in discussions on radicalisation has proved disastrous and disingenuous.

The GWOT has made our world less safe. It has unleashed sectarian proxy wars in the Middle East, wreaked havoc on infrastructure and caused the death of huge numbers of people in directly-affected countries. These dead are the 'unworthy victims' who will no doubt be forgotten in time. This was highlighted in the first international edition of Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the "War on Terror".

Sadly for us, a few hundred young British Muslim men and a few dozen girls have entered ISIS-held territories in recent months, thanks to its slick (and sick) online propaganda machine. ISIS may be outpacing us in the digital media stakes, but a terrorist group that can burn to death a captured pilot will inevitably fail; there are reports that "scores of disillusioned foreign jihadists have been imprisoned by Islamic State militants to prevent them fleeing their self-declared caliphate, which is riven with infighting and bitter national rivalries."

ISIS has terribly harmed Muslim communities in the West. The fear of radicalisation is now haunting Muslim families with young children. In addition - with the community being continuously pilloried by sections of the media - some right-wing politicians are using Muslims as a 'punch bag' for their short-term political gain.

No community is perfect, but if it is only seen through the prism of security it will obviously stand out as a security threat! Nonetheless, it is time for Muslim communities to ask themselves if they fully understand the depth of their predicament with radicalisation and whether they are doing enough to help themselves.

Some mosques and institutions have impressive records of serving diverse communities. They cater for not only for the religious needs of Muslims, but also help them in their moral, educational and social needs too - as well as bridge-building with others through interfaith initiatives and wider community work. But how many are they and are they doing enough? How many are able to address the common issues such as poverty, low wages, mental health, social ills, etc? Most importantly, how many are addressing the teenage challenges in a pluralist society?

It is also time for the political elite to acknowledge that some of their domestic policies, such as the counter-terrorism strategy, do have a negative impact in alienating Muslim youth. Many Muslims consider this approach condescending, to say the least. And, whether we like (or agree) with this or not, our government's foreign policy - in Palestine, Iraq and Syria - has angered many people. Terrorists abroad and Muslim extremists inside play upon this dissatisfaction, despite the fact that it is unforgivable to use such concerns to glorify violence and plague on young minds. Yet by ignoring mainstream Muslim voices and opinion the Government is hindering rather than helping progress towards a more cohesive society.

We can only counter ISIS's propaganda with a successful counter-radicalisation programme that addresses the lives of young Muslim women without securitising them, not by bringing new laws. Too many Muslim young people feel alienated because of the current political climate.

Britain has a unique history of accommodating diverse peoples: why should it be any different with Muslims?

We need a 'different sort of conversation', a robustly objective approach, to bridge-build among, and between, our peoples. We all need to urgently understand what is radicalising our precious youth, how they are groomed and what we can do to prevent them from entering into a world of nihilism.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant. He is former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.