This is part 2 of a 3 part series I am writing regarding the challenge of radical Islam. Part 1 is here.
In this part I discuss what actually causes radicalism in the first place, since we need to understand that if we are to prevent and hopefully fix the problem.
This article which I linked to at the end of part 1 provides good insight, based on evidence:
Many argue that religion is the root cause, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Religion is merely a tool through which emotions can be exploited. The majority of attacks are actually politically motivated at a higher level, with the people actually committing the atrocities frequently driven by own personal grievances. If we consider those millions of people living through wars, driven from homes, with family members frequently injured, tortured or killed, sometimes deprived of education, these acts are not at all hard to understand.
But when we consider those young men who grow up in the West, often brought up in apparently stable environments enjoying political freedoms, relative security, plus a decent education, these cases have many people baffled regarding the why. In addition, the growing number of incidences of these particular cases are what really concerns Western society, because it is so hard to determine from where the next attack may come and thus it is extremely difficult to 'eliminate' the ever growing threats.
Loud statements of condemnation may help to boost our morale and provide the words we all want to hear, but in reality they do absolutely nothing to help solve the ever growing problem. Worryingly, Western statements of self righteousness may actually make the problem even worse and drive those drifting towards radicalism to separate themselves even further from the rest of the society in which they live. When radicalised youths hear their local mosque leaders standing in firm solidarity with Western governments (who are frequently guilty of their own atrocities) in their condemnations, I fear such youths may further separate themselves from their local religious communities who are the very ones best placed to bring any of these young people 'back from the brink'.
I find I have to say over and over again, that I do not condemn or justify acts of terrorism in any way, without exception. I will keep saying it but still I will get the accusations - that's ok. My only interest now is how to save lives and stop the killing. This fact remains, we will never solve a problem if we do not first take an honest look at the causes, and that is what I am trying to do here.
Most (although not all) of the people sucked into radicalism from the West are young men, maybe in their late teenage years or early twenties, so let's first look at what makes young men so vulnerable.
Can you think back to that time in your own life, maybe when you had just left school? Did you ever do anything wrong, something crazy, maybe out of frustration or anger, without considering at all the consequences or the people around you that you were hurting? Did you ever get involved with a group with some slightly crazy ideas? Maybe dabble in some ideologies that you later came to realise were not really the best way to live your life? Many of us easily forget the mistakes made in our youth, perhaps in an attempt to blot out the memories of the stupid things most of us did at some time in our lives, things we would rather our own children never found out.
Let me tell you a story that I recall from my youth. Back in the late 80s/early 90s, when I reached the end of my secondary school years, I remember there were lots of incidents of kids burning their schools to the ground. I'm not sure if this is still the case today, but back then I recall there were lots burnt down, at least in the area where I lived. There was one group of nice kids at my own school, who came from nice families, had done fairly well in their studies, but had gone a little 'off the rails' towards their final years, since almost all the kids were going partying at the weekends and getting 'totally plastered' (drinking excessive amounts of alcohol) and also an increasing number were taking drugs such as ecstasy at the weekend like they were sweets. My own children might be shocked if they ever get to read this, but the truth is, it was very common. Maybe it is still the same today, I don't know, I hope not quite as much.
Now these kids, despite having been brought up in nice stable families (at least stable on the surface) and having been brought up in a school with strong religious teachings, some of them still attending church on a Sunday, still none the less had some serious frustrations. Many of them were sad about hidden problems say within their families, and often struggled to find an outlet for their frustrations or any adults to take them seriously. Schooling then was a little dictatorial. Corporal punishment in my own Catholic school years had been a big part of my primary school life, me being one of the few kids that had escaped a good thrashing with the ruler, many others having suffered worse under the cane.
It was the day before the last day of our secondary school life. We had all made plans on how we were going to say our goodbyes the next day, to friends and also teachers. Perhaps some had bought gifts and everyone looked forward to going a little bit crazy and letting our friends sign our shirt as was the tradition. Then just as we were about to go home on that day before the last day, a message went around the school, from the headmaster, that the last day had been cancelled, as the school wanted to avoid any problems, such as flour being thrown or fights breaking out (as sometimes did happen on such an emotionally charged day).
