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Dreams of romance and redemption lure young women to jihad

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Originally published for The Sunday Times on 22/11/15
As you can imagine, there was a lot I had to say on this subject. There are certain parts of this article that I felt needed elaboration, so I have inserted an asterisk at the end of the relevant sentence and expanded below the main article.

 

IT seems baffling: why would any young woman from a free and liberal society choose the barbaric death cult that is Isis? Yet some women in Britain are actively recruiting for a group that orders women to cover themselves from head to toe and takes non-Muslim women as sexual slaves. To call these women “brainwashed” absolves them of any responsibility for their actions.

Some have suggested these women have vulnerabilities that are being exploited. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Or do they?

There is no single pathway to becoming an extremist or terrorist, and women are just as susceptible to this toxic Islamist ideology as their male counterparts.

Some Muslim women are marginalised and disenfranchised. But my parents’ and grandparents’ generation were racially abused quite publicly and had fewer opportunities than we do today. Why did they not blow themselves up on buses or trains?

If anything, women face more pressure and oppression within their own families and communities than from the state.

For some there is the chance to be fighters and slay infidels themselves. A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found evidence that these women “revel in the gore and brutality of the organisation”.

For other young women – and some are very young – there is a jihadist Mills & Boon element to it, as a friend of mine put it.

Kalsoom Bashir, co-director of the anti-extremist group Inspire and a former Prevent officer in Bristol, told me that after Yusra Hussein fled Bristol to join Isis in Syria last year, a teacher claimed some schoolgirls were more excited by Yusra’s marriage to a jihadist fighter than anything else.

“They seemed to think it was exciting and romantic,” Bashir explained. “One teacher told me that she was concerned some girls might think going to Syria was a form of redemption. A few had come out of relationships with boys who had used them badly. They felt dirty and that they had been bad Muslims, as sex outside marriage is considered a sin.”

This is not a surprise. From a young age Muslims are taught that too much interaction with the opposite sex is haram (impermissible). In many of the Islamic societies in British universities, the “brothers” and “sisters” are kept apart. No wonder these young women are tantalised by the prospect of marrying a young, attractive fighter.

Much has been said about Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the “party girl” suicide bomber who blew herself up in Paris last week*. She had a sad childhood, we are told. She never really practised her religion and had boyfriends, her friends and neighbours said.

Yet this is typical behaviour from terrorists. Women such as Aitboulahcen believe they will get their rewards in the hereafter.**

Condemnation alone is not enough when this poisonous ideology is not being tackled and it is ideology that is the root cause.

People from my generation have been taught to divorce Islam from culture; told that our south Asian heritage was oppressing us whereas Islam would liberate us and deliver all our God-given rights.***

This alone does not create terrorists but it certainly contributes to a victim narrative that prevents Muslims from tackling this ideology and instead blames western foreign policy for the creation of Isis.

There is widespread distrust of the government’s Prevent strategy, with university student unions actively pledging to work against it.

Speakers with extremist views are regularly invited to universities to whip up hysteria and spread false information. This must stop or we will continue to see more women, and men, going to Syria.

 

* Of course it has now emerged that she was not a suicide bomber at all.

**By this I mean that many Muslims – and those of other religions – are nominal Muslims. It is rare that you will find a Muslim who will practise everything that is expected of him and him and her, for example praying five times a day, because we’re all hypocrites. Therefore it is no surprise that jihadis have dabbled in drugs and alcohol or committed various “sins” before “repenting” in the hope that they will be forgiven in the afterlife. If anything this demonstrates the powerful role that ideology plays in recruiting would-be jihadis or so-called jihadi brides.

***This may require a separate article/blog but I shall explain as briefly as I can here. What I mean by this is what we are constantly told to avoid mixing culture and religion. Culture, we are told, is what has oppressed us. People ‘confuse’ culture for Islam, therefore we need to follow ‘true’ Islam.  This led to some good things – inter-race marriages being one – but this meant that it is difficult for young people to identify with their parents’ culture, or Britain, and Islam is put before everything – that being a very austere, black and white form of Islam that leaves no space for colour. When you consistently hear that Islam will liberate us, that the Caliphate is what we need, it is no wonder we have ISIS.

 

Written by Iram Ramzan

November 24, 2015 at 9:21 pm

Prevent strategy – misconceptions vs the reality

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Heard the one about the three-year-old jihadi? No seriously, have you? The Daily Mail and various other newspapers ran a story last month about a toddler from Tower Hamlets who is apparently among thousands of Londoners identified as “at risk” of radicalisation by police.

