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Review of "The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism" by

The book gives a very easy to read explanation of how extremist Muslim groups in the UK promote an exclusivist and intolerant version of Islam and malign the Government's Prevent programme. It also covers those who are working for Muslim integration and a positive vision for Islam in Britain.

Summary

26 September 2016

As the subject matter of this book is particularly important to me, and I have met Sara Khan on a number of occasions, I ordered this book as soon as it was published and read it earlier this month.

About the book

The book is relatively short, less than 200 pages not counting the notes, with relatively large print and is very easy to read.

Contents

Acknowledgements
A Note on Terms
Introduction

  1. Race to Your Caliphate: The Rise of Islamist Extremism
  2. British Salafists and Islamists: The Growing Convergence
  3. The Islamist-Led Assault on Prevent
  4. Identity Politics: Islamism and the Ultra Left, the Far Right and Feminists
  5. Voices from the Frontline

Conclusion: Winning the Battle against Extremism

About the Authors
Notes
Bibliography
Index

In the sections below, I have dipped into the book to give a flavour of the style and coverage of the subject matter.

A Note on Terms

I was pleased to see this section as this is a field where too many people use terms without attempting to define them.

Extremism

This is one of the most difficult concepts to define. The book makes a worthwhile attempt and in particular is unambiguous about the point that extremism is not just about violence; something completely obvious to me but rejected by many Muslims.

“My definition of extremism includes any who incite violence, hatred or discrimination for political, religious or ideological causes. This can often include undermining the rule of law and democracy.

Extremism is not just about violence. In the 21st century, universal human rights norms should be the means by which we judge extremism.”

Moderate

The book explains why it avoids the use of the term “moderate Muslim”. That is a term I also detest as it implies that if someone is a “moderate Muslim” they are somehow less of a Muslim than the immoderate extremists.

Islamophobia

I was pleased to see that the authors also find this term problematical, as do I in my piece “Islamophobia – a trap for unwary Muslims.”

Introduction

The authors begin by setting the scene and point to the disturbing rise of extreme attitudes amongst British Muslims and the importance of “how we respond to these puritanical and Islamist extreme ideologies.”

I have often written about the Government’s Counterterrorism Strategy and in particular the Prevent component. However, I have no personal experience of direct engagement in Prevent work, unlike Sara Khan.

I was pleased to read the following paragraph:

“The ‘Prevent’ strategy aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, but it has attracted much public criticism. Prevent has often been described as ‘toxic’. A perception exists that it seeks to criminalise British Muslims, spy on Muslim children and close down debate within school classes. So much can be written about the achievements and shortcomings of Prevent. My focus in this book, however, is an area that has not been discussed enough, which is how British Salafi-Islamists have led and delivered a highly effective strategy to derail Prevent on account of their own ideological beliefs and for reasons of self-preservation.”

Sara Khan explains why she wrote the book.

“My motivation, first and foremost, in writing this book is a sense of obligation and principle as a Muslim. Throughout my life, Islam has been and continues to be a core part of my identity and has framed my humanistic outlook. I care deeply about the direction of travel that contemporary Islam finds itself in and the violence and ugliness that are often justified by Muslims. Truth be told there were times when the actions of ISIS and the inhumanity of Muslim extremists rocked my own faith. In their pursuit of hate and violence, not only are these extremists helping to create a divided British society, they are also toxifying Islam, turning the faith whose cornerstone advocated compassion, mercy and justice into a religion of death, despair, inhumanity and brutality.”

Those are very similar to my own reasons for writing and speaking so often about intolerant extreme attitudes amongst some Muslims.

“My second reason for writing this book is this: because I have spent my life working with Muslim communities and in particular young Muslims, I care passionately about their future. So many of Britain’s Muslim youth are incredibly aspirational, positive and thoughtful. Whether their involvement is in the arts, youth politics, music or drama, I am always left feeling optimistic for the future, despite the numerous challenges and pressures that face them from all sides. These young hopefuls belong to Britain, and Britain belongs to them.

I have worked with young Muslims whose lives have been ruined by predatory radicalisers who have sought to destroy their future by enticing them towards extremism, through binary and falsely constructed paradigms of identity and belonging. I feel it is imperative that we do what we can to help them. These promising young people, who have so much to contribute to our country, are being let down. They suffer from a lack of strong and visionary Muslim leadership, a disconnect from mosques, a rising Islamist movement in the UK, alongside growing anti-Muslim hatred. As a mother it pains me greatly to see this happen; we cannot allow it to continue.”

