Doing her bit for integration: The Queen visits a mosque in Scunthorpe as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002 (©John Giles/PA Archive/PA Images)
On the evening of the recent attacks on Paris, I was walking back to my college through the centre of Oxford when I ran into a friend. He asked me whether I knew about the events unfolding in France and as he explained, I felt a combination of profound sadness and frustration that every moderate Muslim will recognise — precisely the same sadness I felt ten years ago when London, my hometown, came under attack.
In the intervening decade, very little has changed in terms of Britain’s response to home-grown terror; our strategy for stamping out extremism is just as clumsy and impotent now as it was in 2005. Indeed, the national response to these atrocities has grown so formulaic that it is possible to predict, with pinpoint accuracy, the sequence of events in the aftermath of any terrorist attack.
First come the unilateral calls for peaceful Muslims to condemn the perpetrators. In the days following the Paris attacks the Sun declared that Muslims “have done too little in public to express solidarity with the victims in Paris and the civilised, tolerant democracies in which they live” and “must turn all those who promote or support the genocidal cult into the pariahs they deserve to be”. I must admit, I have struggled in recent weeks to fit the recommended three hours of daily “terror condemnation” into my schedule alongside completing my PhD, managing to do my laundry with any degree of regularity, and ordering ill-advised late-night takeaways with my flatmates. Similarly, my mother, a secondary school teacher, just can’t seem to find the time to denounce global terror in between marking GCSE mock exams and preparing lesson plans. What horrendous role models we are for British Muslims in our failure to actively condemn terrorism with every breath. How intellectually lazy of me to assume actions are more valuable than words and that being productive, pleasant and engaged members of society is the best way for Muslims to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain.
You will, I hope, forgive my sarcasm, but the popular notion that moderate Muslims must do more to denounce terror is deeply flawed in that it rests on two sizeable fallacies.
The first is that British-born extremists are ideologically driven and would be willing to engage in arguments along the lines of “the Koran forbids killing” or “the Koran refers to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike as People of the Book”. The fact that Mohammad Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, a pair of embryonic Birmingham-raised terrorists, were apprehended en route to Syria last year carrying copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies disproves this quite beautifully. In the fight against home-grown terror, we are not dealing with criminal masterminds but a collection of slack-jawed young men whose ability to engage in weighty theological debates extends about as far as Grant Shapps’s prospects of returning to ministerial office.
The second fallacy is that the opinions of moderate Muslims would hold even the tiniest amount of sway with extremists. Of course, if I believed for a single moment that I could directly address a would-be terrorist (presumably I would find his contact details in the Muslim Yellow Pages that appears on my doorstep every year) and reverse extensive brainwashing with a few firm words (“Now see here Jamal, would you mind awfully if I asked you to give up on this whole terrorism malarkey? It’s really just not cricket”) I would do so in a heartbeat. But in reality any fledgling extremist or even a more culturally conservative Muslim would take one cursory glance at me, a liberal British Muslim woman, and dismiss my opinions as invalid. I am reminded of a drinks reception I recently attended in Oxford. As I sipped my orange juice, an old friend politely asked whether I was teetotal for health reasons. I assumed he was being sarcastic and assured him that I was no new-age quinoa-eating hippie. He continued to look puzzled and I laughingly reminded him that my surname is Ahmed and comically gestured at my face to demonstrate my obvious non-whiteness. “I’m Muslim,” I finally explained, to cries of “Really? I had no idea!” If an open-minded and highly intelligent man can struggle to understand how sociable, independent, educated young women can simultaneously identify as Muslim, what hope do we have of being taken seriously when addressing extremists?
After the calls for condemnation comes a slew of spectacularly ineffective policy decisions. In recent years, the government’s efforts to combat home-grown terror have consisted largely of bureaucratic waffle and very little common sense. The Home Office’s flagship counter-terrorism programme, Prevent, claims to work “with local authorities [and] a wide range of government departments” to tackle extremism and radicalisation. Presumably Prevent had a hand in producing a recent leaflet distributed to parents by the Camden Safeguarding Children Board which, among other staggeringly obvious insights, informed readers that “showing sympathy for extremist causes” may be a sign that their child has been radicalised. Similarly Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank which has received significant public funding, appears to do little else except produce white papers and hold highbrow lectures given by precisely the sorts of people that young extremists would pay no attention to. Theresa May has, in her own baffling way, contributed to the good fight by declaring at the 2014 Conservative party conference that IS “has nothing to do with Islam” and quoting from the Koran in an attempt to convince no one in particular of a self-evident truth. I can only imagine the mad mullahs quaking in their boots in the face of such a ruthless assault on terror. Put simply, Number 10 just doesn’t get it.
What, then, ought they to be doing?
Allow me to briefly bore you with some statistics. Of the 2.7 million Muslims living in Britain, 53 per cent were born overseas and approximately 68 per cent are of South Asian descent. According to the think-tank Demos, British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis rank poorly against most conventional measures of social mobility and integration; they are disproportionately represented in low-skilled professions such as taxi-driving, tend to live in more segregated neighbourhoods, and exhibit higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of academic attainment than any other ethnic minority group.
As a whole, Muslims are disproportionately represented in the prison system, accounting for 14.4 per cent of inmates but only 3 per cent of the general population. Add to this the fallout of Labour’s policy of multiculturalism; the outwardly cuddly but insidious idea that minority groups in Britain should be left to their own devices, without any attempt at integration into wider society. We have, unwittingly, created the perfect cultural and educational vacuum in which poisonous ideas can flourish.
The key to preventing further attacks does not lie in grappling with ideology, but in increasing integration. We must begin by imposing some semblance of order on the unregulated system of Muslim clerics in Britain; sermons at British mosques must be delivered in English, by individuals who have undergone rigorous religious training at British institutions. Indeed, British universities must respond to this need and offer courses to train the next generation of British imams. Second, private Islamic primary and secondary schools must be held to the same standards as mainstream schools in terms of the teaching of British values, gender equality and a broad and balanced curriculum. Similarly, in the state sector, schools must cease pandering to any individual pupils’ religious beliefs through special considerations on school uniform, religious assemblies, and physical education. We must redouble our efforts in deporting hate preachers from Britain, be ruthless in regulating TV channels broadcasting religious material, and root out the spread of extremism within the penal system.
The problem of Muslim integration in Britain has been treated with kid gloves for far too long, and the government must summon the moral courage to confront this issue in the interests of long-term national cohesion and security.