According to a report by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), 834 under-18s children were referred to Channel, the government’s counter-radicalisation authority, at a rate of one per day between April 2012 and June 2014. Around 10 per cent of the children were under age 12.

Don’t worry – tots are not turning into terrorists. The toddler in question was clearly not an extremist, but part of a family that was at risk, and hence needed to be safeguarded. Very few will understand that just by glancing at the headlines.

For several months now, various organisations and commentators have been inflaming the fears and paranoia about the government’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST), ever since wide-ranging powers were brought in under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, meaning  that teachers, social workers, prison officers and NHS managers will need to report signs of radicalisation.

There are four strands to CONTEST:

Pursue – to stop terrorist attacks;

Prevent – to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism;

Protect – to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack;

Prepare – to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack.

Of these four, Prevent is the most controversial one which has dominated the majority of the headlines, including a letter that was sent to the Independent newspaper last month.

“Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”, it said, quoting a point made in the letter, which was signed by 280 academics and public figures.

Either this letter was a knee-jerk reaction with most of the signatories not having read the full letter, or they are willingly complicit in pushing the narratives of extremists. Or both. One of the academics claims the letter was penned by the advocacy group Cage, whose research director, Asim Qureshi, came under fire earlier this year for describing Mohammed Emwazi, or ‘Jihadi John’, as a “beautiful young man”. Cage has a record of defending convicted terrorists, even inviting hate preacher Abu Qatada to speak via a video link at their recent Ramadan dinner. The group was identified in Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on extremism last month as being part of the problem.

One of the signatories is the extremist scholar Haitham al Haddad, who believes in killing those who renounce Islam, that Jews are the “descendants of apes and pigs”, and homosexuality is a “crime against humanity”.

Another signatory, Azad Ali, was suspended as a civil servant in the Treasury in 2009 after he praised Osama bin Laden’s key mentor. He has called Hamas “a true resistance movement”, and suggested that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq would be justified.

The aforementioned people will naturally be staunch critics of Prevent because the strategy is aimed at, well, preventing the influence of such people. If the likes of Haddad and Qureshi are against Prevent then that tells you which side you should be on.

Of course, there were some initial problems with Prevent when it was first introduced after the July 7 bombings 10 years ago, the main one being that it ended up becoming a cash cow for “airy fairy” community cohesion projects, sometimes with extremists being on the government payroll. One such person was Asim Hafeez, who has strong links to hardcore Salafi groups.  In 2009 Hafeez spoke at a controversial International Conference in India.  Other speakers at the conference included Zakir Naik, Bilal Philips and Hussain Yee, all of whom are banned from entering the UK for their extreme views.

They signatories of the letter – and other Prevent critics – go on to argue that it is not ideology but socio-economic factors that turn young Muslims into extremists. If ideology plays no role then how does that explain the increasing number of white converts who are going off to fight jihad?

The 7/7 bombers and the likes of medical student Nasser Muthana – who fled Cardiff to join ISIS – were most certainly not deprived. In fact, they lived affluent middle class lifestyles, taking advantage of all the freedoms and benefits of living in Great Britain. Denying the role of ideology is absurd.

The signatories believe the government’s strategy will lead to Muslims feeling criminalised simply for growing a beard or wearing a hijab. Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian that the policy will “seal the mouths of Muslim pupils”. Giles Fraser, also in the Guardian, suggested recently that “signs like going to the prayer room too much, or wearing modest clothing” could somehow lead the individual to be reported for being an extremist.

At best, such simplistic claims are inaccurate; at worst they are inflammatory and stoking fears. The majority of those who are critical of Prevent have little knowledge of the strategy; sensationalist headlines about “spying on toddlers” do nothing to alleviate the paranoia.

In fact, the Prevent strategy even states that converting to Islam or growing a beard is not necessarily a cause for concern. Far from stifling speech, debating difficult and challenging topics is mandatory under Prevent.

Everyone I have spoken to who has worked in this field insists that there is very little opposition to the Prevent strategy. One such person is Kalsoom Bashir, now the co-director of the counter-extremist group Inspire, who was the lead Prevent officer for Bristol City Council from 2008-2012. She was then seconded to the South west counter terrorism unit as the regional prevent trainer, delivering prevent training to staff in the NHS, police, local authority and schools as well as members of local communities.

