A guest blog by Michelle Thomasson.
Last week at the House of Commons in London there was a discussion on ‘Youth, Alienation and Radicalisation’ – terms that can equally encompass young Muslims as well as white working class people.
Rushanara Ali MP had agreed to sponsor the meeting and she was joined by Fiyaz Mughal OBE, director of Faith Matters, an interfaith and anti-extremist organisation and Professor Matthew Feldman, an expert on fascist ideology and the contemporary far-right in Europe and the USA.
There were comments from the discussion that can prompt us all to do our part to peacefully combat extremism and as one of the attendees I was keenly listening for anything that may shed light on the root causes of this disenchantment and how it could be addressed.
Here are some of my notes:
Fiyaz opened the meeting by acknowledging that the Paris incident would result in new legislation and information-gathering amongst the North African community that would have consequences on free speech, but the right to publish is a right we should protect.
He also stressed that even though people from a lower socio-economic group were more vulnerable to radicalisation, evidence was only cursory. Social exclusion could have many causes such as mental health issues, a lack of trust in the system, a perceived discrimination, ideology or theology. ‘Stop and search’ practices along with anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and our UK foreign policy in relation to the Israeli/Palestinian crisis should also be considered. The Koachi brothers had been described as normal boys but they became politicised after a journey to Yemen and had stated that the images from the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 were a source of grievance, while Kahn – a UK extremist – had cited the Iraq war as one of the driving forces behind his actions, so the online world can radicalise young people.
There is also vulnerability after converting from one faith to another (as well as changes in the individual, familiar external supports also fall away) leaving the young person susceptible to gang-like pressures, thereby allowing an extreme group to exert greater influence. Extreme groups often have a gang mentality; they are against state structures and have a nihilistic mindset. Fiyaz also mentioned that radicalisation did not occur in the Mosques; it was actually taking place in common public spaces such as the gym.
Matthew highlighted radicalisation as an accumulative process, created from a series of events. However, since 9/11, this was the first time France had suffered home-grown terrorism. He stated that terrorism is a tactic that is not just linked to one group; extremists, though diametrically opposed, rely upon each other’s narratives.
A member of the audience asked the unanswerable question, “Why do people move from non-violence to violence?” Matthew replied that, currently, there are no definitive explanations – only indications as to the causes, with less than one per cent of extremists actually moving to violence. At this point he made it clear that far-right groups may not agree on the use of violence or have similar views on the electoral system, but they do have a common denominator: Anti-Muslim prejudice now prevails (Anti-Semitism used to be the common factor). Approximately half of the attacks on Muslims in the UK are carried out by a hardened core of far right individuals who use prejudicial logic and tit-for-tat extremism. For example, there was a 373 per cent increase in reported anti-Muslim incidents (the contagion effect) in the week after the Lee Rigby tragedy and up to three months later a massive rise in Mosque attacks had been maintained.
Note that collecting detailed statistics is not easy because hate crimes are not disaggregated into their specific types and five out of six hate crimes are not usually reported to the police. Hate crimes are often opportunistic and only 25 per cent of them are tried, resulting in a significant lack of confidence.
New faces of the far right include ‘National Action’, a small group of “proud” neo-Nazis who are targeting campuses, and ‘Britain First.’
Rushanara gave her opinion on why young people turned from politics to radicalisation. She said that, politically, we live in a difficult international environment, the interdependence between countries is profound, while technology and the Internet can be a negative or positive force. On the positive side, she thought young people wanted interactive politics and that they were interested in issues such as the environment and poverty.
Nevertheless, the events of 9/11 and 7/7 were uniquely different for those of young Muslim identity; other groups had not suffered the same effects. She felt that Britain leads in dealing with youth alienation but extreme narratives have to be constantly challenged; we have to be thick-skinned and be able to explain our stance contrary to those holding extreme views:
- How can we use our collective intelligence to prevent such extremism?
- How can we use our personal sphere of influence in our everyday contact with young people and can we empower ourselves to confront these issues?
- We have to ensure that young people are not made to feel defensive if blamed, incorrectly, for the acts of others who conveniently use the term ‘religion’ for their terrorism.
Matthew at this point reminded the audience that liberalism requires everyone’s participation; we all have a responsibility for the society we inhabit.
Far right groups are aware that The Racial and Religious Hatred Act in the UK does not offer Muslims protection (as an ethnic group) and are therefore, for example, not given the same legal protection as Jews or Sikhs. Britain has strong equality legislation but funds have been slashed, so the Equality and Human Rights Commission cannot enforce the legislation well.
Rushanara stated that neighbourliness in the UK overall was in decline, therefore charging immigrants with all the responsibility for non-integration ie that they were the ones who were at fault for non-integration only served “to do immigrants down”.
Fiyaz reiterated the role of the media and that the Murdochs of this world, who carry on as normal, are not being held to account for their sensationalist, negative reporting; the media needs to develop a responsible approach. He emphasised that far-right propaganda can be extremely slick and difficult to combat and that we, as citizens, need to build a shared sense of community ownership that creates more opportunities to mix and care for one another.
Were all the important issues covered? Did we get to the bottom of youth disenchantment in this short discussion? No. The role of UK foreign policy and the militaristic agenda was only briefly mentioned; after all, extreme far-right views are not only the territory of the young and disenfranchised!
One statement from the audience aptly described the difficulty many of us have in expressing our citizenship: The majority can feel disempowered in a society driven by rampant neoliberal capitalism.
We can all suffer from alienation – can we do our bit to help each other? Can we especially reach out to young people, to combat this inhuman milieu? A small act of kindness may go much further than we think.
Let’s give it a try.
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