Bismillah. The recent cases of the “Birmingham terrorist trio”, one of whom was a university graduate, and the resurfacing of underlying problems at City University, both from the end of February 2013, as well as that of four young men from Luton pleading guilty to terrorism on 1st March, show that the problems of extremism and terrorism amongst British Muslims still persist. Note that the men from Birmingham and Luton were all influenced by Anwar Awlaki, who lived for a while in the UK, c. 2002-3. Campus connections to extremism and terrorism are well-documented, and the two “Undercover Mosque” programmes on Channel 4 embarrasingly exposed the same problems in a small number of UK mosques, although some of these mosques were, worryingly, major ones in London and Birmingham.
These problems continue to need to be tackled by Muslims themselves, as well as by others. A good start would be for Muslims to stop being in denial about the small number of would-be terrorists in their midst, whose crazy actions could lead to catastrophe in this country. Conspiracy theories must end, given the overwhelming evidence against such people, including their own “martyrdom videos” and guilty pleas, and the well-documented details of their plots, e.g. photos of unexploded bomb material from the failed 21/7 attacks and the police’s secret footage of the liquid-bomb plotters’ “bomb factory” in Forest Road, Walthamstow, screened some years ago on BBC Panorama.
Another step would be open, honest discussion about the underlying, extremist, Islamist ideology that underpins, justifies and legitimises Al-Qaeda-linked terrorism in the minds of its proponents.
Below is a relevant and, I hope, useful article reproduced from the end of 2009, i.e. just over 3 years ago. A slightly-edited version of it was published in the print edition of the Daily Telegraph on 31st December 2009, within a week of the failed attack by the “underpants bomber” Mutallab on Christmas Day, 2009. (Mutallab had earlier served for a year as President of the UCL Islamic Society.) The article has never been published online before.
Following publication of this piece, a leading UK salafi scholar criticised me for it after the next Friday prayers that I led at Al-Tawhid Mosque in January 2010. (It later turned out that Mutallab had named him as one of his major religious influences, although there is no proof that this cleric knew about the underwear-bomber’s terrorist plans.) Since most of the speakers banned from university campuses over the last few years and exposed in the mosques have been of a salafi background (with a significant number also from extremist Deobandi backgrounds), he said that I should not criticise “our brothers in creed” (ikhwanuna fi l-‘aqidah). Of course, I did not accept this sectarian suggestion to avoid opposing people preaching hatred and extremism on the grounds that they pay lip-service to the “creed of the Companions and the Salaf” whilst having almost no sense of the latter’s spirituality: as Imam Ibn al-Qayyim stated, all the early Sufis such as Hasan Basri, Junayd, Ma’ruf, Sari and Bistami were also amongst the generations and followers of the Salaf.
Tackling Extremism on UK Campuses
(an edited version of this was published in the print edition of the Daily Telegraph on 31st December 2009, within a week of the failed attack by the “underpants bomber” Mutallab on Christmas Day of that year)
Students’ Islamic societies on UK campuses are dominated by fundamentalist ideas and overly-politicised interpretations of Islam. During the 80’s and 90’s, when I spent eight years as a student at three of this country’s leading universities, serving as Islamic society president at each, I saw at close hand, and took part in, the radical activism myself. The energy was partly provided by events overseas: the Islamist revolution in Iran; the Afghan jihad against the Soviets; the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; the first Palestinian intifada; the first US-led war against Saddam; the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya. Countless Friday sermons on UK campuses, mirroring those around the world, were devoted to reinforcing the idea that all these events proved that there was a worldwide conspiracy of godless infidels (non-Muslims of all faiths and none) against Islam and Muslims everywhere. Meanwhile, events that challenged this melodramatic worldview, such as the long and brutal Iran-Iraq war or the vicious civil war amongst the Afghan mujahedin groups after their victory over the communists, were conveniently ignored.
University students have a long history of radical, political activism around the world, and this is not wrong in itself. One thinks of the French student revolts, or the brave student dissidents in Tianamen Square and Tehran. And fundamentalism, by which I mean the reading of scripture out of context and failing to apply its universal and timeless principles faithfully to modernity, infects many religions. But whilst those students and graduates from British universities who went off to Afghanistan and Bosnia for military training and action in the early 90’s were arguably participating in just causes, those involved in terrorist plots since 9/11, such as Umar Abdulmutallab, have lost their moral bearings completely, under the influence of Al-Qaeda and its apologists worldwide. Part of the solution to this problem should involve providing safe alternatives to young men with an understandable desire for military training and adventure, perhaps involving the British armed forces and their reserves.
Alternative theological and intellectual narratives also need to be provided. In my time on campus, there was intense rivalry between different fundamentalist factions, but all the Islamist groups agreed on the objective of a single, worldwide caliphate, governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia, and most of them were opposed to any form of democracy or secularism. Vehement rhetoric against “the West” was commonplace. Liberal and rational interpretations of Islam, inspired by Averroes, Ibn Khaldun or Iqbal were rarely heard. The promotion of authentic Sufism on campus will help, but true religious experience will never be apolitical, so it is a question of balancing faith, politics and spirituality.
But the problem is not all about theory and politics: social realities have a major impact. With traditional, devout Muslim societies being teetotal and gender-segregated and some religious authorities prohibiting music, many believers find it difficult to integrate, since British student social life is based around the bar and often seems to be a “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” culture. In the face of this, it is easy for believers to withdraw into cult-like social circles that reinforce a narrow worldview. Many bodies provide advice to students regarding alcohol, drugs and sex, of course – greater cultural awareness is the key here.
Promoting more individual and social cohesion and balance is not easy. A firmer emphasis at university on “higher education” of the whole person may help, such as termly meetings with mentors who help with students’ personal and social development; schemes like these are already in place at many universities, and Muslim chaplains could play an important role here. A stronger sense of the student body, such as your batch or cohort studying the same subject, may also provide a safety-net for would-be terrorists. Other countries seem to have a stronger tradition of this approach compared to Britain.
Increased interaction amongst different student communities and the open exchange of ideas are paramount. Muslim-Jewish relations on campus are especially important: they have been poor historically, largely because of the Israeli-Arab conflict which continues to provoke religious and political extremism on both sides. In this respect, work like that of the Lokahi Foundation and the Coexistence Trust, who organise joint campus tours by Muslim and Jewish leaders and role-models, deserves to be supported and expanded.