“In the early days of Prevent the government was looking at promoting cohesion projects but Prevent really shouldn’t be about that,” said Kalsoom.

She explained that far from spying on Muslims – she also happens to be a practising Muslim as do many other Prevent trainers – the strategy is about bringing together all resources and agencies for safeguarding young people.

“Now Prevent sits in the right place,” she went on to say. “How we prevent or raise awareness, how we prevent people or persuade them from not going down the path of extremism, not cohesion projects. The local authority should still be promoting strong cohesion projects but not under the lens of counterterrorism.

“Sometimes I think academics don’t have a clue what’s happening in grass-roots communities. The anti-Western, anti-Kuffar (non Muslims) rhetoric is out there. I‘ve had people say to me, you’re too close to the kuffar. That rhetoric is becoming so widespread. Groups like Cage are abusing the laws we have for free speech to support their own ideology.

“They spread hysteria and fear by conflating Pursue, a completely different strand of the counter terrorism police with Prevent. Pursue is what happens when the law is broken and police need to disrupt terrorist activity. Prevent is protecting people from going down the path of criminality.”

As for the many teachers who are supposedly frightened what impact this could have on their students? “The overwhelming feedback from teachers, once they’ve heard what Prevent is and it really challenges myths and misconceptions, is positive, and they’re confident after they’ve had the training,” Kalsoom continued. “They ask us to come back for follow up training. The chances of teachers ever having to report students are really low, but they need to be aware of any worrying signs.”

Kalsoom gave the example of Isa Ibrahim, a 20-year-old man who, in 2009, was found guilty of plotting to carry out a suicide bombing at a shopping centre in Bristol. There were so many worrying signs – asking his biology teacher about weapons and showing his drugs worker disturbing footage on his phone – but because he hadn’t broken any laws, nothing was done to stop him from going down the criminal path.

“If all these people had shared their concerns with with Channel for example, they would have the bigger picture,” she added. “They could have sent him a mentor. He had mental health and drug issues, so mental health services could have got involved. he needed sound faith advice and a strong mentor. This is what Channel does. It is a group of experts and practitioners that have the well being of the individual at heart.”

The Times ran a story last week about a 14-year-old IS supporter who pleaded guilty to plotting to behead an Australiam police officer. The teenager had been referred to the Channel de-radicalisation programme after expressing desires to become a martyr.

Court papers revealed that the boy’s uncle had been aggressive when an officer from the programme approached the house for an appointment, and refused to allow him in.

This case demonstrates that Channel is a voluntary process and nobody can be forced to engage against their will. Far from highlighting the failure of Channel, what it does show, sadly, is the failure of the family to safeguard their own child.

Student Rights, a group that monitors extremism on campus, published a detailed report ‘Preventing Prevent? Challenges to Counter-Radicalisation Policy On Campuswhich found that since the 7/7 attacks, student unions and organisations have actively sought to hinder the Prevent strategy.

A motion passed at the National Union of Students Conference in April this year pledged to oppose Prevent delivery on campus because it is “attempting to monitor and control Muslim students”.

In June 2013, the report goes on to say, the Federation of Islamic Societies (FOSIS) annual conference hosted a “Preventing Prevent” event, where words such as “McCarthyism” were thrown around. Ibrahim Ali, who was the vice president of student affairs at FOSIS in March this year, gave a speech at a Cage event in which he declared that “Prevent itself is a racist agenda; it’s an Islamophobic agenda”.

The perception is that Prevent is somehow anti Muslim, despite the fact that around 10% of referrals to Channel were in relation to far-right extremism. The report also highlights that of the 2,297 arrests on suspicion of terrorism offences between September 2001 and August 2012, 1,066 were listed as “Muslim” and 1,231 were listed as other or no religion, or unknown religion.

“Even when Prevent highlights other forms of extremism, CAGE dismiss it because it doesn’t support their argument,” said SR director Rupert Sutton.

“They portray it as an attack on communities. The big push for them is normalising their beliefs to say, when you attack us, what you’re doing is attacking Muslim communities in the UK. Extremists are trying to make their views mainstream.”

The Prevent strategy might not be perfect – which strategy is? – but it is the best we have at the moment. It does not help that there are people who are actively undermining it and helping the extremist agenda either willingly or out of fear that they might fuel anti-Muslim bigotry.

