Two days after the 7/7 bombings in London two years ago, Muslim community leaders gathered at the London Muslim Centre to consider the impact of the attacks and who might have organised them. Many present refused to accept it might have been Muslims – the common refrain was that it could have been the French, because they had just lost the bid to host the Olympics.
The discussion had the younger generation of professional British-born Muslims grinding their teeth with frustration at the stubborn naivety of an older generation of leadership. Their elders had completely failed to grasp how the community had been swept up in a global political conflict that was interacting with a local crisis of identity and generational conflict.
Wind forward two years and the story has changed. On Friday, a campaign was launched with full-page newspaper adverts condemning the attempted bombings in London and Glasgow and pledging full support to avert future attacks. On Saturday, Muslim activists and imams from across the country gathered in London to consider what could be done to tackle extremism. Among the speakers were members of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism operations. More advertising campaigns are planned this week. Britain’s Muslims have launched their most concerted attempt yet to win the hearts and minds of the public and distance themselves from the activities of violent extremists who claim to act in the name of their faith.
For a younger generation of community activists it’s been the breakthrough for which they’ve been waiting for years. They admit that there has been denial in the community, which has inspired fanciful conspiracy theories, but what has enabled them to challenge that has been the sheer volume of evidence in recent trials. Violent extremism cannot be dismissed as the responsibility of the odd loner. Last week saw a succession of appalling news stories. First it was the shocking cases of the attempted London and Glasgow bombings in which respected doctors and fathers were alleged to have been the ringleaders. Then there were two terrorism trials, in Manchester and Woolwich, which resulted in three convictions.
For an older generation who migrated from impoverished areas of the rural subcontinent to offer their families a better life in the UK, this crisis is utterly, and painfully, bewildering: where did they go wrong? Such is their confusion and the pressure they are under, it might force this generation out of community leadership. Meanwhile, among their offspring, the crisis is prompting a huge soul-searching into what in their faith, historical and cultural background could give space for extremism to flourish. Many Muslims are incensed by injustice and angry about British foreign policy, but they don’t plot to bomb innocent civilians – so what is it about these jihadis that draws them into such atrocities? And what do they use to license their outrage to commit such terrible crimes?
In answering such questions, a new honesty and self-criticism is striking. In the past few days, key Muslim community activists have admitted to me that what worries them is how certain theological issues have not been properly clarified, and can be used to justify extremism. The most important is the age-old distinction between dar al-Islam (the land of Islam) and dar al-harb (the land of the other, of unbelief – or of war, according to the literal translation from the Arabic). This demonisation of all that is not Muslim is the “paradigmatic, instinctive response that people fall back on in a moment of crisis”, I was told. Extremists such as Hizb ut-Tahrir use this dualism, as do jihadis, to justify their contempt for the rights – and lives – of the kufr, the unbeliever.
Various Islamic theologians have tried to challenge this intolerance. Dr Zaki Badawi said it was unacceptable to designate the UK as dar al-harb, and declared a third category, the land of contract – dar al-sulh – where Muslims have entered a contract to obey the law in exchange for protection and freedom. Significantly, this was an idea promoted by the controversial Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, that hate figure of the neocons, over 20 years ago.
There are other equally fraught issues, such as the legacy of anti-colonial thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Mawdudi, whose inflammatory, anti-western rhetoric, taken out of context, can sound much like a charter for jihad. Their books are still sold by mainstream Muslim organisations: why, asks Yahya Birt, a prominent member of this new reforming generation, in a recent posting on his blog. Is it tribal loyalty or what, he asks.
What’s remarkable is that these subjects are being aired in public and even discussed with non-Muslims; for years, the charge of washing dirty linen in public ensured silence. But Britain is now the arena for one of the most public, impassioned and wide-ranging debates about Islam anywhere in the world.
This debate won’t kill off extremism, but it’s one of several crucial elements required in a patient, painstaking strategy to win the hearts and minds of young Muslims. The new security minister. Admiral Sir Alan West. acknowledged as much yesterday when he spoke of a 10- to 15-year strategy to tackle extremism. Gordon Brown was back on the hearts-and-minds theme last week – it’s been one of the most familiar refrains of the government since 7/7. But what he proposed – a “propaganda effort” – shows how unfamiliar he is with this brief: how could he imagine propaganda will have any effect on media-literate youngsters deeply sceptical after Iraq of anything associated with this Labour government?
The truth is that the government’s hearts-and-minds strategy has been a fiction of speech writers. It has foundered in the break-up of the Home Office, been split across departments and got lost in the Department of Communities and Local Government’s cohesion agenda. A recent meeting at the Home Office on how to combat extremism attracted few Muslims but several journalists – including those who have lobbied hard that the government should withdraw from any engagement with organisations with historical links to Islamism, the broad 20th-century movement of political Islam. Their lobbying succeeded in freezing out a wide range of organisations, including the Muslim Council of Britain. It has been self-defeating; it left Ruth Kelly, then at the DCLG, with a bunch of tiny, well-meaning organisations as her appointed “strategic partners”, who had very little reach into the community.
Hazel Blears must be cannier than that. What matters is what works – who has the power in a community to inch through change, most importantly in that closed world of Britain’s 1,600-odd mosques that are fiercely independent, and have ethnic and sectarian allegiances. This is the most difficult front, and the most important. It is estimated that 90% of Britain’s male Muslims attend Friday prayers, making it the best place to connect to the core constituency.
The Metropolitan police’s Muslim Contact Unit has understood this, following a strategy of working with Islamist- and Salafi-dominated mosques such as the one in Brixton, well aware that their best chance of drawing extremists away from violence is through those who know how to argue the case on Islamic grounds and redirect the religious fervour of hot-headed young men. Winning hearts and minds will take a generation; but what’s becoming clear is just how many Muslims are engaged in this struggle already.