Well, you might imagine, we were furious. We felt let down and rejected by our school, stolen of our last memory. Then, in that moment of rejection and upset, one group of kids became totally blind to all common sense and plotted to burn the school down. They planned to go to a party that night, sneak out in the middle, change into some hidden clothes, take some petrol cans and burn down the school, before returning to the party like nothing had happened. It was a moment of sheer madness that could not have been anticipated in their otherwise 'nice' lives. It was only as the evening approached some hours before the party that one of those kids said to the others, 'what are we actually doing here? If we go ahead with this we probably mess up our entire lives' - and then common sense kicked in and they called the whole thing off. Maybe it was all just talk, and everyone was waiting to see how would bail out first.
But another lad, of a similar age from a different school, went ahead with a similar plan. Out of anger he burnt down his school. I met him not long after he got out of prison when he was aged 19, I think he had served a 2 year sentence. He was put in one of the harshest prisons in the countries with adult criminals and now he knew that with a criminal record his future was completely ruined. He was a really nice guy - apparently nobody would have ever guessed he was going to do that. A moment of rejection, subsequent rage, carried along with a group of others, he wrecked his life, and caused many thousands of pounds worth of damage. He wasn't a bad guy, he was just a youth, who for a moment lost the ability to see things straight.
So these kids, burning down schools, they weren't killing people, were they? I hear you say. No they weren't. But over in America we saw a whole spate of similarly angry rejected kids going on random shooting sprees, and I've no doubt if guns were as readily available in the UK as they are there, we might have seen the same happen here.
How does this relate to terrorism, of the 'radical Islam' type? Well I'm talking here about those kids growing up in the West, rather than the ones who have had their own houses bombed and their own families killed. But everywhere the same principle applies. The truth is, young people are very, very vulnerable.
Muslim kids, frequently born in this country but maybe their parents or grandparents emigrated from abroad, have a whole lot of extra complexities to deal with. To name but a few things: it is not true that racism does not exist and that we have equal opportunities, simply not true. There is huge discrimination even in our professional workforce, which I have witnessed personally against my own husband. But kids can at times be even crueler than adults when it comes to racism and bullying (again without really understanding how they may be hurting others). These things can be legislated against and education plays an important part, and I know these things are being worked at - and in some areas there are truly fabulous examples of beautiful diversity with full integration - my own son was blessed to attend a school that you might have thought was the school for the United Nations and it was in perfect harmony, but these things are a challenge and frequently society fails.
And then there is the generation divide - already it is difficult for white none Muslim families to keep up good communications with their children but add into the mix say the scenario of an older generation moving to this country, from a different religion, being hit with completely foreign culture and language, never fully integrating, but then their kids growing up almost in a different world - it is absolutely no surprise that these children may struggle without extra support to deal with such complexities.
Rarely however would these issues on their own lead young people to drift towards groups promoting extreme ideologies. However, now let's throw into the mix the extreme injustice that we are seeing on a daily basis via social media, much of which is ignored by main stream media. It is a fact that the majority of the millions of people we see daily driven from their homes, starving, oppressed, tortured, maimed and killed are actually Muslim. If you can't see this, then you are perhaps only listening to the main stream media and a filtered selection of social media. Myself, being a human rights activist, who would act on any cases regardless of religion, can tell you for sure the majority are Muslims. For example, the 1 million Rohingya undergoing genocide in Burma, the 2000+ brutally slaughtered in Gaza last Summer, many of whom were children, and I can't even being to count the atrocities in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq....the list goes on. I know many none Muslim people feel the pain, because we are all human, and we can all imagine how we might feel if these victims were our own family members. But for many Muslims, they hold this belief that these other Muslims being killed are actually our own family members. The pain therefore is extremely hard to bear, and extremely frustrating when you feel that you can do absolutely nothing to help these people.
For young people, this sense of frustration is intensified. In addition, there is the shock of becoming aware of these things for the first time in life. As children we are protected to a certain extent to the full horror of current events. But as soon as kids get a phone, get on the Internet, they are faced with the full grim reality. Whereas adults may have learnt self control to not watch every video that is sent their way because they know it will be upsetting, our kids will always watch - and then who do they turn to process their understandable feelings of shock, disgust, grief, anger?
Seriously, are we blind to the inevitability of the process of radicalisation? You really don't need to be a doctor of psychology to work this out. In fact, when I look at the scale of the problem, the amount of real life horror I get presented with each day, knowing our kids are seeing exactly the same and maybe even more graphic footage, with nowhere to turn to express their distress, and a feeling of complete dis-empowerment to do anything to change the world, my only questions is: how come more of our kids are not radicalised??
So now, what can we do about it?