There are many people now speaking out against extremism and ISIS, keen on doing workshops and media interviews as often as they can. Perhaps I am being cynical, but it would not surprise me if they are doing this to merely to get funding

In order to ensure it is effective, the government firstly needs to defend its policy more robustly and dispel any misconceptions. This would explain why the Northamptonshire  Police Prevent officers have become active on Twitter. The people who run the account should be commended for hitting back at absurd claims about Prevent in a calm and rational manner which invites people to engage with them, rather than turning them away. They even appeared on Radio 4 to give an insight into the work they do.

Finally, the government must also ensure that the right people are given money to deliver Prevent training rather than allowing non violent extremists to slip through the net as they did in the past, who did nothing to counter the poisonous ideology turning our young people into extremists going abroad to join a death cult.

Originally published for Harry’s Place on 16/8/2015

International Women’s Day – Dissenting Voices

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l-r Sandhya Sharma, Pragna Patel, Amal Farah and Gita Sahgal

l-r Sandhya Sharma, Pragna Patel, Amal Farah and Gita Sahgal

“It’s women who have to take up these issues. The left is not going to do it. The left are trying to silence us.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this statement was made quite recently. In fact, it is made by one of the women who appeared in ‘Struggle or Submission’, which documented the beginnings of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF).
WAF was set up partly in response to the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, but also with the aim of challenging fundamentalism in all religions.

Human rights activist and co-founder of Southall Black Sisters Gita Sahgal made the documentary, which filmed women working and living at a women’s refuge in Brent, who wanted the choice to practice, or not practice, the faith which they were born into. Many of the Muslim women wanted to follow their own interpretations of Islam without any interference from male clerics – a debate that still continues to this very day. Some of those women could not understand how young women were taking up the veil after decades of fighting for the right to remove it.

The documentary was shown as part of an International Women’s Day talk at Central Library in Manchester, titledWomen Against Fundamentalism – Stories of Dissent and Solidarity’. It showed a group of women from all backgrounds marching in support of Rushdie as part of their own right to religious control, at a time when race made way for religion in identity politics. They were attacked by both the religious fundamentalists and the fascists simultaneously.

The three speakers were co-founders of SBS, Pragna Patel and Gita Sahgal, and Amal Farah, an ex-Muslim from Somalia. Sandhya Sharma, a Manchester-based activist, chaired the discussion.

How fitting that these women were talking about their challenges against both religious fundamentalists and racists alike while an EDL march was taking place in the city centre.

Pragna said that WAF predicted the rise of religious fundamentalism.

“We don’t take pleasure in the fact that we were right in our predictions,” she explained. “Everything we will say has already been said 25 years ago.”

Pragna Patel

Pragna Patel

This was echoed by Gita Sahgal, who added: “The things we talked about have remained valid.”

SBS was described as the “rebellious child of Thatcherism”, which “challenged the myth of the community”. Even today, we find that look at communities through the prism of faith, which means that we either ignore voices of dissent or deliberately shut them down. Dissenters were told repeatedly (and shamefully) by the left that “now is not the time to raise these issues”.

“The only tools we have are our voices of dissent,” Pragna said. “Suppression of dissent for women is literally a matter of life and death.

Amal’s family fled war-torn Somalian to Canada before settling in Britain. Her mother then started practicing a more austere version of Islam, swapping her Somali dirac – a kaftan-like garment – to the Islamic jilbab which covers women from head to toe.

To be Somali is to be Muslim, Amal explained. She describes having her first period as an end to what few freedoms she had had as a child and told of her secret passion for football, a sport which she was never allowed to play because a male could, by chance, walk past and see the females behaving ‘immodestly’.

“I was never a religious person, I just happened to be born into [Islam]”, she said. She came “out” as an ex-Muslim in 2004, much to her mother’s horror who then moved her siblings to Dubai and then back to Somalia.

Amal Farah

Amal Farah

Amal’s story is not that uncommon. More and more ex-Muslims are “coming out” and sharing their stories, though often they must do so secretly, for fear of reprisal. In fact, Amal was so scared of what could happen that she was not listed as a speaker at the event. Understandable perhaps in a Muslim-majority country, but in Britain in 2015? A travesty.

It is not the other, as Gita explained, but killing the other within. Minorities within minorities, who dare to speak out and challenge the status quo. Shamefully, such voices have been stifled by even our governments who willingly worked with “non-violent extremists” who were known to have “run death squads” abroad.

