David Haines, a caring father of two who dedicated his life to serving others since 1999, recently became the latest murder victim of the so-called 'Islamic State' or Isil in its propaganda war against the West. From its propaganda messages and how they are disseminated, it is now clear that Isil considers young British Muslims as central to its objective in winning that war.
In response, the British government recently announced the latest in a long list of measures aimed at combating what the Home Secretary Theresa May rightly described as "a deadly extremist ideology" among young British Muslims. The introduction of such Prevent strategies, as they are now known, can be traced back to the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 London bombings. Yet there is now something close to a consensus that Prevent programmes have failed dismally. Indeed, it is such programmes and the religious quietism they championed over the past years, not radicalism, which have unwittingly been driving young British Muslims into the hands of extremist preachers and terrorist organisations.
Since it was first introduced, the government's Prevent programme has been informed by a flawed and dangerous notion that all forms of radicalism among young Muslims necessarily lead to extremism and terrorism. Thus, instead of promoting the creation of safe spaces in which a habit of political and social engagement among young people can be nurtured, Prevent programmes have focused on 'de-radicalising' such Muslims by promoting apolitical, quietist, mystical or Sufi expressions of Islam while marginalising socially conscious and politically active Muslims. While a majority of British Muslims respect the Sufi tradition with its focus on prayer and personal spiritual development, they do not believe that you can simply pray your way out of poverty and injustice.
British politicians and Muslim organisations have focused mainly on telling young Muslims what they should not do when angry about injustice, and not what they should be doing. For many Muslims, it is not enough to help the poor and oppressed through charity alone. A society should also work towards removing the systems which create and perpetuate poverty and injustice. This cannot be achieved without being politically active. It is this form of radicalism which motivated the Conservative and Labour Muslim politicians, Sayeeda Warsi and Sadiq Khan MP, for example, to join mainstream political parties. The same passion and radicalism, when not nurtured in a safe environment and when all the doors of opportunities appear to be closed, can also lead impressionable young minds to violent extremism. In an interview filmed in 2010, Reyaad Khan, one of the young British men now fighting alongside militants in Syria, spoke of his ambition to take part in mainstream British politics and to hopefully become prime minister.
Britain has a well established radical tradition that dates back centuries. Abolitionists, suffragettes, even Michael Gove and Owen Jones, are in many ways part of that radical tradition! We cannot speak of the need to integrate young Muslims into democratic structures while under the name of 'de-radicalisation' we continue to exclude and marginalise the socially conscious and politically active among them in favour of the quietist Muslims who prefer to focus on religious rituals and counting prayer beads in a corner of the Mosque. In doing so, we send the message that the only acceptable way for young Muslims to integrate is with their mouths shut.
Since Muhammad established the first Mosque in the seventh century, Mosques have not only been places of worship, but also safe spaces where Muslims stay abreast of what the current political and social issues affecting their communities are. This is why the continued practice of excluding women from Mosques in many Muslim communities across Britain denies women of their Islamic right to add their important voices on issues affecting them and their communities.
In response to increased public and media scrutiny after the 7/7 bombings, Mosque committees across Britain imposed a total ban on political discussions inside Mosques out of concern that such discussions would attract negative attention from the authorities and the media. This meant that politically active young Muslims were left without an open and safe platform where they could express their views and have such views examined or challenged by others. They retreated into their bedrooms to search for answers online, including extremist forums.
While as a nation we should take all measures legally possible to combat violent extremism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism, we should have nothing to fear from young radical minds. A successful Prevent programme is one that ensures that such minds are nurtured and empowered to contribute positively to society, not silenced or marginalised.