The problem of violent extremism, which tends to dominate the headlines, is very real. But unfortunately, the headlines can often obscure the complex social factors from which the threat of terrorism emerges as a final result. Currently, the government’s approach to preventing violent extremism or countering terrorism is in danger of dealing overwhelmingly with symptoms, rather than root structural causes. There is a tendency toward ‘widening the net’ in the effort to find evidence of terrorist activity – but ‘widening the net’ of surveillance, risk-assessment and legal powers tends only to increase the number of innocent civilians that end up being caught in the net, leaving the terrorists to slip through. This is a huge burden on public funds, which is unlikely to produce real results. The more we ‘widen the net’, the more extremists groups will find devious ways of slipping through.
So what are the root structural factors that we need to address? Violent radicalisation is not simply the result of one cause, or even a range of causes, but is the culmination of a hierarchy of interdependent causes. These operate collectively as a mutually-reinforcing social system, which therefore requires a holistic approach.
The first factors worth noting are social exclusion and institutional discrimination. These terms by themselves do not explain violent extremism in the UK, but they are primarily responsible for a weakening of a sense of British national identity and citizenship. The majority of British Muslims are socially excluded. Sixty-nine per cent of British Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic origin live in poverty. Unemployment rates are also higher than for any other faith group; young Muslims aged 16 to 24 years have the highest unemployment rates, and are over twice as likely as Christians of the same age to be unemployed. Social exclusion is linked to institutional discrimination. According to Minority Rights Group International, British Muslim “access to education, employment and housing” is deteriorating.
The combination of social exclusion and institutional discrimination affecting a majority of Muslim communities in Britain contributes to a general collective sense of marginalisation, disenfranchisement, and disenchantment; a sense of being excluded from civil society, which thus exacerbates the experience of a separate or segregated identity to mainstream Britain. This sense of civic exclusion is reinforced primarily by a perception of blocked social mobility and discrimination, and therefore, can even affect more upwardly mobile groups.
The good news is that despite the prevalence of social exclusion, only a minority of British Muslims are likely to respond by negating their sense of British identity and citizenship, becoming vulnerable to a powerful sense of civic exclusion. A 2009 Gallup poll finds that while only half the general British population identifies strongly as British, 77% of Muslims in the UK identify very strongly as British, with 82% affirming themselves as loyal to Britain.
But trends aren’t so heartening with regards to non-Muslim perspectives of British Muslims. In 2001, a majority of two to one thought that Islam posed no threat to democracy. Now, two to one British non-Muslims believe that Islam is a serious threat to democracy, and that most Muslims support terrorism. This trend of social polarisation is a second factor that undermines community cohesion, and potentially undermines a sense of belonging amongst some British Muslims.
These increasingly negative perceptions are catalysed by a third factor: reactionary and irresponsible media reporting. A media study commissioned by the Mayor of London found that in a single week in 2006, 91% of newspaper articles published nationwide about Muslims were negative, denying “common ground between the West and Islam.” Another study by Cardiff University’s School of Journalism analysed UK press coverage of British Muslims from 2000 to 2008, and found that “Four of the five most common discourses used about Muslims in the British press associate Islam/Muslims with threats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values.”
Ironically, then, the media has served to reinforce the sense of blocked social mobility, discrimination and alienation experienced by many British Muslims, while simultaneously stoking widespread paranoia about Islam amongst non-Muslims, and promoting the views of Islamist extremists as representative of British Muslims. Together these factors interplay to create an environment that undermines the notion that Muslims belong intrinsically to British society, culture and values as citizens, and increases vulnerability to identity crisis.
Exclusion and discrimination are known to be key causative factors in mental health problems, and there is little doubt that these processes have detrimentally affected British Muslim mental health, raising the question of the link between mental illness and young Muslims’ vulnerability to identity crisis. Although there are insufficient studies of this, a recent survey by Rethink found that 61% of British Pakistanis believed that negative perceptions of them by the media and society had damaged their mental health.
At this point, the ‘pull’ factor of Islamist extremist organisations becomes significant. These extremist groups, often financed by overseas networks in the Middle East and Central Asia, exploit conditions and perceptions of disenfranchisement fuelled particularly by grievances over British and Western foreign policy. Those who are particularly vulnerable due to a convergence of personal, psychological and social reasons linked to their peer-networks, family environment and so on, may find a potential resolution of their identity crises in these extremist groups. Such groups galvanise the sense of frustration and civic exclusion to inculcate an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ mentality. At worst, this mentality misappropriates Islamic texts, language and symbolism to justify violence against ‘Their’ (Western) civilians as a response to ‘Their’ killings of ‘Our’ (Muslim) civilians abroad.
The cumulative interaction of all these factors creates a mutually-reinforcing positive-feedback system which causes a minority of British Muslims to experience violent radicalisation. Dealing with ideology and foreign policy is important – but these operate primarily as a final ‘pull’ factor; so far the deeper, structural ‘push’ factors have been neglected, and are getting worse. It is therefore imperative for Muslim communities to engage with government at all levels to get these deeper structural issues onto the agenda – for the sake of the security and prosperity of British society as a whole.
Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is a bestselling author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Crisis of Civilization: How Climate, Oil, Food, Finance, Terror, and Warfare will Change the World (Pluto, 2010). He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and has authored four other books on terrorism and foreign policy, including most recently The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry (Duckworth, 2006). He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Sussex, where he has taught contemporary history and political theory.
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.