1. Race to Your Caliphate: The Rise of Islamist Extremism

In my view, many of the attacks upon Prevent take place in a “fact free zone” which comprises either assertions with no facts, or media stories which lacked appropriate detail even before they were further distorted by the anti-Prevent lobby.

Accordingly, I was very pleased by finding that this chapter includes a number of detailed cases.

It begins with the tale of a 13-year old girl, “Muneera” (name changed) and how she was radicalised and the de-radicalisation contribution made by “Leila, a Muslim woman in her 30s, [who] had been assigned to be Muneera’s intervention provider under the UK Government’s counterterrorism programme.” The book explains just how Muneera was radicalised and the fact that one of her radicalisers was a 14-year-old boy in Blackburn who was also plotting a massacre of army veterans in Australia and who eventually became the youngest Briton to be found guilty of a terrorist offence.

There are several more specific cases discussed in this chapter as well as a more general overview of the issues.

2. British Salafists and Islamists: The Growing Convergence

This chapter provides a very informative historical overview of the last 25 years with details of some of the organisations involved in promoting extremism. It opens:

“Throughout the 1990s, two ideological strands competed for the loyalty of young British Muslims looking for a globalised Islamic identity: Islamism and Salafism. The former operated more like a political party advocating a caliphate governed by sharia law; the latter called for a return to the traditions and teachings of the first three generations of Muslims during and after the time of the Prophet. They both spurned the notion of integration into British society, offering instead an identity based entirely on faith. But they were to a large extent in opposition to each other.”

The chapter goes on to explain how these groups came to converge, not so much by formal merger as simply closer cooperation and closer ideological alignment. A number of individuals active within these movements are also profiled.

One of those is Abdur Raheem Green of iERA (Islamic Education and Research Academy). The section about him includes the following paragraph:

“Throughout 2015 iERA organised a series of debates under a campaign title ‘Don’t Hate/Debate’. One event was titled ‘Is Islam the Cause or Solution to Extremism?’ [There is a footnote linking to the YouTube video of the debate.] The panel included the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who decided to test the limits of what could actually be discussed. He invited the iERA representative and others on the panel to specifically condemn capital punishment for adultery, homosexuality and apostasy. The resulting uproar from members of the panel and audience made it clear that the debate was to be contained within a narrow framing.”

In my view, the above paragraph gives a misleading impression regarding what happened. As my page “Panel discussion video: Is Islam the Cause or Solution to Extremism?” explains, I was one of the participants on the panel and I chose not to respond to Peter Tatchell’s questions because the chairman, Peter Oborne, had ruled them out of order. I recommend watching the video.

3. The Islamist-Led Assault on Prevent

This chapter goes through a number of stories which have been recycled repeatedly by the anti-Prevent lobby causing many Muslims to believe them as true. See for example some of the points made against Prevent in the Bradford Prevent Debate I took part in earlier this year.

The author opens with the story of the 14-year-old boy allegedly interrogated “for using the word ‘eco-terrorism’ in class.”

The book then goes on to explain why Prevent was set up and in particular how the Channel programme operates within Prevent.

My experience is that many people fail to understand that Channel has nothing to do with criminal investigation and is entirely pre-criminal and participation in it is voluntary. Accordingly, I was pleased to see the detailed explanation in this book.

The book gives a number of examples where Channel interventions have helped to prevent young people being radicalised. It also discusses other notorious anti-Prevent stories such as the 10-year-old boy allegedly referred to prevent over the spelling mistake of writing “terrorist house” instead of “terraced house.”

I was struck by the following paragraph which is rightly impassioned:

“The questions to ask those criticising safeguarding are: what do you want to put in place of Prevent, or do you seriously believe there is no problem at all? Has the Government invented a problem to criminalise Muslim kids, or is there a real threat of children being radicalised online and off-line by terrorist and extremist far-Right groups?”

The problem unfortunately, as I have often encountered, is that many Muslims are in denial about the reality of radicalisation and the threat it poses to our children and young people. See for example the opening remarks of my opponent in the Bradford Prevent Debate. Meanwhile, other malevolent individuals actively wish to promote support for ISIS and similar organisations although they are usually careful to avoid explicit language that would risk prosecution for supporting terrorism.

4. Identity Politics: Islamism and the Ultra Left, the Far Right and Feminists

In this chapter, the authors discuss some of the shenanigans at universities which lead to secular left-wing groups and feminists finding themselves aligned with, and often expressly supporting, highly intolerant extremist Islamist views. The irony is that the views of the Islamists are actually extremely hostile to those of left-wing secularism and to feminism.