“Non-violent extremists – what a dangerous and ridiculous oxymoron”, Gita said. “The government knew what they were doing.”

She also expressed frustration at the fact that young people were joining ISIS and getting into trouble with the authorities while extremist leaders, such as Anjem Choudary, are able to roam free.

I asked the panel if they believe the media and the government have finally woken up to these problems. After all, the pseudo-human rights group CAGE has lost its funding from the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, after its research director Asim Qureshi claimed that the security services helped “radicalise” Mohammed Emwzi aka ‘Jihadi John’. Will we be having the same discussion in another 25 years’ time?

Gita replied: “Things have shifted. People say the tide is turning. At most we’re like pebbles on the beach being swept away. It’s a long struggle.”

Gita Sahgal

Gita Sahgal

It is hard for one not to feel disheartened when realising that what the likes of Sahgal and Patel are saying now has been said before and will continue to be said and no matter how hard activists drum home this message, some continue not to pay attention.

A good demonstration of this was when an Indian lady said she could not support SBS’ stance on the Charlie Hebdo killings, describing the magazine as ‘racist’. Pragna challenged this myth superbly and explained that “the victims of fundamentalists are also alienated and disenfranchised.

If the likes of Gita, Pragna and Amal are just pebbles on the beach, they are an important collection of pebbles. We may very well be having this discussion for decades to come, but the difference now is that more and more voices have been added to this debate, creating a mass movement to challenge fundamentalism. We will not remain the “other within” for much longer.

Happy International Women’s Day to the brave women who continue to speak out and do important work within their communities.

It is not just Islamists who play the victim card

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Originally published in The Sunday Times (£) on March 1

When Abubaker Deghayes heard that his son Abdullah had been killed while fighting alongside his brothers for the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria last April, he described the 18-year-old as a “martyr”. Although he said he had “never encouraged” his sons to go and fight, he felt “some comfort” that they had fought for a “just cause”.

Other parents of young men and women who have gone abroad to join Isis have expressed shock at the actions of their children. How can anyone raised in Britain abandon their seemingly comfortable life in favour of joining a death cult?

Deghayes has repeatedly spoken about injustices in Muslim countries. It is a concern shared by many Muslims, who often refer to “brothers and sisters” being killed in Iraq, Syria or Gaza, and say something must be done about it. After being exposed to such views, is it any wonder that the Deghayes brothers left their home and went off to fight?

There are problems in some Muslim communities that allow for unpleasant and often dangerous views to fester. A BBC poll of 1,000 British Muslims, published last week, found that 27% had sympathy for the motives for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. A Muslim man from Bradford, when asked on Radio 4 about the cartoons, remarked, “If they hadn’t poked fun at our prophet, no one would have died.”

Even seemingly modern Muslims share these views. Many do not support violence or murder, but they believe their communities are always under attack and unfair scrutiny. Just listen to the BBC Asian Network’s phone-in show on any given day and hear how many Muslim callers either deny the existence of Isis, insisting it is a CIA plot (no, really), or condemn as non-Muslims anyone who follows a different interpretation of Islam.

Some on the political left have lent support to Islamist organisations such as Cage — a pseudo human-rights group – and are silent about the rise of fundamentalism, possibly because they do not wish to be labelled as racists.

Unfortunately, such groups receive support not just from local politicians but also from naive Muslims who want to tackle Islamophobia, little realising that they are tacitly supporting shady organisations.

These push forth poisonous ideologies, yet in the same breath claim to be victims of Islamophobia and racism. They blame everyone else for radicalisation.

It is not just Islamists who play the victim card. Whenever there is a discussion on anything relating to Islam or terrorism, conspiracy theories are wheeled out by many Muslims: 9/11, 7/7 and Osama bin Laden’s death were all CIA or Israeli (read: Jewish) plots to justify more wars, they say.

The bar is set low for Muslims. We are satisfied with people condemning murder, as though that is something to be congratulated. But condemnation alone is nothing if the root causes are not tackled.

Foreign policy and other grievances are exploited by extremist preachers, many of whom have been given platforms in mosques and university Islamic societies. Activists have long been warning institutions and those on the left not to cosy up to soft Islamists, who have been arguing for the creation of a caliphate for decades.

The seeds of this destructive and reactionary ideology were sown a long time ago. Until we stop getting defensive and start challenging the mindset within our own communities, nothing will ever change.

Written by Iram Ramzan

March 2, 2015 at 5:32 pm

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