Europe faces an identity crisis. The January attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Copenhagen shootings have raised fresh questions about ‘home-grown’ terrorists – people who have been radicalised, often after having grown up within the same country that they attack, such as the recently ‘unmasked’ Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John). Are attacks such as these the symptoms of a sick and failing multiculturalism project in Europe?
Often, perceptions of terrorism pay disproportionate attention to Muslims. Last week (Wednesday 25th February), the results of a ComRes survey of the attitudes of Muslims in Britain were published. Decried by the chairman of the anti-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, Maajid Nawaz, as ‘profoundly disconcerting’, the headline-grabbing statistics are: 27% of British Muslims say they have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris; 11% feel sympathetic towards people who want to fight against Western interests; and 45% believe Muslim clerics preaching that violence against the west can be justified are not out of touch with mainstream Muslim opinion.
Whether you think this indicates a large number of ‘fair-weather supporters of terrorism’ or a failing by the establishment to foster a climate of compassion and togetherness, these statistics, that have been leapt upon by the press, must be taken into context with the others from the survey: 46% of Muslims in Britain feel that being a Muslim is difficult due to prejudice against Islam. This artificial cultural divide between Britain and Islam is surely pushing some Muslims towards extreme attitudes.
“27% of British Muslims say they have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris”
It often seems that the central theme of this parliament has been securing ‘Britishness’ in whatever arbitrary form they decided upon that week. From Michael Gove increasing the focus on British (read: English) history, to the infamous ‘racist van’, to the incessant calls for the promotion of ‘British Values’ [sarcastic capitals mine] – outlined in all the blissfully ignorant hypocrisy that you might expect here, if you’re interested – you could be forgiven for accusing the Conservatives of pandering to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
The truth is, though, that this has been going on since before the rise of Nigel Farage’s People’s Army [capitals theirs, presumably also sarcastically]. In 2011, David Cameron gave his first call for ‘active, muscular liberalism’, promising that community organisations that did too little to stand up to extremism would cease to be ‘showered with money’.
This was nothing new even then. Especially since the attacks in London in July 2005, the previous government moved conspicuously towards patriotism. Tony Blair began to air much the same sentiment as Cameron has by the end of his period as Prime Minister, and even Gordon Brown used major speeches to call for Labour supporters to ‘embrace the Union flag’, going so far as to propose a national day to celebrate Britishness.
“It often seems that the central theme of this parliament has been securing ‘Britishness’ in whatever arbitrary form they decided upon that week.”
Such calls for a strengthened British identity, rather than bringing people together, are causing further division. One response that this elicits is increased hegemony within the disparate Islamic community, but in a marginalised and inevitably anti-British context. ‘Sensitive issues such as Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq’ are used by Islamists in this unification project. This context brings anti-western attitudes to the fore, and in a group of people so ostracised from mainstream politics there are necessarily fewer people challenging those attitudes.
Young Muslims, similarly to young people from all backgrounds, seem to feel especially disenfranchised with politics in Britain today, and as such are more ready to subscribe to extreme views than older members of their community. A Policy Exchange poll from 2007 highlights this dichotomy, showing the stark differences between the attitudes of 16 to 24-year-old British Muslims and their over-55-year-old counterparts. This fact is made more poignant by the Muslim population having the lowest median age of all religions in the UK (24, according to the 2011 census, compared to the Christian median age of 45).
This generational gap in attitudes is likely because young people spend more time on the Internet. Baroness Warsi has described this as people being ‘radicalised in their bedrooms’, and it is the method by which the three girls from Bethnal Green who recently travelled to join Islamic State were groomed. This is being used by the government to justify calls for increased snooping powers, but not all countries in Europe are reacting the same way.
“Young Muslims are more ready to subscribe to extreme views than older members of their community.”
Austria, which has a roughly 6% Muslim population (for comparison, Muslims comprise 4.4% of the UK population), has passed a bill to reform its 1912 law which has long been held as being a model legal treatment of Muslims in Europe. The reform bars foreign funding to Austrian mosques and Islamic clerical figures, and has been criticised for singling Islam out in particular. This is a response to the widely held belief that Islamism in the West is spread largely by nations in the Persian Gulf like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
If marginalisation causes, or at the very least exacerbates, radicalisation, the surest methodology would be to construct a plan founded on principles of acceptance and togetherness. The many liberal and progressive Muslim thinkers in Britain must expand their reach and spread their message on a variety of media, especially the Internet, to ensure that Islamism does not hold a monopoly on influencing any young person. Currently these voices are largely spent on mainstream print and broadcast media, in part to combat the relentlessly negative image of Islam coming from similar outlets.
Needless, myopically populist labels like ‘British’ values must be left behind. They preclude the unity that society needs not just in order to survive multiculturalism, but to be enriched by it. The process is going to take years of arguments, serious intellectual bravery and the finesse of cultural understanding, but a safe and diverse democracy is not that far-fetched a goal.
Image via bbc.co.uk