The position is made worse still by the “New Atheism” where new atheist voices contend that the only authentic Islam is that of the extremists. The chapter closes:

“Identity politics is killing free speech on campus, silencing Muslim women in struggle, boosting both Islamism and the far Right, and pushing reconciled Muslim voices to the fringes. It makes implicit assumptions about Islam – from an Islamist, Left or far-Right perspective – and insists all Muslims must adhere to that definition or be regarded as not truly Muslim. It ignores the fact that most ordinary Muslims are not in favour of a violent ideology and that in surveys and polls they support British values more than the general UK population. Yet the myth persists that the ideology of Islamism is the true expression of what it means to be a Muslim.”

5. Voices from the Frontline

This chapter begins with some scene setting. It points out how the 2005 London bombings spurred a number of British Muslim activists into renewed action. (They also led to me writing about extremism.)

“Some groups already occupied this space, such as the Islamic Society of Britain (after its split from Islamist influenced organisations), City Circle and the Association of British Muslims. They were now joined by new groups like Radical Middle Way, founded in 2005, which challenged literalist interpretations of Islam by recourse to the teachings of scholars. 2006 saw the emergence of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and Faith Matters, asserting respectively that such concepts as human rights were compatible with Islam and that individuals could practice their religion as faithful Muslims in Britain.

Initially, this put the Salafists and Islamists on the defensive. But, over the past five years, the tables have very obviously turned. It is now the Salafi-Islamist ideologues who are in the ascendancy, with those advocating a reconciled British Islam being increasingly pushed to the margins. This reversal of fortune was achieved by the collaborative effort of the familiar Salafist and Islamist advocates relentlessly touring up and down the country, penetrating university campuses, using social media collaboratively and turning Prevent into a hot-button issue with Muslims, the ultra-Left and students.”

The chapter goes on to discuss a number of individuals and organisations working to counter the Salafist-Islamist ideologies.

It closes:

“For the activists we have met in this chapter it can seem as if the Hydra of Greek mythology confronts them. This monster had many heads and, as one was struck off, another grew in its place. So it is with the Salafi-Islamist monster – a multi-headed creature with one body and considerable strength. Those who take it on, tend to meet a grim fate. The poison comes from all angles, deterring anybody else from joining the fight. Heroically they fight on, but aware that, to win, the movement against Salafi-Islamism needs to be much stronger.

Isolated and under-supported, brave souls like Mustafa [Field of Faiths Forum for London] and Tehmina [Kazi of British Muslims for Secular Democracy] fight for community cohesion and an identity that sees no contradiction between being a Muslim and British. At present, such voices represent isolated figures with insufficient support from wider society. But these voices matter in defending human rights and equality. They play a major role in building cohesive communities and a pluralist future, who in the face of hostility, deserve our support.”

Conclusion: Winning the Battle against Extremism

The concluding chapter begins by pointing out that “In spite of the best evidence of Islamists, Britain continues to see signs of genuine hope. Among the most noticeable was the election in May 2016 of London’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. Here was a man clearly comfortable with several strands of identity: being British, Muslim and a Londoner.”

The authors emphasise the need for Muslims and non-Muslims to work together to defeat terrorist and extremist ideology. “...the battle is not solely a Muslim issue.”

The book closes:

“The political Left and Right must recognise the harmful role played by identity politics in favouring Islamists over Muslims who are seeking to champion a British Islam. While many anti-racist movements are more than happy to counter far-Right narratives, a significant number have refused to address Islamist extremism in the misguided belief that such action would be Islamophobic. This stems from the erroneous assumption that Islamism is Islam. This must change. Too much ground has been ceded to the Salafi-Islamists, who have dominated online channels and social media, toured the country tirelessly with their messages and built disturbingly effective networks at local level.

Salafi-Islamism continues to play an influential role, not only within Muslim communities but within our society as a whole. Individuals and organisations espousing such ideology have partnered with teachers, universities and human rights groups, often talking the language of liberalism to hide their illiberal and anti-western outlook. If this continues then we have little hope of defeating Islamist extremism in the near future.

Building an inclusive movement against Islamist extremism has never been more important. Already hundreds of Muslim civil society groups across the United Kingdom are doing incredible work in such areas as youth safeguarding and building cohesive communities. They reject the Islamist worldview and as a result find themselves being undermined by Islamists who are spreading a gospel of disenchantment and suspicion in Muslim communities.

