In the government's latest Orwellian measure, mothers and wives of "would-be jihadists" are being urged to report on their loved ones, avowedly to "prevent tragedies". It won't escape notice however, that despite protestations to the contrary, a message emanating from the police carries criminalising potential.
This latest strategy to deter Britons from heading to fight in Syria comes despite evidence suggesting most families are oblivious to their relatives' decision. Abdul Waheed Majeed, who died in Syria in February this year is one of a number of Brits who told his family he was going on a humanitarian mission. Other parents, like those of Abdullah Deghayes were unaware their son had even left the country until it was too late. Ensuring any extremist views acquired by fighters abroad are neutralised when arriving back on British shores is as critical for Muslims as it is anyone else, but relying on Muslim women to undertake the work of the security services is not only likely to be ineffective, it also risks further undermining women in highly patriarchal settings as possible 'agents', not to be trusted.
Research in December from the King's College-based ICSR estimated 1,900 people from western Europe have travelled to Syria to fight, including 366 from the UK. In terms of the threat posed by their return, Shiraz Maher from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence suggests around 1 in 9 returning fighters represent cause for concern. And yet this latest advice suggests all Muslims contemplating travelling to Syria are a possible threat and goes on to place the onus for our national security in the hands of the Muslim community, turning mothers into informants. The call can be situated within an increasingly intrusive state of surveillance and securitisation of the British Muslim community.
The Birmingham 'Trojan Horse plot' is just the latest indication that when it comes to Muslims, the counter-terrorism lens is applied even before the facts of the case are established. In every facet of life, from teachers and lecturers asked to spy on students, to healthcare workers on their patients, youth groups whose access to public funding has been made conditional on sharing data with law enforcement agencies, to university Islamic societies under pressure to divulge membership lists - Muslims are well aware they're being closely watched. Who knew even mums would now be roped in!
According to research by ICSR, the profile of foreign fighters is typically male, in their twenties of South-Asian ethnic origin and with recent connections to higher education. Interestingly, this is also the profile which overlaps significantly with those most likely to be unemployed - unemployment among Muslims under the age of 30 is 23 per cent (compared to a UK average for young people of 17 per cent), stopped and searched, detained at airports , to struggle with poor educational achievements, to be over -represented in our prisons. It is certainly telling that another British fighter, 23 year old Mohammed el-Araj from Notting Hill, had spent 18 months in prison before he was killed in Syria in November last year.
If you want to know the real reason the prospect of death can seem more appealing than life, then look at the quality of life these young (predominantly) men are facing. Young men of that demographic have a bleak future ahead - hit harder than most by austerity, they can anticipate joblessness, discrimination, police harassment, possible incarceration. To many young men the jihad may seem appealing because it provides ultimate meaning to a life which might otherwise seem hopeless.
The UK today has some of the most draconian "anti-terror" legislation in the developed world and these disproportionately negatively affect Muslim Britons. Harassed and coerced into becoming informants, what kind of a relationship do you expect young Muslims to have with a police force which bulldozes its demands through dawn raids and indefinite detentions, yet seemingly fails to tackle rising anti-Muslim hate crimes? What trust can you expect them to have in a system which has demonstrated clear double standards in the extradition of Muslim British citizens and stripped 37 UK nationals - many of them Muslims, of their citizenship? Despite polls showing that British Muslims strongly identify with the UK, you could hardly excuse a luke warm commitment to Britishness from citizens who could essentially be stripped of that very identity!
Ifthekar Jaman, 23, a customer service rep, whose parents run a takeaway restaurant and who was also killed in Syria described his feeling of disconnect from a society he felt rejected from in one of his final posts on Twitter, he said: "It is better for the authorities to allow these Muslims who want to migrate & do jihad. This way, we're out of your way."
Young people, Muslim or not, need a stake in the system. They need to feel that legal, mainstream routes to success are open to them and ultimately they need to find a means of asserting their self-worth. When such avenues are closed, other paths to criminality or extremism can begin to seem more attractive. The UN's counter-radicalisation programme advises "a package of social, political, legal, educational and economic programmes specifically designed to deter disaffected (and possibly already radicalised) individuals from crossing the line and becoming terrorists". Where are these initiatives?
In 2010, the communities and local government committee warned the Prevent programme was backfiring and advised that the Department for Communities should devote itself instead "to dealing with the underlying causes of all forms of extremism and division". Instead of providing young Muslims with new opportunities, the government has formulated a revamped PREVENT strategy which Civil liberties group CAGE has described as "cradle-to-grave" levels of surveillance and discrimination.
In the Muslim community, we don't need studies to tell us that PREVENT has been counter-productive in alienating, rather than engaging people. PREVENT is our bête noire. Muslims may not agree on much, but the failure of PREVENT rouses surprising unanimity.
According to Dr. Alex P. Schmid, Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI), "where (young) people have alternative forms of expressing grievances and dissent, where they have other and better occupational options than joining an armed, underground organisation, the appeal of terrorism is likely to be smaller. " The problem is the government would rather invest money in counterproductive policies virtually designed to alienate the Muslim community than address the need for better schools (clue: not through removing state regulation), jobs, opportunities and more broadly a stake in the system.
Polls indicate that Muslims are even more concerned than the broader public by the risk of extremism, but the current breakdown in trust between the police and the Muslim community means assurances about helping, not criminalising young Muslims are unlikely to be audible. If someone you love is in jeopardy, you stage an intervention, you don't add to their sense of alienation by convincing them even their family members can't be trusted. In other words, you rely on proven methods of social work used for people in crisis. Not criminalisation. The asinine nature of this latest 'surveillance strategy' is evidence of the problematic lens through which Muslims continue to be filtered. In order to confront extremism, the police needs to forge trust with the very communities they consistently casts blanket suspicion over, and ultimately we as a society need to create sufficient stakes for young Muslim men to believe they have a viable future here in the UK.
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