Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Sara Khan: British Muslim Girls and Extremism

In my last blog, Baronness Warsi: "British Muslims will only speak up for British values when they know they will be heard", I observed the need for greater engagement, inclusiveness, listening and trust-building among British Muslims. On 29 March 2015, The Observer published another thought-provoking and significant essay by Sara Khan, co-director of Inspire:* 'British Muslims girls and extremism: what I learned on my journey across the UK' (British Muslim girls and extremism). Khan provides a logical progression of Baronness Warsi's ideas and takes them to the next level. I will list the main points as they relate to the broader theme of strategic communications:

1.  There is 'no uniform Muslim community'. Poor engagement fails to understand that Islam is a faith of many denominations, and our tendency to homogenise British Muslims blinds us to the 'diversity and complexity of views' within communities. That is understandable: governments and the media (especially the media) prefer simple problems and simple solutions. But in this case ignorance amplifies the problem and obstructs the creation of acceptable and legitimate solutions.

2.  Language and education are important. Sara Khan discovered generational divides which prevent communication between parents and children. This extends beyond language to different 'Cultural, religious and gender expectations' between the generations. Moreover a lack of theological knowledge among the older generations means that children seek answers about their faith from elsewhere:

Inevitably, some of these children go online to find their answers - and extreme websites are there awaiting their curiosity. Many teenagers feel their parents are not credible authorities; mothers, for their part, told us they were unaware of what educational resources existed to challenge extremist ideology.   

3.  The climate of fear since 2001 has impacted on the way Islamic youth see themselves, their community and their relationship to the UK: 'There is an identity crisis of the 9/11 generation, children who have grown up under a spotlight of suspicion, affecting their sense of belonging'. I have argued elsewhere that knee-jerk reactions by governments to the threat of domestic extremism can have negative effects on relationships with Muslim communities.  

4.  The possible consequences are enormous: 'This ... leaves the mosques to fill the gap. ... [M]any women felt that some mosques were ill-equipped to teach counter-narratives with any confidence'. Some mosques have said this is not their responsibility, rather it must take place in the home.

5. There has been what Sara Khan describes as 'pushback', and she describes how imams have moved to the virtual world to engage with younger Muslims. In London, scholars and imams gathered to launch an online magazine, Haqiqah (The Truth), designed to answer questions about faith, explain verses from the Koran and counter the simple ISIS narratives. Imamsonline.com is also a source of information and and a place for dialogue (imamsonline.com). Using Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube imamsonline.com provides links to discussions and information on 'culture', 'chaplaincy', 'civic faith' 'interfaith' issues and 'community engagement', all important themes in reclaiming Islam as a peaceful religion. This makes communication timely, accessible and, most important, relevant for the audiences most vulnerable to extremist messages.  

6.  Sara Khan does not shy away from identifying problems within the Muslim community, and focuses on the position of women: 'These women know that challenging extremism also means standing up to patriarchy and gender roles that have the contribution of women in both home and public life'. Women, says Khan, lack confidence to engage with institutions, such as the police, 'Partly because of a lack of trust; partly a lack of engagement and dialogue.' But trust will only be created through greater levels of engagement and dialogue - through actively listening to and hearing the voices of these communities, and discussing with them problems and their possible solutions.

Sara Khan concludes 'Empower women to counter extremism and it is they who will take on this battle'. Although she ends her essay, 'this is not a "community" challenge', clearly the roots of trust and credibility lie within the communities themselves, their grassroots work and through initiatives such as Haqiqah and imamsonline.com. As I have argued in previous posts on this subject, government and state agencies must do much more to bring these grassroots activists and community workers into the conversation about the problems facing Muslims in the UK today, and to work together in partnership with organisations like Inspire ('empowering women, strengthening societies') to combat radicalism among the young.

*Inspire is a counter-extremism and human rights organisation - wewillinspire.com



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