The challenge Isis poses for Britain’s Muslims
he Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, is a murderous group which believes the west is decadent, democracy is wrong and women are inferior. Why anyone living in the comparative comfort of a British city would join such a medieval movement in Syria or Iraq is hard to fathom. Yet Isis has a growing appeal to young Muslims in Britain, an issue of concern not only for the UK security services but for many Islamic leaders too.
Last Saturday, Talha Asmal, a 17-year-old student from West Yorkshire, detonated a car full of explosives at an Iraqi security facility, becoming Britain’s youngest suicide bomber. On Wednesday, three sisters from Bradford and their nine children crossed into Syria and joined Isis, abandoning their grieving husbands. They are the latest in the growing number of Britons, now about 700, who have joined the jihadis in the Levant.
The flow of recruits is disturbing. These are British citizens, many of whom are contributing to death and mayhem abroad; some will return home and may try to commit terrorist acts on British soil. The intelligence services have had considerable success in the past decade unravelling jihadi plots. But the surge of followers joining Isis poses a serious security threat.
There is no simple explanation for why young people are drawn to the warped ideology of jihad. The notion that they are angered by western foreign policy is inadequate, given that Isis is fighting Muslim militaries. It cannot be blamed on social deprivation since many recruits are from comfortable backgrounds. It is also wrong to blame Muslim theology. While Isis may cast itself as representing a pure Islamism, many Muslim scholars denounce it.
Two issues deserve deeper debate, however. One was raised by David Cameron in a speech on Friday when he rightly said that the extremist ideology of Isis is being “quietly condoned” in parts of the UK’s 2.8m strong Muslim population. This is a complex community and we should avoid sweeping judgments. But parts of it could do more to confront the radicalism in their midst. As Shahid Malik, a Labour MP, said this week: “Every mosque should be — and isn’t — making clear in no uncertain terms what is unacceptable in Islam vis-à-vis [Isis].”
Much more should also be done to confront the jihadi online preachers who groom recruits. Many of those who travel to Syria and Iraq seem to have been converted over the internet. This week, Lord Carlile, the former terrorism watchdog, called for a “counter-narrative” to be developed on the internet, one that rejects jihad. Internet companies should work with moderate Muslim leaders to achieve this.
The prime minister needs to ensure his own approach is right. He is planning tougher curbs on non-violent extremism, including banning some Islamist preachers from spreading their messages. This risks appearing like a crackdown on free speech and may alienate many Muslims. It would be better to focus on the role of Saudi Arabia. Despite Britain’s close commercial ties with Riyadh, it should put the kingdom on notice that its Wahhabi proselytism — through mosques, schools and textbooks across the world — is a primary stimulus of Islamist extremism and will not be tolerated.
Defeating the jihadi preachers who poison young Muslim minds will be a long and painful task. It requires each section of the community to face its responsibilities. This government has — so far — been wise to avoid passing draconian laws to counter extremism. But parts of Britain’s Muslim community must, in turn, speak up against the dangerous ideology in their midst.