Recent examples of, and thinking about, young ‘British-Asian’ Muslims who have been radicalised, and gone to fight and die in Syria or Iraq, have suggested that one of the main reasons for their actions is the need for a stronger sense of identity and belonging. The young people in question are said to feel isolated from and rejected by ‘British’ society, being cast as ‘Pakistani’, for instance, even if they are from a second- or third-generation ‘immigrant’ background, i.e. they were born here. But if they go to visit their families in Pakistan, they are frequently dismissed as ‘English’. So they feel they neither belong in Britain nor in Pakistan.
Joining extremist Islamist organisations such as IS, so the argument goes, makes these young people feel as though they belong to a greater community and movement, and indeed to a ‘state’: a trans-national ‘caliphate’ that serves a higher purpose and unity than existing, established nation states, and which in turn enables them to justify treasonous and violent acts against those states, whether the UK, Syria or Iraq.
Media and political commentary frequently articulates astonishment and dismay that such people could have so comprehensively rejected ‘British values’, as if it were obvious what these values are and that every British citizen should automatically subscribe to them. Attempts to enumerate these values usually include general qualities such as tolerance, respect for the rule of law, a sense of fair play, civic liberties, and non-discrimination along the lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or creed.
How could such youngsters, who’ve enjoyed the benefits of a society that embodies these values during their upbringing, turn their backs on that society and seek to destroy it? By implication, those minority-ethnic young Muslims should jolly well be grateful that they’ve enjoyed the benefits of British tolerance, law, fairness, and protection for their freedoms and minority rights, and should be grateful for what this country has given them, not turn against it.
But such an assessment of the phenomenon seems grossly incommensurate to the scale and nature of what those youngsters are embracing: not just an adolescent-type rejection of their parents’ decent values and moderate lifestyles, but a movement that actually celebrates barbarity, genocide, philistinism, and the rape and enslavement of women in the name of a self-consciously medieval reinterpretation of Islam. ‘Sorry, mum and dad, I reject your “British values” as inconsistent with Islam; and so I’m going to go and behead people who disagree with my interpretation of Islam, and commit sundry acts of slaughter, rape and pillage for the glory of Allah’. Or, ‘sorry, mum and dad, I don’t want to be married to a nice respectable Bradford small business owner, so I’m going to hitch myself to a psychopathic IS warrior and become his chattel for ever more’. This just doesn’t seem to add up, which is why it leaves the commentators flummoxed.
Perhaps the problem is in part the very ‘British-Asian’ identity that’s being offered to such young people: a hybrid, schizoid identity that is neither fully British nor fully Pakistani (or Bangladeshi, for example). This certainly does not denote an integrally Muslim identity, let alone a ‘British-Muslim’ or, dare I say it, even an ‘English-Muslim’ identity. One of the motivations for these young people, clearly, is that they are seeking an identity and sense of belonging that have a religious (i.e. Islamic) foundation; and, at the same time, they evidently don’t feel they belong in English society. I say ‘English’, rather than ‘British’, deliberately: the Muslims we hear about in the news invariably come from English cities and, as far as I know, there isn’t much of a problem of radicalisation of Scottish Muslims.
So the young people in question wish to affirm their identity as Muslims, over and above their merely British nationality or citizenship, and over and above their ‘Asian’ ethnicity. And, at the same time, they’ve grown up feeling alienated and estranged from the modern English society and communities around them, which are also increasingly secular and irreligious.
The solution, it seems to me, is to seek to foster the inclusion of Islam within English society, as opposed to the adoption of ‘British values’ by, or the imposition of those values on, Muslims living in England, as the latter approach merely partakes of the alienation and non- or counter-Islamic narrative those young Muslims are reacting against. At the same time, the adoption of an increasingly English identity by Muslim communities in England is what would really help overcome their alienation from British identity. This is because once you are, and are accepted as, English, then you truly become an integral part of the British political and cultural landscape in a way that mere acquisition of British nationality or citizenship cannot bring about.
