I haven't spoken on the issue of 'preventing violent extremism' for a number of years. I became disengaged because I was not happy about the way in which government officials sometimes handle this issue. However, I have decided to break my silence after seeing media reports of British Muslims who have either moved to Syria to join the anti-Assad rebels, have got killed in Syria or have been arrested on their return to the UK. I feel it is important to raise awareness about the dangers of getting involved in the conflict and Muslim women can play a key role in helping to safeguard young people. I am supporting the national police campaign today and will speaking at the event organised by West Midlands Police. I will be urging Muslim women in Birmingham and also members of the Muslim Women's Network UK to spread the message that anyone who wants to help the Syrian cause needs to ensure they are doing this safely and legally. This issue is very relevant locally - since January a number of people have been arrested in Birmingham and are currently awaiting trial.
Suffering of Muslims overseas has always been a powerful recruitment tool. Graphic images of civilians being killed will make people emotional and angry. We all get angry and upset over the Syria crisis but most of us will not be consumed by it and continue with our daily routines. Unfortunately there are individuals out there who will exploit these emotions by trying to get some youth to become preoccupied with the Syrian conflict. This will make them more susceptible to radical ideas, which could include getting involved in violence and other activities to support opposition groups.
However, some British Muslims may think there is nothing wrong or illegal about going to Syria to fight because they are opposing Bashar Al Assad. They may think 'well we can't get into trouble for this because we are on the same side as the British government.' Our government's inconsistency over being prepared to join the war against Assad and therefore siding with the 'rebel' fighters one minute and then calling them extremists the next, is no doubt causing confusion. The government needs to explain this and so far have failed to do so.
I do believe most people going out to Syria are doing so for charitable purposes, either to deliver aid or to do humanitarian work. However, conflict zones are dangerous places. Even if people manage to keep safe, emotions will run high after witnessing human suffering. Extremist groups operating in Syria will be ready to exploit this vulnerability to get people to join as combatants. Young women can also be manipulated and recruited to these groups in supportive roles such as transporting food, cooking, medical care of the wounded, fund raising and to pray for the fighters. Women may also be encouraged to marry fighters and by glorifying this role of wife. They may be told that it is honourable, and a privilege to be married to a man who will be a martyr.
Leaving these groups will not be easy because they will escalate involvement to make new recruits think they are in too deep to break away. Another commonly used tool to maintain loyalty involves getting members to take a pledge of obedience in the name of God. This tactic makes members believe that disobeying orders or leaving the group amounts to committing a grave sin.
So what can Muslim women do to stop young Muslims from going abroad and getting involved in the Syria conflict? Well women can be the first to see behavioural changes amongst family members including a preoccupation with the Syria crisis. They can warn of the dangers of going to Syria including tactics used to recruit and how even helping with humanitarian work can result in being drawn into activities that could be considered illegal under British law. These conversations can be essential in the early prevention process. Women can also help manage the emotions of young people by directing them to channel their energies in supporting established and recognized charities with their work. Many individuals are now fund raising for Syria. Although their efforts may be well intentioned, there is no way of really knowing where this money will end up. Only donating to internationally renowned charities already operating in Syria, such as Islamic Relief, should be encouraged. Humanitarian efforts should also be left to these charities, which are experts in operating in conflict regions.
Summer holidays are approaching and some students may be thinking of going to Syria to try and help out while others may be going to seek adventure so they can return to college or university to boast about their experiences. Whatever the reasons, they could end up getting killed or find themselves on the wrong side of the law when they return home. So now is the right time to start having these conversations.