Regarding injustice, Muslims are limited. There is plenty they can do and are doing and over time God willing things will improve, but what can we do in the meantime to save our kids? Because justice, as we all know, can be a long time coming.
Now I'm going to tell you a second story, of my own experiences visiting a mosque, to help highlight some missed opportunities that I think the Muslim community could easily address to help protect our children.
This happened just recently. I don't like to criticise a place or a people in public, but I feel in this instance I must do, because I suspect my own experience is not an isolated one, and we urgently need to look at our weaknesses.
Over the years I have been feeling frustrated about my inability to find a Muslim community in my vicinity. In the city where I used to live, I was told that the mosque was too small for women to attend, so only men were therefore allowed. And the same thing happened in the town where I lived before that.
When I moved to a new area, I was excited to learn that there was a much larger mosque that had recently been converted and as a result apparently some Muslims were moving to the area. I was excited to attend. This is what happened:
First I looked up the mosque on the Internet. Their website at first looked great. But when I started clicking through on the pages of interest I found blank pages. Although I could read all about the history, the trustees, the management, memorising the Quran and how to donate etc, there was absolutely nothing on the 'Women's Circle' page, plus a blank page for 'Sunday School' (for the kids) and when clicking on the 'Vision' link on the menu, it seemed they didn't have any vision at all since the link went nowhere.
Not deterred however, I filled in the contact form, and also sent an email of enquiry. Clearly they needed a few hints regarding their web page, but I wasn't going to judge anyone on appearances. Then I waited, and waited. No reply was forthcoming, so 2 months later, after nagging my husband to death, I finally persuaded him to drop me off at the mosque to see if I could find out more, and check on provision for women.
I don't usually wear the hijab (headscarf) but for this I put one and had my husband drop me off whilst he waited in the car. I crept in, a little scared. There was a reception with lots of leaflets, and also a shiny new television on the wall showing footage of some kind of mosque activities. I looked through all the leaflets for some information - there was a leaflet on where to buy Muslim ladies clothing, a leaflet on where to buy halal meat, a list of prayer times, more business leaflets, and an outdated sermon from the month of Ramadan, which was from several months before. I took one anyway, curious to know what was being taught. Then I waited. What should I do? Go upstairs? Did I need to take my shoes off? Maybe if I just waited someone would pass by who I might ask. So I waited, and waited. A young boy was dropped off for his Sunday school, the dad looked at me like I was an alien, and then disappeared. After 15 minutes I went back out to my husband: "you'll have to go, I didn't know where to go and there was no-one to talk to".
So he went in, had an explore - entirely at home because he was born a Muslim and was used to mosques - found some nice guy and asked about provision for ladies. They told him that there is a ladies group on a Saturday morning, from 10am to 1pm. He had asked for an email or number that I might call - but that was apparently out of the question. I was excited, the next weekend would be the weekend I get to meet my local Muslim community.
So I got up early the next Saturday, chose carefully what to wear - a skirt below the knee, a top that covered my arms, head gear to match. My family had a little chuckle at my efforts and I did wonder what the neighbours might think, then I set off on the drive into town, listening to my Sami Yusuf cd, happy. When I arrived, I found the place locked, with no-one in site. So I sat outside in the car reading the Quran whilst I waited. I also looked up the mosque phone numbers and called a few of them - I tried the women's enquiry line, and then the mosque director - neither picked up nor had an answer phone facility.
After about 1 hour, a man arrived at the mosque delivering a few boxes, so I went a little hesitantly to ask him about any ladies group - I explained it was my first time at the mosque and didn't know anything - he told me that he too knew nothing but directed me to the ladies prayer room on the first floor, so I headed up there, waited another 10 minutes, then went home. Dejected.
On arriving home, to my surprise I found an email waiting for me - a reply to the email enquiry sent 2 months previously. Although this email stated that the women's group actually started at midday on Saturday, or on Thursday, or to come 'later on in the evening to meet the other sisters'. There was no name on the email, so I replied to Mr/Mrs Anonymous to ask if someone might give a precise time and perhaps arrange to meet me since I was a little apprehensive. I sent the email, but no-one replied, so after a few weeks more, I gave up. Clearly this place wasn't for me. This wasn't meant to be. I would just let it go. What a shame though I though to myself, that they have all those resources, and yet someone like myself just can't find a way in.
