Friday, July 29, 2005

British Muslim Terrorists: causes and prevention

I'm a second generation Muslim Briton, who was born in Pakistan and came to Britain as a baby. I'm Norman Tebbit's dream immigrant, about as integrated as it's possible to be with a Cambridge education, a job in the City and a WASP spouse. Yet I feel responsible for the bombs on London's tubes and buses that have now shattered the brittle sense of security we have enjoyed since the start of the Iraq war.

The Prime Minister has been meeting Muslim faith and community leaders to decide on the best way of tackling the issues which contributed to four, apparently normal, young men killing themselves and 52 others in London on 7th July and another four attempting to do so again two weeks later. To seek to understand the causes of these attacks is not to forgive the attackers or in some other way to diminish the horror of what happened. It is the only way to prevent future attacks.

The starting point is to acknowledge that the community of 1.6 million Muslims in Britain is not homogenous. Those who, like me, are of Pakistani origin comprise about 700,000 people of whom 55 per cent. were born in the UK and over 50 per cent of the total population are aged under 25. Yet a disproportionate number, on current evidence, appear to be involved in al-Qaeda activity. For example, three of the four London bombers were of Pakistani origin, as were the two British suicide bombers in Israel, as is Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh who ordered the killing of Daniel Pearl and as were the majority of British citizens held in Guantanamo Bay. The reason lies in the loss of identity amongst the second and third generation who feel neither British nor Pakistani and so cling to the third limb of their identity, embracing a simplified form of Islam which has none of the ambiguities which trouble their daily lives.


Most of our parents came to Britain for the economic opportunities it offered them and not because they admired the British way of life. Many of us are brought up to think of ourselves as Pakistani, with a general expectation that we are only going to live in England until our parents have made the fortune they came here to make at which point we will all return to the Land of the Pure. It is therefore made clear to us that there is no point in adopting British values let alone becoming British. This widely held belief amongst immigrants from the villages of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir who arrived in this country in the 1960s and whose children and grandchildren have been born here has resulted in the recreation of sub-continental villages, not just in the large industrial cities of the North but also in small communities like East Oxford where I grew up, which are frozen in time and the children are given a set of idealised values based on what the parents fondly imagine life was like back home. The children of these parents however, go to English schools, sometimes have English friends and support English football teams. When these children return to Pakistan for family holidays, they tend to find that they have little in common with their Pakistani born cousins and tend to be surprised at the consumerism and Westernisation now found in even the smallest villages, thanks to satellite television.

A child showing signs of an interest in Islam is a source of great pride for parents who are terrified that the British value system will infect their children. Most parents have only a superficial knowledge of their religion; they do not speak Arabic and have learnt the Quran and certain prayers by rote. Their faith is based on hearsay, which is why it is so easy to stir Muslim passions in both Britain and elsewhere by declaring a thing unIslamic. By contrast to their parents, young British Muslims have easy access to scholarly texts which are written or translated into English, videos of lectures by leading Imams are widely available and the internet is a source of much discussion and propagation of the religion. It is not unusual for children to question their parents' practices and for the parents to have no coherent response. They are therefore not able to understand, let alone police, their children's born again faith.

One of the points that has not been clearly understood by the population at large is why Muslims in Britain are so concerned by what is happening in Iraq or Chechnya or Palestine that these foreign policy issues are offered as an explanation of the motives for the suicide attacks. For even secular Muslims like myself, there is a sense of kinship with every other Muslim in the world, irrespective of the language that they speak or the colour of their skin. This is because Islam has laid down rules for so many aspects of our lives that we do really share a common culture, even when we ourselves do not follow those rules. There appears to be a view amongst some that foreign policy has not contributed to these attacks since al Qaeda hates the West and wants to destroy it in any event. The two possible motives are not mutually exclusive. British foreign policy, hanging onto the coattails of US policy, in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, is a source of active unhappiness amongst British Muslims and a trigger for extremism in a few. The establishment can chose to ignore this fact but it should stop telling us that it is not so.

The boldness of the extremists ambition to upset the existing world order is contrasted by young British Muslims with the timidity of the first generation who traditionally do not challenge authority and who are not in a position to reflect the views of the second and third generation whose lives and values they do not understand. And yet they are deemed to be our community leaders and the government and other agencies have, thus far, limited their dialogue to these people. We need to hear the voices of the young men in their twenties who are very happy to talk, if only someone was willing to listen to them.

The inability of the first generation to communicate with the second and third generations is reflected not only in the community as a whole but in each family, where children are not able to express their values and hopes to parents whose world vision is entirely different to theirs and where, typically, neither side is able to speak a language fluently that the other can understand.

The Pakistani and other Muslim communities need to take action to stop the terrorists. A few weeks ago, the primary fear of Pakistani parents was that their sons would get mixed up with drugs and or crime. The mother of a sixteen-year-old son who read his prayers regularly and attended the mosque would have boasted of his piety to her friends. Since July 7th, that mother will now want to know whom her son is meeting and what he is doing. There is nothing more important to a British Pakistani family than their sons. Muslim communities in Britain will now question those from extreme organisations such as al-Muhajiroun and Hizb ut-Tahrir who target young people at colleges and universities, at peaceful demonstrations as well as outside mosques, and will no longer see all advocates of Islam as equally benign. However, families, like those of the London bombers, generally have little idea of what their children get up to and it is very likely that the extremist groups, if banned or challenged, will now go underground.

The isolation and ghettos must end. The first generation of Pakistanis should be encouraged to speak English, housing policy should try and encourage mixed communities rather than allowing large homogenous communities to develop and women should also be encouraged to work to improve the economic prospects of their families and to help them integrate.

There is an argument that since most of the bombers come from middle class homes, economic deprivation in the community is not an issue. However, to be part of a community which is disadvantaged is a significant factor in marginalising an individual even if the individual does not suffer himself. Muslim boys tend to either exceed or fail disproportionately as a response to the extraordinary pressures placed on them by families who need sons and not daughters to do well as a badge of the family's success. The extraordinary value placed on a son is also likely to contribute to the selfishness and narcissism, which are said to be essential qualities of a suicide bomber.

It is also now incumbent upon those of us who have created a distinct identity of being both British and Muslim to speak out and be seen as an alternative to those who think that their only options are to be Pakistani Muslims like their parents or "coconuts" with no respect for their Islamic inheritance. For too long our silence has allowed our communal voice to be hijacked by a minority and we are now in danger of being defined by the actions of a few. It is difficult to think of any community leaders at present who do not have a Muslim badge attached to them. Many more women need to be seen to be speaking and ideally we need more role models like the boxer Amir Khan who manages to combine his British identity with his Pakistani heritage in a way that all sections of British society admire.

We can overcome the nihilism of the terrorists but we are unlikely to succeed today or tomorrow. We have to start addressing the relevant issues immediately. The British public has shown great restraint in not blaming all Muslims for the action of a few. We can't assume that that restraint will continue if the attacks are repeated in which case al-Qaeda really will have won.