A united civil society movement backed by liberals and the Left would be one major step forward. This movement would recognise the need to respond in unison to Salafi-Islamism and support those Muslims who are on the front-line. The more civil society speaks out against Islamist extremism, the more we normalise our opposition to bigotry, discrimination and regressive ideologies. The more we challenge the Islamist worldview, the greater are the chances of fermenting a comfortable British Muslim identity which will help young Muslims become resilient to extremist narratives.

The government has understood the threat posed by Islamist extremism. It has engaged with hundreds of mosques and faith groups, taken down online extremist content and worked with civil society groups in producing counter-narrative videos.

The truth is, however, that diktats from Whitehall will not defeat extremism. That goal can be achieved by a re-energised civil society movement on the ground, but this movement needs to be cultivated and invested in. Partners are needed at every level in society – teachers, activists, feminists, for example, who can help build the united Britain that all of us want.

Both Islamist and far-Right extremists seek to extinguish the ‘grey zone’, the middle ground of compassionate co-existence. However, our greatest strength lies in the defence of our shared values. The choices and decisions we make today impact the battle for British Islam.”

Quality control

I learned early in my professional career that it is almost impossible to write a long document without making some mistakes. However, I found the error rate in this book sufficiently noticeable that I began marking particularly egregious errors while I was reading it.

I do not recognise the name of the publisher, Saqi Books, but in my opinion their editor has been insufficiently diligent at weeding out errors.

The errors I marked while reading are below.

Page 67

The authors write “Paul Goodman, an MP at the time who had been vocal in raising the issue of anti-Muslim hate crime, wondered how Engage had ever been allowed to be in the position of running an All-Party Parliamentary Group.” However, the previous paragraph makes it clear that events in 2011 are being discussed, and Paul Goodman had stood down from being an MP at the May 2010 general election.

Page 68

The authors write about Sufyan Gulam Ismail: “Ismail ‘retired’ at thirty-nine, according to his own online biography, after a career at the accountancy firm Deloitte, in order to pursue ‘philanthropic endeavours’.”

I know Sufyan Ismail and considered the above text seriously inaccurate as it omitted any reference to his business activities where I knew he had spent most of his career.

While writing this review, I accessed Ismail’s website www.sufyanismail.com on 25 September 2016 and found the following text in the biography section:

“Upon graduation, I commenced employment with Deloitte and then set up a string of award-winning business ventures. My enterprises have won scores of awards and have also been featured in the Sunday Times Top 100 Fast track and Profit Track listings. You can learn more about these in the business and awards sections.

In 2014, at the age of 39, I formally retired from my Business ventures to pursue my life-long dream of dedicating my business skills to philanthropic endeavours.”

Obviously the authors needed to abridge this biography, but in my view they did it badly. (I assume the biography had the same text when they accessed it, but I have no way of knowing.) Their abridgement is poor because it inaccurately implies that most of Sufyan's career was spent at Deloitte when Sufyan's text itself puts most of the emphasis on his business activities.

Pages 82-83

In the section describing the Lee Rigby murder, the authors write: “On 22 May 2013, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale ran Lee Rigby down with a car as he walked near the Royal Wootton Bassett in Woolwich.”

Royal Wootton Bassett is a town in Wiltshire. It does have relevance for the subject matter of the book as extremists have held demonstrations there mocking the return of the bodies of dead British soldiers from overseas. However, it has nothing to do with Woolwich and the murder.

The Wikipedia page “Murder of Lee Rigby” explains that the murder took place near the Royal Artillery Barracks and gives the street names concerned. There is no connection with Royal Wootton Bassett.

Page 85

This page also deals with the Lee Rigby murder and the authors write: “CAGE claimed in a 2012 article after the Adebolajo trial that the Government has yet to provide any empirical evidence that extremist ideology leads to terrorism.”

As the book correctly states two pages earlier that the murder took place on 22 May 2013, this article cannot possibly be dated 2012 if the article was “after the Adebolajo trial.”

Concluding comments

I enjoyed this book and found it very easy to read. In particular, I was struck by how many of the protagonists I have met!

The book concentrates on practical action rather than theology, and in that sense is an excellent complement to Shiraz Maher’s recent book “Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea” which I have also read but not yet reviewed. That book provides an excellent introduction to the theology motivating the extremists.

I particularly appreciate the book’s simple clear, evidenced-based, explanation of why Prevent and the Channel Programme are necessary, and its refutation of the scare stories which are regularly peddled by the extremists.

I recommend it to everyone.

Kindle edition above

 

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