But a few weeks later, I had a really annoying dream (yes another one of my dreams!), where I went to the mosque and sat there smiling for hours at the people, but they just ignored me, until eventually someone started to speak to me. It was annoying because it was one of these dreams where you wake up to think what a stupid dream and then go back to sleep and keep dreaming it, over and over again. I woke up thinking 'this is stupid to be dreaming about this - today for sure I'm jolly well going to go to that mosque and find these ladies and talk to them'.
So I started again. Put on my 'respectable' clothes. Put on my hijab. Did all the housework and even prepared lunch for the family before dashing out. Parked up. Mosque was open - alhamdulillah! Crept upstairs to the women's room. Some shoes were outside - looked promising.
I was greeted by a lovely lady who was teaching a group of teenage girls, so I asked if I might join them. I had a look around the group and realised I was probably twice the teacher's age, and the group of about 10 girls were perhaps no older than age 13 to 14. I couldn't help but notice most of them had faces heavily painted under their hijab and sat their thinking of my own daughter, now at university - she doesn't wear hijab but if her father ever caught her wearing make-up like that he'd literally hit the roof. But still they looked like lovely girls and I certainly didn't mean to judge anyone on appearances, please forgive me.
The next hour was enlightening. First off I learnt that the lesson actually started at 11.30, not at 12. Hmmm, more miscommunication, ok....Then I listened to the importance of dua (prayer) all good. Then things started to go down hill a little: I listened to a discussion on avoiding things that may be 'haram', such as blue smarties, they are best avoided, and apparently Walkers crisps were not on the halal list for a while - one girl was a bit concerned about this and asked why - apparently they put pig in them or something, was the teacher's reply - but then everyone stopped eating them and they sorted out the problem and its ok they are halal now. Then there was advice on giving presents: it's apparently not allowed to refuse a present whatever it is (I started wondering about that bottle of wine my husband's secretary had bought - but thought better of asking the question and instead bit my tongue), and that you cannot give your presents away, ever (although the girls started to question whether its ok to give away a dress to a charity that has become too small), and did you know, its actually 'haram' to buy someone a present because they have given you one?
And then it got quite funny, and I had to hide my smile, because the teacher started talking about the importance of following the prophet, it's called 'Sunnah', and did you know that the Prophet only ate with 3 fingers instead of 5? And apparently they only found out why this is recently, scientifically, it's because there are enzymes on those 3 fingers which help with digestion, and if we eat with just 3 fingers it slows down the eating which helps us to know when we are full so we don't overeat. Oh and one other thing, apparently The Prophet pbuh (peace be upon him) used to eat sitting on the floor. Her advice to the girls therefore, and the points to take away at the end of the session, were to try eating with 3 fingers and also to inform our parents what we are doing that, and then to take a mat and try eating whilst sitting on the floor, and we would apparently feel the blessings. This would make a good sketch for a comedy, part of me thought. The other part really wanted to cry.
This lady, let me be clear, was a lovely lady, I liked her, I think she had good intentions. Her teachings, however, were, erm, maybe a focusing a little more on ideas that have arisen out of different cultures from what that which I am used to myself. This was a lady who clearly was very educated, she had studied a degree in Arabic and Islamic studies. Although of different origin (I was the only white person in the room) she was clearly a native speaker, born in this country. Although her family origin was not Arab she had clearly achieved a high level in the Arabic language and could read fluently from the Quran. I was therefore a little puzzled on how she came to be teaching these ideas to our young women who must have a million unanswered questions about life? Not in any way radical or dangerous, but really just pointless, especially in today's world. She was doing her best, for sure. But it concerns me that this is the kind of thing we are teaching our youth especially at a time when they need serious, urgent guidance on how to live in this mixed up world - and I'm not talking here about the colour of smarties.
At the end of the lesson, she asked if there were any questions, and if there were any particular topics the girls would like to cover the following week - silence. Honestly, under their hijabs and behind their painted eyelids, I think they couldn't wait to get out of there. This clearly wasn't relevant to them. Some glanced at their phones, went to say a few hurried prayers since it was the time to pray, and then made a sharp exit.
I stayed behind to have a chat, to explain the miscommunication problems I had experienced, and to find out what else might be going on at the mosque - maybe find some older ladies to talk to. Maybe I could help contribute to this community in some way, bring a little of my own insight? Certainly I could help with that blank website, create a few leaflets for the foyer, and take a few of those irrelevant teachings to task.