What would such an ‘English Islam’ mean? It certainly doesn’t mean the ‘islamisation’ of England, as some people fear. What I’m thinking of is an opening up of Muslim communities to English civic society, and an embracing of Muslim communities and individuals by English civic society.
For example, Muslim communities and mosques could get involved in existing English community activities and charitable events, or create new ones open to all comers and benefiting the whole community, along typically English lines. These could include things like jumble sales, fêtes, sponsored runs, charity fundraising events, voluntary work, charity shops, etc. Conversely, Muslim communities could be invited to participate in such activities organised by churches or non-church community groups and organisations. In the light of the terrible atrocities being perpetrated by organisations such as IS in the name of Islam, it is sometimes hard to accept the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace and charity. Getting involved in ‘English’ charitable activities and events would be a powerful way to enact that truer form of Islam and demonstrate a counter-narrative to IS.
Similarly, churches and mosques should invite each other’s members to experience their worship and community life, and learn about each other’s faith, as guests. This doesn’t mean being made to participate in the other religion’s acts of worship and other observances, but rather it involves witnessing, and witnessing to, each other’s faith, religious practices and communities. This could only help build a deeper and more affectionate sense of mutual understanding and belonging in a shared community (beyond the narrow confines of each other’s churches or mosques), to which both faiths have a duty of care as fellow servants of the one true God.
It could well be that, as a result of such an extending of the hand of friendship across the religious divide, some Christians might convert to Islam. But equally, some Muslims could be drawn to Christian faith. That’s a challenge that would test the friendship and co-operation between the faith communities. But in resolving those tensions, a more solid and enduring mutual acceptance would surely be forged. In any case, Christian and secular English communities will either have to draw closer to the Muslims in their midst, or the present divisions and mutual distrust will continue to fester and generate recruits for IS. There is, ultimately, no positive alternative to this coming together of English and Muslim communities in a shared, renewed and plural Englishness. And at the same time, it is in reality a religious obligation for both Christians and Muslims to extend that hand of friendship to brethren beyond the church or mosque wall.
Similarly, I would say that Christian and Muslim schools should be open to children from Muslim and Christian backgrounds respectively, and indeed to children from any religious or non-religious background. Indeed, I wonder whether there shouldn’t be quotas to ensure the multi-faith composition of all such schools with, perhaps, 50% drawn from the religion or denomination to which the school claims to belong, with the other 50% representing roughly the religious / non-religious make-up of the remainder of the school’s local community.
The schools’ assemblies and other events should also reflect this diversity with, say, Muslim schools putting on nativity plays and Christmas carol concerts ahead of the Christmas holiday, alongside their celebrations of Muslim holidays and festivals, in which all of the schools’ pupils would be encouraged to take part. I went to a school where around 40% of the pupils were from Jewish backgrounds. Although there were separate assemblies for Jews and non-Jews on some days, on other days there were joint assemblies and prayers, and we had some wonderful Jewish speakers, which really helped me to gain an understanding and respect for the Jewish faith and post-war experience.
These schools, which would effectively be multi-faith, would in fact be an embodiment of the kind of plural English communities we need to be striving for: Muslims, Christians and others living, studying and working together, and sharing each other’s faith and experience. It’s hard to imagine a young Muslim brought up in such a school and community rejecting an Englishness that had been so inclusive, welcoming and friendly towards him or her and the Muslim faith: if there’s no conflict in such a young person’s mind between Islam and Englishness, then his or her Islam will not be used as a pretext to turn violently against England.
In other words, it’s shared Englishness that will bring about a sense of belonging to Britain on the part of young Muslims, not a British identity and set of values that are often not seen as compatible with Muslim faith and practice, and indeed are often advocated as a means to mitigate, control and relativise that Muslim identity. If Muslims feel that they and their faith are accepted as integral members and a valued feature of English civic society and communities, then it will make no sense – either religiously or psychologically – to turn against England. But conversely, we English will need to open our communities, civic society and hearts to Muslims and Islam.
We either love our neighbours as ourselves or make enemies of them. The choice is ours.