She told me that she used to run another class on a Thursday but stopped them because hardly anyone came. She thought there was a women's circle one evening but she knew nothing about that because she was too busy teaching kids - if not at the mosque at the weekend then in private tuition at home. I asked how I might find out about other meetings, because I had tried everything and was getting nowhere. She admitted there were some problems with communications, said her dad was on the mosque committee and she would speak to him. I tried to explain my frustration, and told her these are difficult times, that people are asking about Islam and we need to be ready with answers. I asked her to consider how many more people like me had passed by the mosque and left without any answers. I told her I had waited 10 years for this moment, where I could finally attend a local mosque - and here they have a shiny new one with modern facilities - but really what is here? - nothing, absolutely nothing, so it seems. And where do I go from here?
At this point my own frustrations welled up and I cried. This just isn't good enough. Really, it's not good enough. Can we not do better than this? We have the resources, one day we will be asked what we did with them.
I gave her my email, asked her if she might make some enquiries on my behalf, see if someone could contact me and pass on information on absolutely anything I might be able to attend, or even if someone might meet with me for a coffee for a chat. She took my email, made her excuses because her sister was waiting for her, then left. Once again, there I was in the mosque, alone.
I left, strangely content that I had come, even if only to find there was nothing there. As I passed by the reception there were some guys leaving - they go straight into the ground floor, whilst the ladies are on the first floor, and they hardly brush shoulders so it seems. They looked at me with interest - probably because I was white I suspect. I wanted to say hello, to communicate with them, but I don't know if that is the 'done thing' - for women to talk to men. They didn't say anything. So I left. Another wasted opportunity.
We had found out that there was a morning Sunday school for the boys. We had planned on sending my son there, so he could meet some other Muslim boys, learn a bit of Arabic, learn a bit of the Quran. At the moment, apart from ourselves, he gets about one day a year education at his school regarding Islam, or rather during which he educates his class. When I told my husband about the eating with 3 fingers thing however, he changed his mind. No way was he going to send his son to a teacher that tells him to eat with his fingers, no way!! We all had a good laugh about this - really one of my husband's pet hates is when people lick their fingers, being a doctor he is far too concerned about germs. I can imagine his reaction if one day after attending the mosque our own daughter came home refusing to sit at a table, or use a fork, licking her fingers, telling us she had to do it because The Prophet did, and because there were enzymes on fingers. Now that would be something!
Anyway, after a few more weeks had passed we decided to give the Sunday school thing a chance and it actually wasn't so bad - in fact the kids there were a real delight and our son was amazed at the other children's kindness towards him. It is this community and love that rises us above all cultural differences - thank goodness we did persevere.
I hope my experience of trying to 'get into a mosque' was an isolated incident, but look, in the last city (not even a town but a city) women couldn't even go into the mosque, and the same in the town where I lived before - and yet these were all areas with considerable Muslim communities. So something here clearly needs fixing, at least in some regions. And this isn't just an issue of women being excluded (which is clearly an issue and I believe greater integration between sexes would help in the struggle against radicalisation - will discuss that later) but what about new people entering the religion? Thanks God I am well grounded in the difference between right and wrong, but someone else new to the teachings might easily be sucked into an extreme group if their local mosque wasn't welcoming them in - and some terrorist attacks have taken place by exactly these types of people who only recently converted to Islam and then were led up some crazy path.
But especially now, what of the vulnerable Muslim boy, with all his frustrations, who does he turn to? The main Muslim day of worship is on a Friday, which he can rarely attend due to school. As far as I am aware, the Sunday morning school in that particular mosque was only catering for primary school kids. I didn't learn of anything for teenage boys. That which I saw of the teaching for the teenage girls was totally completely 100% irrelevant to any of the challenges young people are faced with today. So where do our youth go to when they are fed up with this world and are looking for greater purpose in their lives? I have no doubt they will at some stage be stopped on the street by a welcoming group of radicalists fishing for lost boys (and even girls) just looking for some meaning in their lives. Or maybe not even on the street, there's plenty of online groups that will reach out to them right there in their bedrooms - listen to their every complaint - assure them that Allah is the way and offer community and purpose that they are searching for. Feed them further stories of terrible injustice. Show them the kids slaughtered by Assad in Syria. It's not long before some of our young people will be willing to give their lives for a cause, for they felt so worthless anyway. Our young people are easy pickings. That's the truth. And when they are killed, there are plenty more to pick off to fill their place.
In part 3 I offer some suggestions on practical things that could be done to protect our youth and save them from radicalisation. Thank-you for reading.